More than a touch of spice

Marketing: pioneering the sale of new cooking ingredients to a sceptical British public has reaped rewards
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The Independent Online
THE British were a nation of plain eaters 28 years ago when Mike Pester set out to sell them herbs and spices. None of that foreign muck, thank you very much. The average kitchen could boast sage and onion, parsley and thyme.

"Mine was like that," recalls Faye Pester. "Mike turned up with another 30 or 40 and, within a month, I was using them all."

But then she is his wife and co-director. How would other cooks respond? And how could he persuade retailers to give them a chance?

With hard work and persistence over a long period. He toured London in a battered Renault 4, trying to persuade grocers and the owners of delicatessens to set up a window display using the likes of tarragon, marjoram, basil and mixed spices.

He was young and energetic, prepared to put in long hours. And he was his own boss. He had left behind him the rather soul-numbing work with Eskimo frozen foods at a Nissen hut in Grimsby, Humberside. Behind him, too, was the office politics among the whiz kids of Sir James Goldsmith's Cavenham Foods.

Whether it was through blind faith or a shrewd hunch Mr Pester was eventually in a position that businessmen dream of: on the ground floor of a new development. Sales of spices and exotic sauces were set to rise and rise over the next three decades as the British shed their culinary conservatism. Out went the traditional meat and two veg. In came cosmopolitan influences from mainland Europe, the Far East and the Indian sub-continent.

Today the Pesters' company, Fox's Spices, deals with around 20,000 mail- order customers and supplies any number of retail outlets, including the delicatessen counters of some Sainsbury stores. Fox's sells at 50 agricultural shows and has catering contracts with health authorities. A product range that started at just over 40 now extends to nearly 400 and includes items such as Indonesian Bumbus, a wet spice mixture sold nowhere else in Britain.

Although pressure of work led Mr and Mrs Pester to separate, they are still business partners on a small industrial estate near Stratford-upon- Avon railway station. Their eldest son, Andrew, is a co-director and they employ 25 staff. With turnover still just under £1m, growth has been steady rather than spectacular. "I've always been afraid to borrow money," Mr Pester admits, "probably because of my background." (His father was a lowly paid clerk in the Bristol Transport and Cleansing Department.)

"We've always created our own cash flow and invested it. After many years developing our blends and expanding our product range we have a strong name in the A,B,C1 market. I suppose we're at the crossroads now. We can either go out and merchandise ourselves heavily or look for someone in the food industry to take us further.

"The trouble is that we could get involved with whiz kids who might take us in the wrong direction. I've always said we wouldn't get involved in big, discount operations with the multiples. Sainsbury's has been an exception. Having all your eggs in one basket makes you vulnerable."

He is 61 now and admits to frustration at lacking the energy he had when he was out and about in his Renault 4. But the salesman in him emerges as soon as he ventures into the factory shop. Two middle-aged women, perusing the pepper mills on display, are soon engaged by his charm. He gives the impression of being genuinely interested in them as people. He makes time for them.

Staff call him by his first name. One salesman, who has been with him for 22 years, is his former milkman. "There's a lot of latent intelligence out there," he says. "You have to have discipline, but a company is nothing without the people who work for it."

That is a message that might all too easily be disregarded by the whiz kids of whom Mr Pester has always fought shy.