It is a promising time for Britain’s premium food sector. Last year, sales of organic food rose by 4 per cent to £1.86bn and specialised suppliers have been looking to capitalise on a disenchantment with supermarkets.
Franco Fubini is one of them. “I was in the fresh produce section of a chain of delicatessens in New York, and I saw a woman asking for peaches. I thought to myself ‘Why on Earth is she doing that? It’s December!’ I decided that I wanted to re-educate consumers.” A former banker at Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank in Brazil, Fubini resolved to apply this passion to the business world.
His company Natoora started as an internet food retail company based in France, supplying produce from 120 French farmers to homes across the country. Fubini became a shareholder and took it over in 2005, helping to roll out Natoora’s concept in London before extending delivery across the UK. Today, it is a thriving business, primarily supplying high quality food and vegetables to top restaurants like The River Cafe and Blumenthal’s Dinner at The Mandarin Oriental.
But it hasn’t all been plain-sailing. “We made a mistake when we started,” he admits. “We tried to create the kind of online farmers’ markets you see now, selling a vast range of products to individual consumers. We were trying to be the Ocado of artisanal foods but we were stretching ourselves too thin. Five or six years ago, we were losing money. We didn’t know if we would last.”
Fubini decided to pivot the business. By the spring of 2009, Natoora UK had broken entirely from its French counterpart and the company shifted its focus to supplying just fruit and vegetables as a wholesaler. “The switch was a necessary one,” Fubini explains. “Wholesale was the turning point. It accounts for most of our success over the past two or three years.”
And it has also given the company a launchpad for refocusing back on those consumers that Fubini so wanted to re-educate. “It was a much better model. It allowed us to build the scale we needed to succeed on the retail and e-commerce platform; the market we had originally been hoping to crack.”
Natoora merged with Italian foods wholesaler Portobello Food Company in 2006, and began a partnership with online delivery giant Ocado in 2012. Fubini and his partners opened Natoora’s first greengrocery in Chiswick in 2013 and two others are set to open soon. It is on the retail side that Fubini is able to indulge in his passion for shellfish, charcuterie and the ice cream he creates in a joint venture with his brother.
GOING RIGHT TO THE SOURCE
Just why is Fubini so passionate about food? His father was a diplomat and much of his enthusiasm comes from a childhood spent living in countries with unique gastronomies. “I have fond memories of each. In Egypt, we lived at the ambassador’s residence. One of the guys in the kitchen would make mango chutney from the mangoes growing there. Holland has fantastic cheese and, to my mind, Italy remains the world leader in fresh produce.”
We put effort into ensuring the sustainability of our supply chain by providing interest-free loans to farmers,” Fubini says. The company will approach a farmer for a single product in season for just three months of the year.
One of the rarer delicacies carried is sorbe. “It’s a rare fruit which grows wild and looks a bit like a pear,” he explains. “It’s tannic and disgusting when fresh but it ferments to produce the tastes of chocolate and cognac.”
So if all the best food comes from continental Europe, why is Natoora based in Britain? “The UK has been phenomenal for us really. It has a strong economy, costs are low and labour laws are conducive to business. In Italy, Spain and France, the workforce has a different mentality, a sense of entitlement, and these countries will struggle to compete over the next 30 or 40 years”.
His prior career in banking was a perfect platform for Fubini to get into the world of entrepreneurship. “I learnt how to scale, build an organisation and devise a hierarchy [while in banking]. The financial acumen was also invaluable.” Fubini has also found membership of entrepreneurs’ network Supper Club useful.
And what advice would he give to any aspiring entrepreneurs in the City? “Do it,” he says, after little hesitation. “It is life-changing to watch something grow.”
FRANCO FUBINI CV
Company name: Natoora
Job title: Managing director
Born: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Studied: Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Drinking: Quo Vadis Members Club
Eating: Brawn, Columbia Road
Currently reading: Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, by Carol Deppe
Favourite Business Book: Den of Thieves, by James B. Stewart
Heroes: My mother
First ambition: To start my own business
Motto: “Perfection is a journey”
Most likely to say: Cool