Clare Doyle considers how to sell British food to the French
It was a chance meeting at a village fête that sowed the idea. Geoff Sellen and Paul Spencer got talking over a glass of beer. According to Geoff, it’s fairly basic. “The one thing anyone from the British Isles misses when they’re abroad is the English breakfast, especially good back bacon.” When Geoff, wanting his breakfast, tried to find a supplier on the internet, he found that the service did not exist in France.
Geoff and Paul decided to give the idea of a business providing English bacon and sausages a try. There were no available statistics about the number of British people living in France. “It was a bit of a shot in the dark. We really didn’t know who or what was out there.”
Both families came to settle in the Gers about five years ago. For Geoff and his wife Julie, who were at the time running a hotel in Blackpool, it was the desire to try somewhere and something new. On visiting some friends in the South West of France they fell in love with the area, and bought a house in Semboues, a small village in the Gers, with the idea of running a business connected to the tourist trade. Paul had experience in butchery, and he and his wife Alison, who does much of the bookkeeping, had run several pubs in England. Five years ago they moved to France and bought a business runninggites, just outside Marciac.
So what of the difficulty of starting up a small business? There are stories of excessive bureaucracy, punishing taxes, and extra difficulties for anyone coming from another country. The reaction from Paul and Geoff was a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. “We didn’t find it so bad.”
Geoff did a three-day artisan’s course in Auch, the administrative centre of the Gers, organised by the Chambre de Metiers et de l’Artisanat, a public organisation that assists people running small businesses or trades. He found the course extremely useful. A local expert helped them to navigate the mysteries of the tax system, found them a good accountant, and helped with translating the various official forms. “How’s your French?” I asked them. “GCSE”, replied Geoff. Paul said, “Mine’s not as good as his.” Julie said, “And mine’s not as good as Paul’s.” And Alison said, “Mine’s not as good as Julie’s!”
Initially they ran the business as an online concern. Their customers would order on the internet, then come to the house to collect the goods. In the last year this has changed, since they’ve started a stall which they move between several local markets. Julie is the mainstay of the stall. Paul sees himself as the doer: “I just throw myself into things, while Geoff, he’s more of a worrier, a bit more cautious – he’s the planner.” Paul enjoys producing the sausages and cooking the pies. “Running the stall, that’s not for me. I had enough of doing that up-front stuff in the pub business. Now I really enjoy just making things.” So they divide their labour, and between the four of them they are making a go of it.
You’d think that selling “foreign”, especially British, to a rural French community would be a hard task, but the market stall is thriving. “People travel more, so the idea of le breakfast Anglais is more attractive and we’ve got quite a few regular French customers. We’re not entirely dependent on British buyers, and that’s also been a surprise. We had no idea there were so many British people locally, and then there are the Dutch, the Irish, and other nationals who like the produce.”
They were careful not to be seen to be competing with any of the local businesses. “That’s not what we’re about and I think it’s worked,” says Paul. “The local butchers can see that we’re not selling what they’re selling, so they’ve been pretty relaxed about us.” Julie described how one of the butchers on the market had come over to inspect their stall on the first day, looking extremely suspicious, but had left satisfied. “Now we’re on kissing terms.”
Initially the recipes for their sausages were a matter of trial and error, but as the goods began to sell, they settled down into a pattern – a trade secret, needless to say. They experiment with ingredients, and are gratified to find their French customers enjoying such delicacies as pork and blue cheese sausages. According to Paul, it’s straightforward. “We get really good meat from the slaughterhouse in Tarbes (about 40 minutes away), and we take care to create something of real quality.”
It isn’t complicated. Good quality ingredients, and attention given to producing first-rate products – pork pies, dry-cured bacon, wet-cured gammon, spare ribs, pork burgers, scotch eggs, pork roast with crackling. It’s all good. As a customer of theirs, I can testify. As the business grows, Paul and Geoff are hoping to supply their produce to some of the supermarkets. They are already providers to a couple of the local stores and they hope to further develop this line of business.
When I asked them what would be their ideal, they both grinned. “Getting someone else to do the graft, and having more time to do those other things, like golf or skiing.”
I asked Geoff and Julie what advice they might give to anyone trying to set up a business in France. “Patience,” was Julie’s first response. Geoff’s was to get professional advice, and listen to it.
“Take the initiative and go directly to the professionals, approach the Mairie or the Chambre de Metiers, rather than listen to other people’s impressions or opinions. That’s what they’re there for, to help, and we’ve found them to be just that. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
After two years of trading, they are covering their costs, and their ambition for the year to come is to be able to pay themselves a salary. While not underestimating the amount of sheer hard work it has taken to get the business up and running, they are unassuming about their success. I asked if they would do anything differently in retrospect. “Not really,” says Geoff. “If anything we were too cautious to begin with, we could have been a little more adventurous, expanded more rapidly. At the beginning we did everything by hand, making the sausages took ages, now having invested in some machinery to grind the meat and mix the ingredients, it’s a much faster process.”
Recently they donated the meat and cooked the hog roast for their village fête. “We wanted to give something back to our community. They’ve been so good to us.” Julie wondered what their neighbours would make of such delicacies as scotch eggs and pork pies, but she needn’t have worried. They all disappeared immediately. One of their elderly neighbours had complained to the mayor about having les Anglais provide the food for the celebration. Deeply sceptical, she had nevertheless attended and was overheard to say at the end that the food was “pas mal de tout”. Praise indeed!
Is there a secret to their success? From listening to the four of them, what I found striking was their respect for the community they live in and for each other. Unlike many other foreign nationals, there was no expectation of the way things should be, rather an acceptance of what they found. Maybe that’s the real bulldog spirit.
© 2010 Clare Doyle