The opportunity Fran had been awaiting for so long came in 2012: a traditional cheese-making business in León was looking for a new owner. Fidel, a shepherd from Sahelices del Payuelo, a small village with only 200 inhabitants in the east of the province, had just closed his business down after 30 years. "My sister Teresita and I took it over, and for me it was a dream come true," says Fran.
That dream took the shape of excellent cheeses made with loving care from fresh sheep's milk, and they included the traditional 'pata de mulo' cheese, which has a strong flavour and gets its name from its shape, similar to the leg of a mule.
But then came March 2020 and the pandemic, which shook his business, Los Payuelos, to the core. "Three years ago we had begun to carry out major improvements and they cost a great deal of money. We still hadn't recovered our investment in that, and then the pandemic arrived and absolutely crushed us," said Fran. The closure of the hospitality sector, which bought 80 per cent of their production, was devastating for them.
That was the situation at Los Payuelos when Rubén Valbuena came onto the scene, a fellow cheese-maker who owns an online sales platform. "In the middle of last month he came to visit us at the factory because we are friends, and after we explained the situation we were in he said it was time to do something about it."
A Facebook post telling their story, a direct link to buy their cheese and the power of social media worked wonders.
"We set ourselves a target of selling 2,000 pieces of 'pata de mulo' in three weeks," said Fran, and within 12 days they had already sold around 1,800.
"The main objective was to give the business a boost and put Los Payuelos on the map, which we have done. We are delighted by people's response and it is a good incentive to carry on supporting small businesses," he said.
The system works like a type of crowdfunding: the clients commission a cheese weighing more than two kilos at a price of 45 euros. It is made in April and May and, after maturing for four months, will be sent to their homes in the second week in September.
By mid-April they had raised over 80,000 euros. "That gives us a respite after some really difficult months, but above all we have reached a lot of people and are obtaining loyal clients and distributors who want to work with us, so that is helping to keep us afloat," said Fran, who is still astonished at the response. "We couldn't be more delighted."