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Growth, culture and bacteria in the walls

This week’s Food Programme on Radio 4 gave a fascinating insight into the growing pains of one of Britain’s finest cheeses – Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire.

The family firm behind the famous artisan cheese recently decided to expand from their humble farmhouse to a much-larger purpose built site. They took on £1 million in debt and set about making plenty more cheese.

The first batch tasted awful, as did the next. Their problems went on for months. Thankfully the first batch of 2009 saw the cheese return to form – and it’s been delicious ever since. Cheese needs bacteria to mature. Apparently that bacteria was living in the walls of their old place – but not in the concrete and steel of their new cheese-making facility.

They couldn’t get the temperature right either – the new building was much bigger – and as a result colder. What a great parable for the problems that many social businesses will encounter as they grow. Any of us who’ve worked for a small business which has suddenly expanded will recognise the difficulties.

Will our culture remain strong? Will we lose the warmth we all shared back when it was just us against the world, huddled round two desks and a phone? And that’s to say nothing of the bacteria in the walls. Their story also reminds us of the value of a mentor – in this case Randolph Hodgson from Neal’s Yard Dairy.

He’d seen this loss of form happen before – so could guide the Kirkhams through what must have been a pretty frightening time. I’ve likened social enterprises to artisan cheese in the past. The Kirkhams’ tale reminds us that growth may be possible – but not without risk.

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