Paul Hargreaves baulks at the suggestion he is the Jamie Oliver of wholesale. But there are parallels between the owner of fine foods wholesaler Cotswold Fayre and the celebrity chef, and not just in their love of fine food.

Hargreaves has taken on several staff from local drug rehab clinics at his business, which supplies 1,350 niche products from 120 different suppliers to more than 1,000 customers – mainly farm shops and delis. Like Oliver, who famously employed disadvantaged youngsters at his restaurant Fifteen, Hargreaves admits to mixed results.

It doesn’t matter, he says. “I want, and I like, to give people a chance. There are a lot of people out there with potential.” They’re certainly given a chance to fulfil it at Cotswold Fayre’s Henley-on-Thames base.

“We’ve always been non-hierarchical,” says Hargreaves. “I’ve always encouraged people to be part of the business.”

His willingness to take a punt on people perhaps stems from the fact that he knows what it’s like to get a lucky break. A decade ago, the 42-year-old was doing community work for a church in south east London, while simultaneously running Cotswold Fayre, the company he set up in the early 90s as the distribution arm of a number of small Cotswold suppliers. Hargreaves found himself regularly commuting from London to the then company base, a small warehouse in Reading.

“It was one of those things I got into because I needed some money, and then it turned into a proper business,” he recalls of Cotswold’s early days. “I had to learn how to run a business very quickly.”

And learn he did. Today, Hargreaves presides over a £3m wholesale business with 20 staff. Profit before tax for the year is expected to be around £120,000. Hargreaves claims Cotswold Fayre was the first wholesaler to specialise in supplying farm shops, and although there are plenty of others doing the same today, he insists it still has the most established customer base.

“We try not to do products the multiples do,” he adds. “If lines are in Tesco and Asda, farm shops and delis don’t want them. They’re not going to compete on price. They’re looking for something more unusual.”

Cotswold Fayre’s USP, he believes, is that it listens to what its customers want. “Many ask us for particular goods and we do our best to accommodate – it’s very much a partnership between us, the farmers and producers,” he says.

Though the company does not offer anything fresh, chilled or frozen, it long ago broadened his horizons beyond the Cotswolds. “Towards Christmas we get Continental products, which adds a further 500 lines to the range,” says Hargreaves. “Our bestselling imported product currently is RJ’s Liquorice from New Zealand.”

He now plans to develop the customer base in the north of England and the Irish Republic. “Currently 75% of our business is south of Birmingham,” he says. “If things go well the plan is for a second warehouse. I’d be surprised if we didn’t have that in three years.”

Nor would anyone else who’d tracked the business’s rapid rise so far.