Doom-mongers convinced the days of the independent retailer are numbered should take a walk up Mill Road in Cambridge. Unable to get his favourite foods when the street’s Italian delicatessen closed down, building society manager Stephen Turvill decided to set up his own store - and name it after his favourite tipple.
Initially, keeping up the day job at the building society and working on his new business in the evenings, Turvill paid the store’s previous owner for his little black book of Italian suppliers and set about building up Limoncello.
The reason was simple, he explains: “I loved the food, I loved the language, and I thought - why not?”
Just over six years later, Limoncello is a thriving retail, wholesale and online business with a customer base all over the country, now that its website is up and running. However, the store (which now trades from a site further up Mill Road twice the size of the original shop) remains the hub of the business, and opens seven days a week.
The love-it-or-hate-it lemon liqueur after which the store is named is one of the biggest sellers, according to Turvill: “I can get great things from importers. But I get my limoncello direct. A lot of people are put off because they get the cheap stuff at the supermarket, don’t like it and never touch it again. Not from our store. The best stuff is from Sicily, made using organic lemons.”
About 90% of Turvill’s stock is imported from Italy, including several varieties of fresh pesto, olives, cheeses, meats and antipasti, but bread is made locally and fresh pasta is handmade in London.
“A lot of my customers are Italian and they come in for mortadella [a purée of meats and fats with seasoning cooked in a dry-heat oven] or cheeses. But we get all sorts of people in here, from foodies to
tourists. Cheese is very popular - and not just the classics like mozzarella and parmesan. There’s also sardo - a mild sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia - taleggio and provolone, a stringy cheese. On the meat side there are favourites like Parma ham and prosciutto, but also pancetta, salamis with fennel and garlic, and so on.”
Although he keeps a close eye on Waitrose, which has a great range of Italian food, he says the supermarkets don’t do a great job on fresh, which is where Limoncello comes into its own. “If you want to purchase fresh pesto, olives, antipasti and loose artichoke parts, you do not go to the supermarket.”
Business is booming, with sales up a third on last year. However, Turvill is well aware that he is operating in a niche market.
“You could set this up with the same stock and the same staff in the wrong location and it wouldn’t work at all. The right place would have to be reasonably affluent and densely populated, near banks and post offices and so on. We’ve bought the freehold on the Mill Road site. It’s always a risk taking on a lease. You can get tied in.”
The fact that his wife is an accountant also proved useful in the early days of setting up the business, he admits.
“There’s never been a time when I have regretted it. But we had a tough period when a member of staff stole from us - about £5,000 over 18 months. That can be catastrophic for a small business. It was a psychological setback.”
Turvill admits he is undecided about what path he should take next.
“We could go into franchise, or focus more on developing the wholesale side of the business through the website,” he says. “Currently, it’s mainly consumers and a few restaurants. There are so many options.”
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