Resilience pays off for couple

TESS MCCLURE
Last updated 05:00 15/03/2014
Martin and Sarah Aspinwall of Canterbury Cheesemongers

CHEESE COUPLE: Martin and Sarah Aspinwall of Canterbury Cheesemongers have survived some tough times.

Martin and Sarah Aspinwall of Canterbury Cheesemongers
Martin and Sarah Aspinwall of Canterbury Cheesemongers

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Martin and Sarah Aspinwall's Canterbury Cheesemongers business has been 20 years in the making.

It's also been a journey of many challenges - with not one but two shops shut by earthquakes, and more than $30,000 of rare cheese lost.

Today, however, they are firmly back in business, and relishing their role as one of the few boutique cheesemongers in the country.

Cheesemongers do not make their own cheese, but they select, store and mature the best cheeses they can find, and work to maintain the link between cheese-makers and customers.

People entering the Arts Centre premises are confronted by enormous wheels of cheese, sometimes metres in diameter, with natural rinds of grey-green mould.

Here, cheese is a labour of love. Some of the wheels are more than 5 years old, and will remain unsold until they reach optimum maturity.

Until then, they are turned by hand weekly to ensure even liquid distribution, and given regular salt baths.

Each year, Canterbury Cheesemongers send more than 12,000 kilograms of specialty cheese out the door - imported from France, Italy, Britain, Spain and Switzerland.

Employing seven other staff, they run a small bakery alongside their cheese room.

After seven years working together at a UK specialty cheese dairy, Sarah says: "We always knew we wanted to start our own place."

They returned to their hometown Christchurch to try their hand at running a business, and after two years of selling from the back of a van, they opened their Salisbury St shop in 2002.

Eight years on, business was booming.

But in 2010 the first earthquake struck - and with an adjacent building damaged they suddenly faced eviction.

"We tried really hard to save it," Sarah says, but within a week, they had been evicted.

In retrospect, it was for the best. "It probably would have killed us if we'd stayed in it for the February earthquake."

With no business interruption insurance, the pair planned a sale of excess stock out of their garage. They were shocked when 1500 people turned up, with queues on the footpath, and many waiting 1 hours to make a purchase.

"That was very affirming for us, that we should make every effort to stay in business.

"We were really gutted about losing the shop. But it's easy to forget that your business isn't just a building, it's actually people and a product."

They reopened in the arts centre in 2011 - but five weeks on the February quake hit, shutting down the inner city and their shop.

They lost access to their business, and $30,000 of soft cheeses.

Determined not to lose it all, they sneaked into the city red zone, and rescued the remaining wheels of hard cheese.

Some of these - now more than 5 years old - are still maturing in the shop's shelves.

"Because we mature the cheeses, a lot of our hard cheese was irreplaceable. Some of those cheeses we've kept for years, so a lot of our investment is in that as well. Not just money, but our time and our care."

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After the cordon lifted, the pair again cleaned up in order to start over. This time, however, they were faced with an empty inner-city, with shops and businesses shut down.

While Sarah says it's been "pretty hard", loyal customers still made the trip, and have sustained the business as tenants slowly returned to the inner city.

Now, business is steady, and the Aspinwalls hope that they will soon see the city centre thriving again.

"There's a lot of talk now, about other suburban centres replacing the centre of town. But we really believe in the city - and that a healthy heart is good for the rest of the city. We want people to share that vision."

- BusinessDay

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