Small Business: Importer has the scent of success: Spain was the right source but wine gave way to a niche market in cheese

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TUCKED away in a warehouse between Southwark Cathedral and the 94-year-old ship Kathleen & May, Monika Lavery runs her business, importing smelly cheeses - Spanish cheeses, to be precise.

Largely unappreciated in Britain until recently, they are gaining in favour - mainly thanks to Ms Lavery's company, Brindisa.

The business has proved a triumph in many respects: it is one more start-up that is weathering the recession; it has overcome the reluctance of retailers and restaurateurs to promote unknown Spanish foods; and it has overcome the bureaucratic and physical problems of importing fresh food from Spain.

Brindisa started life as a wine company in 1988, when Ms Lavery began to import Rioja from Barcelona. It was launched with four directors: Ms Lavery, a friend in London, a friend in Spain and her brother, Mark, in Barcelona. Each put in pounds 1,500.

In its first year, Brindisa sold pounds 25,000 of wine - not enough to earn a living, let alone a profit. Ms Lavery says: 'I lost enthusiasm for wine because it was obviously going to be very difficult. It was also very male-dominated then.'

The turning-point came when Mark Lavery arrived for a birthday party with a selection of unusual cheeses he had bought in Barcelona, and Ms Lavery knew immediately she had found her product.

Working from her parents' Hampshire home, which meant she had no overheads apart from a vehicle to run, she sold two pallets - for pounds 2,000 - to one family firm, keeping back about 15 cases for promotion, and Brindisa took off. Ms Lavery signed up for the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which brought in pounds 40 a week, and paid herself pounds 20 a week from the company coffers.

One of her first products was a cheese in a tin, which she lit upon at the Food Fair. The brainchild of Ambrosio Molinos, it was a rich cheese rather like Parmesan, packed in olive oil in a beautiful tin.

'Because it was such an eccentric cheese, it opened quite a few doors for me. There were a couple of important restaurants and department stores in London prepared to try it. But no one really managed to sell it, partly because it was expensive,' she says. It failed to make any money but worked as a marketing experiment, because it opened doors.

In the first few years, Ms Lavery went to Spain many times. On one trip in 1990, she spotted an olive oil - Nunez de Prado - in a shop in Madrid, and after a quick phone call flew to the farm in Granada that afternoon.

'Nunez de Prado had been asked by a British supermarket to supply oil, but they wanted to keep it small and special. Brindisa is almost like a family business. I could offer them the chance to keep it small and special as long as they would have the patience to stand by while I got the volumes up for them,' Ms Lavery explained.

Brindisa's main customers now are good-quality English- run cheese shops; all the main London department stores that sell food; many of the Mediterranean-style restaurants; food halls; delicatessens, and one supermarket. The product list today includes charcuterie, special vinegars, anchovies, peppers, nuts, olives and pulses - all from Spain.

But Brindisa has not sailed through storm-free. It has had to overcome the obstacles that have defeated others who have tried to import food from Spain. For a start is is more expensive - importing cheese from Paris costs about 20p per kilogram, compared with between 70p and pounds 1 from Spain. Bureaucracy, which demands expensive health certificates, is partly to blame. Cheese costs more to produce in Spain, because it is drier and has less pastureland. This means animals are spread over a greater area, making collection more difficult and expensive.

And Spain's road system is poor. 'It's more expensive to get goods from, say, Cordoba to the Basque country than from the Basque country to London,' Ms Lavery says. Products have to travel from every corner of Spain to Barcelona, and then on to Britain. The Spanish are also not the most reliable suppliers - orders can take six weeks to arrive.

Nevertheless, Brindisa has gone from strength to strength, and Ms Lavery has had to expand her staff to cope with the increased workload. In 1990, a childhood friend, Emma Ranson, invested and became a co-director. 'Within a year of her arrival we had broken even, after two years of making losses, and our turnover tripled,' Ms Lavery says.

Last year, Marcus Newton joined the company as financial controller, and Scott Boden as purchasing manager.

Profits over the past two years have been re-invested, and the company has no bank loan. But it has to pay for stocks held elsewhere, unlike retailers, who can get credit from suppliers. Bad debts have totalled only pounds 1,200 over six years.

'I could say that in a year or so we will maybe reach a turnover of half a million,' says Ms Lavery. 'But Brindisa needs a dedicated team, because at the moment we don't pay market salaries. We want to work towards that, but for now we have to combine quite low salaries with as many variable overheads as possible.' She pays herself about pounds 17,000 a year.

For the future, she plans a shop window in London, because the market for niche food products is growing. The company has about 140 products on the list and will add only a few more because it wants to remain a niche supplier.

'One of the first things that Alan Porter, a wholesaler, said to me when I started was, 'If you stick with quality you'll be fine.' It seems to be working for us,' Ms Lavery said.

(Photograph omitted)