Having wowed celebrity chefs with its foodservice offer, The Fresh Olive Company is now eyeing strong growth for retail brand Belazu

You’ve probably never heard of The Fresh Olive Company, but there’s a strong chance you’ve sampled its products. For more than 20 years, the business has been supplying its high-quality olives, vinegars, pestos and oils to all manner of foodservice outlets from Nando’s and Pizza Express through to top-end Michelin-starred restaurants - Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc are both big fans.

Now, having won over the foodservice world, the company hopes to do the same with consumers by ramping up activity surrounding its retail brand, Belazu. It aims to grow the retail business from circa £3.5m to £10m over the next few years - almost half its current £21m foodservice turnover. So how does it plan to deliver on this ambitious target?

The Fresh Olive Company was founded in 1991 by trained chef George Bennell [pictured] and school friend Adam Wells. In the early days, Bennell sold tubs of marinated olives he’d driven over from Provence at food markets in London and Oxford. Oils and vinegars were added to the range as Bennell won business at some of the country’s top restaurants and high street food chains.

“Just about every Michelin-starred chef in the country uses our products”

George Bennell

With the foodservice side of the business thriving, the pair decided to launch the retail spin-off brand, Belazu, in 2000. The company soon secured listings for its oils and vinegars with the likes of Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Everything seemed to be going well until a customer approached the duo about launching a business partnership. “We said we didn’t want to do that but I jokingly added that they could buy the company if they wanted to. They came back seven months later with an offer,” recalls Bennell.

Unfortunately the Icelandic investor who acquired The Fresh Olive Company in 2006 was a “microcosm of the wider economic crisis”, says Bennell, and before long the bank pulled the plug on his finances. After some wrangling, Bennell and Wells bought the business out of administration with new partner Charlie Hodges in May 2009.

Second time around, they knew they needed to do something different with the retail side, which had “bumbled along” for years, generating about £1.5m a year in turnover. “We really wanted a branded presence in retail, but it’s very different selling to a chef face-to-face and putting it on a shelf where a consumer has got to stop and buy it,” says Bennell.

So the partners devised a multi-pronged strategy. In addition to NPD, including ambient olive pots launched into Waitrose in June and a new range of North African-inspired pastes into Sainsbury’s this month, the company invested heavily in a packaging and website revamp earlier this year. “We’ve redesigned our website to tie the whole Fresh Olive/Belazu story together. Fresh Olive is the foundation of where Belazu comes from, so we need to tell people that just about every Michelin-starred chef in the country uses our products.”

While foodservice is still the dominant part of the business, retail sales are slowly but surely growing in the UK mults, and exports are also booming. It may take a while to achieve, but Bennell is confident the company can hit £10m sales. “We’re being much more strategic second time around and we’re prepared to take a bit more of a risk to get that brand moving.”

With endorsements from the likes of Pierre White and Blanc, there’s every chance the gamble will pay off.