Life is a Banquet at The Smelly Cheese Shop!
Tony Drice is a Hunter Valley success story. With his business partner of 30 years, Steven Cooper, the two run The Smelly Cheese Shop and the Hunter Valley Gelato Company, as well as the distribution arms and the Smelly's Own label of cheeses and gourmet deli produce.
Tony grew up in the Hunter region with his parents running several hotels in Hinton and Maitland. A trained chef, Tony joined Regent International Hotels and became Head Butler, training fine dining staff and butlers in Sydney before a stint at the Twin Waters Resort on the Sunshine Coast as Food & Beverage Manager.
Steven, meanwhile, grew up in Balmain and the south coast, working as a colour consultant for Bristol Paints and in sales for Classic Ceramics before joining Tony at the Twin Waters Resort, where Tony introduced him to the 5-star hospitality trade. Both were passionate foodies, and in 1990 they decided to open their own restaurant in Maitland called Mad Hatters. The two went on to open Café Caffé in 1995, moving back to the Hunter Valley permanently.
Within a few years, they had founded the Cheers Bus service because they could see the business opportunity. They built this business up to running six buses before selling it to concentrate on their food business. In 2004 they closed Café Caffé and opened the Smelly Cheese Shop at Pokolbin Village, selling artisan cheeses, cured meat and accompaniments as well as hampers and cheese platters. It was the first Fromagerie in the Hunter. The two had been frustrated at the lack of gourmet deli foods in the Hunter Valley particularly, good cheeses. "We would run back to Sydney regularly to trawl through the Leichhardt delis or hit the David Jones Food Hall," said Tony. "We could see there was an opportunity to build a gourmet food business because the only options we had locally were the supermarkets, and they just weren't good enough."
The business expanded quickly, and very soon, they were also manufacturing gelato using ingredients and equipment sourced from Italy with a 200-year-old recipe. According to Tony, the Italian community from far and wide would come on buses and queue for their gelato because it was so authentic. "If you're going to do something, do it well," said Tony. The Hunter Valley Gelato Company was born and flourished.
Having worked in the 5-star hospitality trade, they knew there would be a market for their products in local restaurants and hotels, so they set up the distribution arms of their two businesses. The distribution business enables the local establishments to buy artisan gourmet products at a reasonable price point at quantities they can manage. To buy direct from the suppliers is prohibitive unless the quantities are of a larger scale. The distribution business can purchase products in higher quantities and distribute them to many local businesses, including their own Smelly Cheese Shop and Hunter Valley Gelato Company.
But they didn't stop there. The next step was creating their own brand of gourmet deli products called Smelly's Own. All products are produced locally under licence with the top-selling product, at the time of writing, being Smelly's Own Cow Fetta with Sun-Dried Tomato, closely followed by Smelly's Own Pesto Cow Fetta and the Cheese Platters and Ploughman's Hamper. They are proud to be supporting local produce and local artisans.
With a talent for keeping on-trend, the two developed Goat's Milk and Vegan gelato as well as expanding the range of vegan products for the Smelly's Own brand. Covid has slowed things down somewhat, but with the retail side of their business, they have been able to keep their doors open and are looking forward to the future. "It’s never boring,” said Tony. “There are always new products to try, trends to keep abreast of. It’s quite dynamic. My favourite products are our lovely creamy blue cheeses and delicious olives. We have a fabulous charcuterie. We even have duck salamis. Twenty to thirty years ago, you would never have been able to get that.” Tony ends the interview with words he lives by – uttered by Rosalind Russell in the film Aunty Mame:
“Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death! So c'mon, live!”
Top: L to R: Tony, Katherine and Steven