Morrisons might be closing but who needs a supermarket when you have a local high street boasting a butcher, a baker, a fishmonger and now a French cheese shop? It’s called Fromage & French, it opened its doors a couple of weeks ago and is owned by friends Belinda Raitt and Gaëlle Coyle
How did you two link up?
We first got chatting to each other on Twitter! It turned out we had some good mutual friends, and one evening when we were all out for a meal together, conversation turned to food (as it often does among our group of friends!)
“I’ve always thought Tunbridge Wells needs a decent cheese shop”, said me (Belinda).
“I’ve dreamed about opening a fromagerie for the last 11 years”, said me (Gaëlle).
And, there, over good food and a glass of wine, as is often the case with good ideas, Fromage & French was hatched.
What are your backgrounds?
Both of us were born in France and spent our childhoods there. Fromage & French was born part out of nostalgia for our childhood fare and part out of a desire to bring the European attitude to good quality, fresh, food provenance to Tunbridge Wells.
What makes you think there is a market for this type of shop?
There is a lot of love for cheese! Britain seems to be having a bit of an artisan foodie revolution, helped in part by the craft beer movement and small batch gin producers popping up all over the place – every pub worth its salt serves cheese and charcuterie boards these days. Localisation too, is more important than ever. People are more interested in good food and where it’s come from.
These trends seem to be particularly apparent in Tunbridge Wells, made up as it is of affluent, middle-class families, more discerning foodie types and ex-Londoners (or commuters to the capital) who are used to a broad range of international foods being readily accessible.
The average Tunbridge Wells shopper tends to like the finer things, and is generally well-educated and well-travelled – many customers have already commented that the Fromage & French range makes them think of their French holidays, or that they will no longer have to stock up the boot of their car when they return from their house in France. There is also a big native French community in Tunbridge Wells! We are bringing a little bit of France to Kent to fill an obvious gap in the market.
What’s your biggest challenge?
Getting things through Calais! It is hard to plan deliveries as you never know how long the lorries will be held up at the port.
We’ll also have to work hard to keep sourcing interesting and unusual stock to keep customers coming back, to make Fromage & French an every day destination rather than a special occasion shop. And alongside that, keeping our prices competitive with the supermarkets and online competition, who obviously have more purchasing power, or lower overheads.
The Tunbridge Wells glitterati can have a short attention span – showing great support and enthusiasm for the latest new thing, only to flit, butterfly-like, onto the next one as soon as it opens. So that will keep us on our toes too!
What makes you think you can succeed where high street shops are closing?
We’re supplying Tunrbidge Wells shoppers with things they just can’t find unless they go to London and/or France. Because we are independent we can be more nimble. It’s about responding to customer demand, not just doing and selling what we want. We aim to stay flexible and open-minded about changing
the offering or expanding into different areas to suit demand. We’re keeping a close eye on retail trends, and try to anticipate them where we can.
Another benefit of being independent is the personal touch. Customers can get to know us (and are already). Between us, we have a wide network across the business, cricket and school communities. We are spending time getting to know our customers, and making sure we stock what they want.
We also have drive and a positive attitude. Rather than saying ‘no we can’t’, we say ‘pourquoi pas?’ We want people to feel welcome when they visit Fromage & French, and give them a taste of their summer holidays. And we can speak French with our French customers too!
How have you financed the package?
Some inheritance and the rest, savings – no borrowing for us, we’re putting our money where our mouths are – we have a vested interest in making it succeed! We’d rather tighten our belts for the first year and know that we are not giving our eventual profit away to an investor! But we are already planning our next move, so never say never…
How do you source the products?
At the moment we are using a mix of local importers and French suppliers. Eventually we plan to source most of our produce directly from France (oh the hardship)! We’re already starting to build relationships with some smaller independent producers and artisans, on recommendation from friends and even customers.
Where we can, we are supporting local too. For example, our bread is baked using traditional French methods by Bakehouse 124 in Tonbridge, we are sourcing wooden boards from local craftsmen, and when our alcohol licence is granted, we’ll have a wine concession from the Secret Cellar.