Emory St Marcus introduced South African dried meat snacks into the UK in the 80s. Now he is looking to the sports market for further growth. Joanne Grew reports

You can take the man out of South Africa but you can’t take South Africa out of the man. When Emory St Marcus emigrated to Britain in the 1980s he missed his native food so much he decided to bring it with him.

Twenty-five years on, St Marcus Fine Foods is still satisfying South Africans’ cravings for a taste of home. St Marcus claims he was the first entrepreneur to bring South African biltong and other dried meat snacks to these shores. And despite the market’s growing ubiquity, with a turnover of £1.5m his company remains the largest specialist retailer of South African foods in the UK.

St Marcus imports the meat from his homeland and produces biltong, stokkies, Boerewors, sausages and Sosaties at the company’s wholesale-cum-production facilities in Redhill and Roehampton.

The company mainly targets the foodservice market and the independent trade, rather than the high-volume, low-margin supermarket sector, supplying restaurants, pubs, hotels and delis as well as upmarket retailer Fortnum & Mason and online grocery store Partridges.

Although meat snacks are its bestseller, imported groceries, alcohol and household products also feature among the 300 product lines.

Three-quarters of St Marcus’ retail customers are native South Africans and, as befits a sports-mad nation, sales of meat snacks shoot up when big rugby and cricket matches involving his home country are televised.

St Marcus has cashed in on the opportunity by supplying pubs in areas heavily populated by South Africans, particularly south and west London. He’s also in talks to sell meat snacks direct to a number of sports stadiums, an area he sees as having “great potential for growth”.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. St Marcus initially had trouble adapting to the British climate – and so did his food.

“Many times the biltong went mouldy when the business was setting up because of the cold climate,” he says. “In South Africa the meat dries by the next day, but it takes a lot longer here.” Consequently, today the beef is thinned, cured, spiced and then put into a climate-controlled room where it is slowly air-dried.

The weather doesn’t just have an impact on St Marcus’ production methods. Barbecue season is his most lucrative trading period and a hot summer can make or break his top line – last year full-year sales were up 50% compared with the wet 2007.

Immediate concerns, however, are about the weakening pound. As an importer, the company is vulnerable, but the South African rand has also suffered serious devaluation so “the damage is not too serious”.

It certainly hasn’t prevented St Marcus from eyeing further growth. He recently added a brandy biltong to the range, and a new biltong and sausage flavour is set to debut in the spring.

Who knows, biltong could soon be coming to a football stadium near you.