Times may be hard, but that doesn’t mean shoppers want dull products – and Bespoke is giving them as much excitement as they can handle, says Alex Beckett

Consumers lean towards the tried and tested when times are hard. Or so the theory goes.

The performance of fine food distributor and importer Bespoke Foods suggests otherwise.

The company, which specialises in the quirky and premium rather than familiar and cheap think everything from fancy raspberry Champagne vinegars and goose liver mousses to cult US brands such as Reckitt Benckiser’s French’s mustard and Frank’s RedHot chilli sauces posted a 15% jump in sales last year to £11.2m. And it expects its 1,000-strong line-up to generate a further 12% growth this year. So how has it pulled off such impressive figures?

Well, says CEO Piers Adamson (pictured), people may have tightened their purse strings, but that doesn’t mean they want boring food. Rather the reverse. They want products that aren’t part of the run-of-the-mill supermarket offer or not here anyway. “We offer familiar and unusual items that create intrigue,” explains Adamson. “When I’m in a deli, I want to be surprised by what’s on shelf. A lot of supermarkets get their ideas from delis. Because we are so close to our deli customers we can pick up on consumer trends.”

Just as founder Raymond Mathias did. The semi-professional opera singer launched the business in 1982, leaving behind European concert halls for his mother’s garage in London. His first major break came that year when he won a contract to supply luxury Belgian butter biscuits to Harrods, and before long he was distributing German lebkuchen and Orangina (when it was still owned by Pernod Ricard).

The business ticked along until 1997, when in a bid to diversify the portfolio, Bespoke acquired fresh food distributor The London and Country Victualler in 1997, inheriting the company’s directors and its owner Adamson, who became CEO. So began a real step change in Bespoke’s evolution.

Under Adamson, the Vauxhall-based business expanded distribution across UK delis, speciality stores, John Lewis food halls and multiples.

The latter now stock 10% of Bespoke’s range, including mainstream offerings such as French’s American mustard and Frank’s RedHot chilli sauces. Tesco also sells Peanut Butter & Co, a gourmet peanut butter brand from New York, while Waitrose stocks a number of lines including Ndali vanilla pods from Madagascar, Edmond Fallot mustard from France and Malay Taste, a range of ingredients and sauces from Malaysia.

The product range never gets the chance to go stale. It is reviewed annually when 200 to 300 lines are replaced with new brands or alternative sizes, for which Adamson is always on the lookout. In a typical year, he will make three trips to the States, two to Thailand, six to Europe and “maybe Jamaica, India or Malaysia” as well.

“There are not many secrets left in Europe in terms of food innovation, but Asia has many more opportunities. What I love about the UK is its acceptance of international food,” says Adamson. “We are so open to new ideas. You don’t see that in Spain, Italy or France.”