Yorkshire Dama Cheese Opening

Syrian refugee entrepreneur creates jobs in Huddersfield

Razan Alsous, a Syrian mother of three young children, fled Damascus back in 2012 when her husband’s office block was blown to pieces.

Luckily for Razan and her family, they were able to secure refuge in the UK and ended up in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

Boasting a background in microbiology, she started looking for work but was finding it hard as she had no references nor did she have any experience of working in the UK.

“When we arrived in the UK I was given my residency after a month but my husbands took two years,” Razan said.

“I started thinking of something to do as we couldn’t just sit and ask for benefits, I wanted to do something with my talent.

“However when I was applying for jobs I found that you needed to have references and experience for most roles and I had neither.”

This is what inspired Razan to launch her own business. Combining her knowledge of biochemistry and her love of cheese, she decided to launch Yorkshire Dama Cheese, and she has never looked back.

“I love cooking and I love cheese,” she said. “I noticed that halloumi at the time wasn’t always available in supermarkets, it was a seasonal thing. With this in mind I started to experiment at home and searched on the internet how to make it.

“Because of my microbiology background I was able to understand more about the chemistry behind the cheese and the milk and how to make it. I read journals from California, Oxford and Damascus Universities and got to know the subject.

“I started off making cheese at home and then decided to do something about it. I visited the job centre for support and they referred me to the Enterprise Agency who provided me with a £2,500 loan and a business mentor. She helped me shape my business plan and she really understood what I wanted to do.

“I researched the market, looking at how much halloumi the UK consumed and looking at the milk market. I found it really interesting. The amount of imported cheese was doubling each year and the UK is the tenth largest milk producing nation in the world – so I thought ‘why not make it here?’”

Armed with a £2,500 Start-Up Loan, Razan went out and bought a stove, a handful of pots and got down to making her first batch. She then finally got the approval to start manufacturing her cheese in June 2014. 

“Over the first year, every penny we earned we reinvested in the business,” she said. “We bought small machines to make better quality cheese, a faster boiler which made gentle heating for the cheese, we just wanted it to keep growing.”

It was hard work from here then in and it didn’t come without its challenges. As Razan recalls: “We now have to call all of our cheeses HALLOUM! as we ran into problems when saying we were manufacturing halloumi. It turned out the phrase was already trademarked in the UK. So, to counter this, we use the Middle Eastern name ‘Halloum’.”

Over the next couple of years Razan made it her mission to educate as many people as possible about Yorkshire Dama Cheese. Entering competitions the length and breadth of the UK, she went on to win gold at The World Cheese Awards, was nominated by the then prime minister David Cameron for International Womens’ Day 2015 and won the silver medal at the British Cheese Awards 2016.

Having made a name for herself, and a name for Yorkshire Dama Cheese, Razan saw sales fly in and couldn’t be happier with how the business was growing. As demand started to exceed supply, she decided it was time to scale up production and open a new factory.

The factory opened its doors last week and was officially opened by HRH The Princess Royal, much to Raza’s delight. She said: “We have just opened our new factory, it is more professional and has space for expansion. Princess Anne was amazing. The visit was very natural – she tasted the cheese and loved it. She really appreciated what we had done.

“She listened to our whole story and was interested to learn more about how to make halloumi. We offered her a box with all of our flavoured cheeses in it. We’ve since had a message back from her people saying she loves Syrian Yorkshire Cheese!”

Yorkshire Dama Cheese now supplies its wide range of cheeses to three distributors and independent farm shops across Yorkshire.

Employing four people, Razan is expecting to increase the company’s headcount having doubled turnover last year and is expecting more of the same for the year ahead.

“I’m expecting a very good year next year. We doubled turnover last year and are expecting another bumper year next year.

“As well as launching two new cheeses, we’re also looking to open a deli shop named ‘The Road to Damascus’.

“The store will be joined to our factory and will have a window where people can see us actually producing the cheese.

“We would also like to add cheese making courses to our offering where we can educate people how to make cheese and try to get more people involved in the industry.

“But for now, we’re just focusing on growing the business. We are working every day, no weekends, no holidays, just spreading the word about our cheese!”

Published: 01 February 2017

Article by Bryce Wilcock
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