Little Qualicum Cheeseworks is located on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia and is home to the Gourlay Family – Clarke and Nancy, along with their 3 sons Raymond, John and Kevin. The Gourlays have opened the doors of their business in a unique way, providing a hands-on farm experience, samples of their delicious cheeses and wines, a café and Canada’s first milk dispenser, bringing in tourists to the Parksville area and locals alike on a yearly basis.
The Gourlay family first started their operation in 2001 with 4 cows, having previously devoted themselves as humanitarian aid workers. With a farm-tourism business in their minds from the get go, Clarke and Nancy, who is the head cheesemaker, rented a farm just down the road from their current location for the first 3 years and started making their cheese in a school portable that they purchased. Usually a 6-year course, Nancy studied cheesemaking in Switzerland for a month and then they learned on the fly upon their return home. “She pretty much took the cheesemaking books to bed with her,” says Clarke, “we fell in love with cheese in Switzerland.”
In 2004, Little Qualicum Cheeseworks opened at their current location. Although tourism is the central reason around their business model, the Gourlays say that it’s extremely important to them to be part of the shopping habits of the local community as well. “Being visible to the public is a serious part of our identity,” says Raymond, who is involved with the marketing and administration side of the business while learning to make cheese. “We are one of the few publicly accessible farms in BC, we provide a hands-on experience here for free and have experienced a lot of reciprocal generosity from the community who has really bought in and supported this venture. Both locals and tourists come here, and it becomes part of a tradition on a family vacation, that has been incredibly rewarding,” says Raymond.
The Gourlay’s welcome between 300-400 guests per day during the peak summer months and approximately 50 people a day during the winter. One of the most recent big draws is Canada’s first milk dispenser! Installed in 2017, visitors can purchase a glass milk bottle or bring a container of their own and for $2 they can purchase a litre of milk. The dispenser has been a huge success, garnering a lot of publicity. “It’s just one more reason for people to come,” says Raymond. Over 100 litres goes out in glass bottles per day during the summer, and over 40,000 litres of milk has been sold since adding the dispenser.
Milk for the dispenser and the cheeses is all produced on farm by the 50-cow herd. The cows are milked by one DeLaval robot which was installed in December 2016. “Both Raymond and John had gotten more involved with the business and made long term commitments to stay,” says Clarke. “The robot showed them that farming could be modern and interesting.” John is involved more on the cow side of the business and at peak times just over 30 people are employed by Little Qualicum Cheeseworks.
The Gourlays look to successfully continue their business into the future and are always looking to refine things and make them better. This year their goal was to get a liquor license for the café and now “The World’s Freshest Latte” can also be served with Bailey’s Irish Cream. While they are getting close to capacity, the Gourlays would like to enlarge the retail store and the cheese plant. “We are looking at growth vs. stability vs. complexity,” says Clarke. “For instance, I’d like to add chocolate to our lineup of productions – wine, cheese and chocolate! But adding chocolate doesn’t necessarily make more income, it just makes things more complex, so not everyone is onboard with that idea yet.”
Whatever route they decide to take in the future, one thing is certain: Little Qualicum Cheeseworks is a “must-see” for any visitors to the Parksville area on Vancouver Island. Their hands-on farm experience, award winning cheese selection and delicious wine choices offer visitors a unique experience in an unforgettable visit.