The recession put paid to a host of fine foods players, but RH Amar has emerged bullish, having boosted sales 40% by boldly taking on new brands, as Carolyn Wilson reports

The past couple of years haven't been easy for the fine food sector. Sterling's weakness left distributors cash-strapped on the Continent while falling sales squeezed them at home.

Initially, RH Amar suffered along with everyone else but the fine foods distributor has emerged from the recession stronger for the experience. The most recent figures show year-on-year sales climbing 40% to £25.25m [October 2009 to April 2010], prompting the company to press ahead with ambitious plans to invest £60,000 in a new test kitchen, up warehouse space by 65% to 80,000 sq ft and pump a "six-figure sum" into overhauling its IT.

It's a far cry from November 2008 when Amar reported a 3% dip in sales, resulting in 10 redundancies. Chairman Henry Amar puts the short-lived decline down to "initial nervousness from stock controllers at the onset of the credit crunch", insisting sales soon returned to growth.

"In the autumn of 2008, sales of quality foods were expected to decline and there was a sharp fall in the value of sterling, especially against the euro in which we buy 60% of our goods," says Amar. "Maintaining our focus on the top tier became an increasingly big point of distinction for us as the field narrowed."

The firm stuck to its guns, focusing on its existing 36 brands as well as securing a further four accounts in the past year and striving to maintain as broad a customer base as possible currently split between the multiples (50%), wholesale/C&C (25%) and foodservice (25%).

Amar says much of the recent growth is down to those four brands acquired since April 2009 Bertolli, Del Monte, McCormick and most recently pesto and pasta sauce brand Sacla', which Amar says had been a target for a long time. "It's a brand we'd admired for many years. It fits very well with our portfolio."

Another key factor has been the "resurrection" of the existing accounts, with Crespo enjoying an 8.4% uplift in sales between October and April. "We've been the UK distributor for Crespo since 1955," says Amar. "That such a mature brand is still experiencing this level of growth gives us extreme confidence in the continued sales scope of our existing business."

Also key to Amar's success has been the development of its own brand, Cooks & Co, which is set to benefit from new NPD. "It's become bigger than we ever envisaged, representing 6% of our total turnover," says Amar. "Quality ingredients for cooks are very much 'of this time' so we're aiming to double its sales in the next three years."

Amar says the pursuit of new contracts will take a back seat in the coming months, with recruitment heading the priority list. Numbers will head "considerably further north" of the current head count of 60, he assures, emphasising his confidence in the business model his family has honed over more than half a century.

"It seems my father was right when people are forced to cut back on major items of expenditure, they treat themselves to good food."

In which case, let the bad times roll.