Ashgrove Cheese is a family-owned and operated company that produces premium quality dairy products for handcrafted cheddar-style cheeses for customers all across Australia. Ashgrove’s impeccable quality has been proven again and again with accolades from the Dairy Industry Association of Australia and other dairy and food award shows, proof that is constantly reinforced by the enduring loyalty of their customers.
“Every single day, everybody at Ashgrove works hard to make a good quality product,” says Richard Bennett, the company’s General Manager and Director. “Our one overriding goal is to make a good quality product we can be proud to give to our customers.”
The story of Ashgrove Cheese is a long one, spanning many generations. Though Ashgrove Cheese itself was established in 1993, the company can trace its roots all the way back to the 1880s, when James Bennett bought 100 acres of land where the Ashgrove Cheese Factory now stands in Elizabeth Town, Tasmania. Successive generations of the Bennett family grew up on the land, where they built a farming tradition and gradually expanded operations.
Roughly a century later, in 1983, Ashgrove Farms was formed by brothers Michael and John Bennett – descendants of James – with their respective wives Maureen and Connie. The couples chose the company’s title because several of the farms owned by their new partnership belonged to the land parish of Ashgrove.
Though they started out with a mixed farming operation that included crossbred sheep and cash crops, Ashgrove Farms eventually moved to focus on the dairy aspect of their business. At the time, the vegetable industry was stagnating, and wool prices were in decline, so the decision made sense. Later, low commodity prices began to dominate Tasmanian milk supply as well, so the company decided to pursue on-farm value adding through cheese production.
The first vat of Ashgrove’s cheese was produced in November 1993 by Michael’s daughter Jane Bennett – a qualified cheese-maker who established a factory on the farm. Less than a year later, the Ashgrove Farm Shop was opened in the heart of the dairy farm, offering visitors the opportunity to learn about the art of cheese-making with viewings and tastings. From then until today, that shop has offered the “complete paddock to plate experience,” says Richard.
In the early years, Ashgrove Cheese supplied specialty delis and independent supermarkets. Over time, however, the company has evolved to supply supermarkets, restaurants and specialty food stores throughout Australia and overseas.
The evolution of Ashgrove Cheese has never really stopped. In 2008, they updated the business once again by purchasing a second-hand milk plant in New South Wales. That purchase allowed the company to expand their product mix by bottling fresh milk and cream for the Tasmanian market, and also enabled them to offer a range of butter and ice cream.
From 2010 to late 2011, Ashgrove expanded their capabilities by constructing a large building behind their existing factory to accommodate a milk bottling line of much greater capacity. More recently, they installed a mini-hydro plant on their farm – the first of its type in the state – to help power their operations.
“We’ve grown and continued to achieve success because of lots of hard work by a variety of people,” says Richard, who took over the Director role at the company in February 2011. Before that, he had been involved in making cheese since he was 15, when he would spend his school holidays assisting in the factory.
Today, the Ashgrove Cheese factory has become a well-known landmark and a “must-see” tourist destination north of Elizabeth Town. The actual company remains family-owned and operated, with a number of James Bennett’s descendants – including Richard – still involved and continuing his legacy.
Innovation and engagement
Ashgrove Cheese has forged an unrivalled reputation within the Australian cheese market. Richard credits that fact to “the obvious reasons” – the quality of their product, and their engagement with the customers.
“Our shop is a really important part of our business,” he says. “Tourists come to Tasmania and visit us, which is a great marketing tool. They can see the cheese, see the farm, and taste the cheese so they’re confident that when they buy the product they’re going to like it.”
Innovation is another important aspect of their success, he adds. “We’re constantly coming up with new products and new cheeses and trying to find new clients. We’re always striving to be more flexible and diverse in our outlook.”
At Ashgrove Cheese, they recognise that every person has a “unique taste palate,” Richard says, which means that not all people like the same flavours. Ashgrove aims to provide a range of flavours in their cheeses to meet the desires of most people. All of their cheeses are hard or semi-hard, which means they are slow to mature and have time to develop flavour – and also that they have excellent “keeping qualities, and are very versatile in use.”
Their range of handcrafted cheddar-style cheeses can be broken down into four main categories – true cheddar, specialty cheddar, flavoured cheese and continental cheese – and includes traditional cheddar cheese, English county cheeses and a series of uniquely flavoured cheeses, such as their “famous Wild Wasabi” cheese.
The quality of Ashgrove’s range is uncontested – since 2006, the company has been taking home more than 15 medals a year from events such as the Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards, the Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards, the Australian Grand Dairy Awards, the DIAA Australian Dairy Product Competition and more. In 2012 alone, the company won 23 awards – including four ‘Gold’ medals from the Royal Hobart Fine Food Awards, and two from the DIAA.
“It’s a valuable way to market our product,” Richard says. “The DIAA is a national award, too, so those are quite important to us. A win there is wonderful validation for our staff that they’re making a good product.”
Quality all around
Richard credits the company’s award-winning consistency to a couple of factors. Firstly, they are integrated with their supply. They source their milk from Ashgrove Farms, which means they control the quality of the milk – “and you need good quality milk to make a good quality dairy product,” he says.
Secondly, Ashgrove employs “a lot of traditional techniques when it comes to milk making and butter-making,” he adds. “That minimises processing, so we get a product that really comes into its flavour.” At the same time, in their packaging and other areas, they have modernised as much as possible, so they are still as efficient and competitive as possible.
Finally, Richard reiterates that their staff deserves a lot of credit as well. Ashgrove has a growing workforce, he says – all local people who take pride in the production and packing of the company’s products for customers around the world.
No matter whom the customer is – whether it is a person in their shop, a retailer, a wholesale distributor, or even a customer of their online store – Ashgrove’s staff work hard to establish and maintain strong relationships. The company frequently seeks to engage with their customers via media events, such as food and wine festivals or specialty cheese shows. They have also embraced the Internet and social networking.
Moving forward, Richard says his goal is to continue to build positive relationships, both internally and with their customers. He would also like to look at diversifying their markets, and says the company is always searching for new niches they could fill. “Being able to react to what our customers want is pretty important,” he says. “That’s what we’ve done and what we will continue to do.”