When Poland was granted accession to the EU in 2004, it wasn't just plumbers and builders who spotted a business opportunity.
North London entrepreneurs Ali Caktu and Kadim Lacin realised that if Poles came to the UK to find work, they would want their native food. Six years on and Dimark, which started off distributing Eastern European brands to independent stores, is the number one UK wholesaler of Polish products, with a turnover of £5.1m in 2008, up 80% on the previous year.
This phenomenal growth is a source of great pride to managers Ibrahim Yucesoy and Ozzie Bozoglu (left and right above) who now run day-to-day operations after Lacin left last year to pursue other opportunities, with Caktu remaining as sole director. "We understood what the consumers wanted and we did a lot of research," says Yucesoy. "The advantage we had was we were the first company in the UK to seriously take on Polish lines."
The company has grown its customer base rapidly and now supplies more than 2,000 direct and 8,000 indirect customers including the big four, The Co-operative Group and Nisa-Today's with 1,500 lines. Aside from Poland, it also imports from Lithuania, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus, Romania, Germany and Greece.
Persuading retailers to stock Polish products was a challenge, says Bozoglu. "At first retailers were unsure about demand from Polish consumers. It took a bit of time to persuade them, but when they saw the sales coming in and shoppers looking for these products it convinced them."
Two and a half years ago, Dimark broadened its business from pure wholesale distribution to open its first 40,000 sq ft cash & carry warehouse, Garden Foods, on an industrial estate in Edmonton, north London. It is now in negotiations with the landlord about doubling the size of the site by extending next door and is on the lookout for new warehouse space.
But it hasn't been plain sailing. The unstable exchange rate of the past year pushed up import costs. Accounts for 2009 have yet to be filed, but the company says that although the business grew another 50%, trading was far tougher than in 2008. "It is very important for us that sterling keeps its position," says Yucesoy. "But even Tesco's growth slowed down in the recession, so it is just the market conditions."
Another result of the downturn is that many of the first wave of immigrants have returned home. Dimark has responded by introducing new foreign lines to spread its risk. It has recently taken on Afro-Caribbean brands and will introduce Vietnamese products later this year. Next month, a Mediterranean range of flavoured rice is being introduced, as well as a Danish feta cheese, Ardena, which has a strong following in other European countries.
Polish products, however, will remain Dimark's bread and butter. With staples such as Dr Witt juices and Zywiec beer continuing to win native British fans, the niche market Caktu and Lacin identified in 2004 may soon become more mainstream than they ever dreamt.