Article

From acorns to oaks

Categories: Features

Twenty-five years ago, Monika Linton set out on an “unplanned adventure”, bringing tiny quantities of Spanish produce to the UK. Now her company, Brindisa, is one of the country’s most revered specialist food importers and a cornerstone of Borough Market

Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu

“I was at a roundtable discussion this lunchtime where someone was saying that by 2020 half of all non-food retail will have gone from the high street,” says Monika Linton, founder of Brindisa, looking faintly appalled.

“Clothes shops soon might not have any stock at all—they will be virtual shops using technology that will allow you to try things out to see if you like them. So I think we’re really lucky to be in food—because you still need to see and smell food, and you still want to interact with people. You still want to hear a story.”

If there’s one person in the retail world with a story worth telling, it’s Monika. Twenty-five years ago, she started a tiny business importing fine Spanish foods to the UK. A decade or so later, Brindisa became one of the founding fathers of Borough’s retail market.

Now, still firmly ensconced at the heart of the Market, the company has grown to be one of the country’s best loved specialist food businesses, devoted to sating the public’s burgeoning appetite for salt cod, cured anchovies, expertly carved Iberico ham, artisan Spanish cheeses and the most famous chorizo sandwich on the planet.

An unplanned adventure
So how did it all begin? Very simply, is the answer. “I studied Spanish at university and then went to live in Spain,” explains Monika. “When I came back to England I wanted to somehow have a job where I could use my Spanish and remain connected to the country. I didn’t get one, so I created Brindisa.” It was, she says, “an unplanned adventure”.

In the mid-1980s, Monika’s brother, with her help, began shipping British produce such as smoked salmon and stilton out to Barcelona. Some of the Spanish retailers suggested to him that he send some local cheese back the other way. “And that’s ostensibly how it started.”

The whole thing was “completely spontaneous, much to the horror of some of my other colleagues, who didn’t like working that way. And it was done on a shoe string. The initial investment was just £1,500.”

James Robinson, Brindisa’s head of sales, recalls the tiny scale of the operation when he joined the adventure in 1990. “Monika was renting three pallet spaces in somebody else’s Bermondsey warehouse. That was the entire stock.”

Monika, James and Greig

Monumental change
The company moved to Borough Market in 1992, renting a unit on Winchester Square. If Brindisa has undergone a monumental change in the intervening years, so too has Borough—back then it was wholesale market in seemingly terminal decline. “It was actually quite scary to walk here from the tube,” remembers Monika.

Brindisa’s first proper home of its own was a warehouse on Park Street. Keen to start selling directly to the public, the team began opening their warehouse to retail customers one Saturday every three months. “And then Neal’s Yard Dairy moved into the area and decided to do the same,” says Monika. “So we teamed up on dates and shared mailing lists, then Turnips joined in.” The seeds of what would become the retail market had been sown.

Brindisa and Neal’s Yard Dairy were soon renting space within the Market to store overflow stock. Monika applied to the trustees for permission to retail from their cage—a major innovation. “Nobody had ever retailed from the Market before,” says Monika. “We were the first to get permission.” They’ve been there ever since.

During the past quarter of a century, Brindisa has witnessed a revolution in the public’s appreciation of Spanish food. “I think much of it has to do with the cultural shift of British tourists in Spain,” says James.

Recreate that experience
“Around 25 or 30 years ago the majority of people were on package holidays, eating bad food in hotel restaurants. But they slowly began to discover that if you went up a side street, maybe followed a local, you could actually find great food. And when they came back to Britain they wanted to recreate that experience.”

Brindisa continues to satisfy this demand. “At least once a week a customer will tell me that they’ve just been to Spain and tasted a particular type of cheese, for example,” says Greig Lawniczak, manager of the Borough Market shop. “Very often we’re spot on, but if not we can always guide them to something very similar.”

While wholesaling remains at the core of the business, the shop has proved the perfect place for Brindisa to showcase its fine Spanish food to the most discerning of customers—Borough Market shoppers. “They can see the full spectrum of what Spain has to offer,” says Monika. “We obviously have lots of ingredients which we want to encourage people to use. Home cooks have always come to Borough Market to find interesting ingredients.”

Back in 1988, there was only really one other company importing Spanish produce to the UK, and its focus was almost entirely on ex-pat Spanish chefs living and working in this country. “Brindisa worked out how to sell to a different culture,” says James, “one that wasn’t bound by tradition in a way that a Spaniard would be. Brindisa created a market, essentially.”

Alubias with crispy morcilla

Smuggle bits of charcuterie
Being a pioneer had its difficulties. “We started before the EU made importing food so much easier,” explains Monika. “The headache of actually getting stuff from Spain was something that not everybody wanted to take on.” James grins. “Monika probably doesn’t want to admit it, but she used to smuggle bits of charcuterie back in her hand baggage.”

The most impressive aspect of Brindisa’s 25-year odyssey has been its ability to maintain high standards despite currency fluctuations, a global recession and a rise in competition. The company’s success is in large part down to the strength of its relationships with producers and suppliers. “Over time you develop a relationship of trust as well as business with a supplier, and then they will recommend other people of the same quality to you and your network keeps growing,” says James.

Building trust means proving yourself to the producer. “If you take on a product and prove that you can sell it—get through the next order and the next and the next—that’s when the recommendations come,” explains Monika.

“They say: ‘If you can do that with our product then I’m going to entrust you with this small cheesemaker up the hill who is just starting out. It’s quite holistic—you have to close the whole circle really.”

Joys and challenges
Working with producers based abroad provides both joys and challenges. “The joys are that it takes you to another land; takes you down roads you would probably never follow if you were there on holiday,” says Monika. “And you meet people whose families have for generations focussed on improving and honing their skills to make the best product.”

The downside comes with the complexity of keeping abreast of a large supplier base and staying informed of any changes in personnel, machinery or processes that might affect the end product. This requires frequent visits to the Iberian Peninsula by those in key positions at Brindisa, and the company now also has a buyer based permanently in Spain.

But Monika believes that the benefits of visiting producers and understanding more about the provenance of the food should be experienced by staff throughout its workforce, including those at Borough Market. “So far we have done four or five trips of eight people to Catalonia,” she says. “They stay in my brother’s farmhouse and he drives them round on visits to three food suppliers and one wine supplier. Those trips have been absolutely brilliant.”

“It was fascinating,” agrees Greig. “We got to meet the producers and to see the entire production from scratch. We saw everything and learnt what it takes to make a high quality product. This knowledge can then be passed on to the customers at Borough Market.”

Bacalao

Instinct for adventure
Following Monika’s natural instinct for adventure, the company branched out into running its own restaurants in 2004—there are now five around London. “I was very conscious that a restaurant business was completely different to any of our experience,” says Monika. “But I just knew we should do it, because I knew it would be successful. So I brought in a new team of partners and made sure that the people who went into it had seriously good restaurant experience.”

Brindisa has come far, but is there anything Monika misses about the early days? “One of the big things is the informality and spontaneity of a small team,” she admits. Devoting time to her young family has meant that Monika, with her “boundless energy”, is no longer free to work every waking hour. But there are new sources of pleasure for her.

“It is fun watching all these other people taking on areas of Brindisa and feeling that they can express themselves,” she says. “There is something about the effort that people put into the business—the generosity with which people work at Brindisa is absolutely huge.”

People like Greig and his team at the Market. “Borough Market customers keep telling me that Brindisa has this great reputation,” he says. “And that’s what it’s all about. We care about the product and about the customer service. We all enjoy our jobs and we put our hearts into what we do.”

Waving a Brindisa bag
It’s that recognition from customers that gives them all the most pleasure, whether at Borough Market or while cruising along the M4. “It was a Sunday night,” says James, “and we were driving back to London in the Brindisa van when suddenly there’s a ‘toot, toot, toot’, and there’s this car overtaking us with a guy waving a Brindisa bag.”

“Oh wonderful,” laughs Monika. “That is really uplifting, isn’t it?”