When Marc de Ruiter’s Yellow Valley business opened up in 2004, it was the first fair trade Gouda cheese producer in China. Known by almost half the expat population in Beijing, the small cheese company is now trying to reach a bigger market via WeChat and TaoBao channels. The promise is the same: Gouda cheese made the traditional way from fair trade Chinese milk.
Yellow Valley is located in Shanxi Province, at a 45-minutes drive north of Taiyuan City in Yangqu County. It is a small production facility on the premises of a dairy farm. Here, Marc de Ruiter, a Dutch agriculturist, produces his original Gouda cheeses. He is supported by two full-time employees – one cheese maker and one who handles marketing and sales. Two part-time employees take care of the online sales activities via China’s e-commerce platforms. “As traditional as our methods may be, we are trying to run this business in a 2016-style”, Marc adds with a smile.
Yellow Valley buys its milk from small farmers in Shanxi Province. “A fair price for their milk helps improve and maintain better quality standards, for example by offering their cattle better feed. In our first years, every farmer in the region wanted to be our supplier. Though our quality control was strict, they were keen to work with us, for our good prices and our reliability as a partner.”
The small Gouda cheese making business grew more successful over the years and the Yellow Valley products were widely known in China’s largest cities. After China was hit by the melamine milk scandal, Yellow Valley had to close down, like many small dairy-processing businesses. Marc: “We simply could not afford to invest in the mandatory laboratory facilities that were perceived to be necessary to prevent future scandals. Many small dairy companies like ours paid the price for the criminal actions of big industrial companies.”
After the close-down from 2011 to 2015, Marc found a way to restart. “Producing ‘farmhouse based cheese’ was the loophole I needed. It requires a lot less licences and permits. The cheese can only be sold directly and online – not in stores.”
The Yellow Valley ‘new style’ offers a wide range of traditional and special products, like the original Cheese, the Aged, Herbs de Provence and Cumin varieties and even with local cheese favourites with onions and garlic. There is even a spicy variation red peppers.
Selling online works
Marc says that selling traditional Gouda ‘farmhouse based cheese’ online works very well, but admits that challenges remain. “Nearly 90% of our sales go through WeChat, Weidian and Taobao channels. We find it hard to stand out among the thousands of online stores that sell cheese online. If I had deep pockets I would invest big so we would stand in first place in WeChat and Taobao. Getting noticed will be our challenge. Fortunately, our regular customers know where to find us; for now, we have to rely on the power of ‘word of mouth’.”
After the reopening of Yellow Valley in mid-2015, Marc aims to increase production. Marc: “We are stepping up production, following the active stimulation of online sales. We are currently expanding our facilities to 65+ square metres of production space, a ripening chamber and an exhibition space where we can host tour groups that come to learn about Gouda cheese production.”
Craftsmanship and ingredients
As the quality of the cheese product depends on craftsmanship of the cheese maker and of the quality of the ingredients, Marc de Ruiter continues his quest for the best milk for a fair price. “We are now cooperating with a farmer to produce silage from green corn. He can feed his cows with this silage in winter, increasing both the quality and the quantity of his milk.”
Though Marc de Ruiter remains cautious – new legislation for farmhouse products could have great impact – the outlook is good. “I always try to be positive and to look for opportunities. It is time to reach out to our huge client base we have built between 2004 and 2011. Last, but not least: we will increase our efforts to build a fan base of Chinese cheese lovers. We will increase our marketing effort, visit fairs and plan tastings to speed up growth.”