Ask any Chapel Allerton local and they’ll know where you can get the best cheese. George & Joseph is a staple piece of this little Leeds high street – and for good reason. However, the man behind the (cheese) wheel, Stephen Fleming, hasn’t always headed up his own business.
Before venturing into the now-infamous George & Joseph, Stephen had worked in IT for 20 years.
“I’d always done what I was best at, at school. It was sort of ‘what are you going to do for A-levels, what are you doing to do a degree in – get a job in it. I did enjoy it but I just had a bit of ‘what if I’d done something differently?’”
Having toyed with the idea of owning some kind of deli, it wasn’t until he started going to a Leeds-based cheese club that the idea of opening a cheesemongers really took his fancy.
“There was nowhere to buy good cheese in Leeds – so [I thought] why not try it.”
After setting up shop just off Chapel Allerton high street, Stephen began selling quality, Yorkshire-based cheeses.
Four years of trading out of their tiny shop, the opportunity came up to move into a unit at the very front of the main high street.
“When we moved around here 2 years ago it just exploded.”
Having gone from selling just 30 types of cheeses to around 120, the business started making a name for itself in the Leeds area.
While the business continues to thrive, there have always been challenges to keep Stephen on his toes.
“When Aldi was built a couple of years ago some people would say to us ‘oh that’ll be terrible for you’ and we were like ‘no actually, it’s not’ – because it’s different to what we sell. I’d actually rather have them here [on the high street] than on an industrial park because that would pull people away from here.”
Stephen notes how local businesses in the area are far more supportive of each other than people might think.
“We look out for each other – you can imagine sometimes having a small business can be quite a lonely place but actually it’s nice to compare notes. If we get stuck with something, we can always bounce it around one of the neighbouring business – usually the greengrocers or butchers – and usually we’ll get some ideas or solutions. It’s that reassurance that everyone’s in it together.”
In terms of the high street’s legacy, Stephen has noticed a shift in how people are shopping nowadays. “We have an awful lot of repeat customers. But then every week we get people in who haven’t seen us before that have either read about us or heard about us from friends – lots of word of mouth stuff. Because we don’t have much in the way of budget to do big marketing – word of mouth is great.”
As with many local businesses, owners are looking at ways they can adapt and keep up with the interest and engagement of their customers. At George & Joseph, they’ll be starting training courses for people to get a certificate accredited by the Academy of Cheese.
“It’s good fun, you learn about cheese, you learn about how it’s made, you get to try lots of cheese and there’s a little online exam at the end of day and you get a badge and a certificate if you pass.”
Alongside this, George & Joseph are participating in a local business run event called The Chapel Allerton Indie Trail. A whole host of local business are part of this ‘trail’ whereby people can collect stamps from shopping at the participating businesses. Once someone has collected seven stamps, they will be entered into a £150 prize draw.
It is hoped that this will encourage people to explore their high street and pop into places they might not have done otherwise.
Even with all of these exiting things going on and business booming, Stephen still has time to appreciate his main passion amongst the paperwork – the cheese itself.
“I’ve always liked a harder or crumbly cheese – I was fed a lot of Cheshire when I was little and I’ve still got a soft spot for Cheshire, Lancashire and Wensleydale type things.”
George & Joseph, 140 Harrogate Rd, Leeds LS7 4NZ