Business

Taste of home: The enduring popularity of expat food shops

Victoria Weatherall
Image caption Victoria Weatherall has worked at Cologne's The English Shop for seven years

Stepping inside The English Shop, it is easy to forget that you are in Germany.

A UK radio station hums in the background as the English staff help customers.

On the shelves around the store in the city of Cologne, are the staples of British shopping baskets - everything from Cadbury's chocolate, to Bisto gravy granules, PG Tips tea, Heinz baked beans, Walkers crisps, and cans of Carling lager.

This is not the place to buy your rye bread, bockwurst sausages, or pilsner brewed according to Germany's purity law.

Founded 20 years ago by a British expat, what began as a small kiosk is now a retail empire, with three brick and mortar stores and an online operation.

Originally aimed at Brits who worked at British military facilities in Germany, today some 80% of the English Shop's customers are German.

"If you're an expat, the English Shop is a place to go to be at home from abroad," says the store's operations manager, Victoria Weatherall, who has been with the business for seven years.

Image copyright John Kelly
Image caption Many British expats end up craving for crisps and other snack foods from home

"It's extraordinary the emotions that food can evoke. Some ex-pats get so excited about a bottle of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce because they want it on their bacon sandwiches."

In an increasingly globalised world, with an ever-growing number of people working abroad, you would imagine that such expat shops are booming, as individuals crave a taste of home.

Yet while demand for imported food products from specific countries has never been higher, physical stores aimed at expats have in the past decade faced increasing competition.

Image caption The English Shop doesn't shy away from its Britishness

For example, Britons in Germany can order direct from UK websites, while mainstream supermarkets are increasingly offering specialist country ranges; in the UK, for instance, Sainsbury's and Tesco's both stock an increasing amount of Polish products.

So, how can expat shops best compete?

'Excitement'

To stay competitive, The English Shop follows trends in the English-speaking world to ensure that it stocks the latest must-have Anglo Saxon products months, or even years, before the German supermarkets might follow suit.

"We need to cater to what people want, but without letting everyone else know how much they want it," says Ms Weatherall.

Image caption Yet the best-selling product at The English Shop is actually American

She adds that the business - which has other branches in Bonn and Dortmund - also works hard to ensure that its online operation is more convenient for customers in Germany than them ordering from rival websites based in the UK.

"With regards to the internet, we aim to offer the best service, range and availability," she says.

"Ordering directly from the UK can be costly, and it can take a long time for goods to be delivered, [by contrast], we are able to send 95% of our orders out within 24 hours."

The Cologne branch of The English Shop now gets about 250 customers per day, and the overall annual turnover of the business is €3m ($4m; £2.8m).

British expats today make up 20% of clients, with 80% being German.

Image caption Some 80% of The English Shop's customers are German

"For Germans we evoke mystery and excitement," says Ms Weatherall. "Many people have travelled to England and are reminded of their time there when they come here."

One German customer, Leonie Sawe, has visited the Cologne shop to buy a Terry's Chocolate Orange, which she says reminded her of a trip to the Republic of Ireland.

"At first, I was very surprised that it was delicious," says the 19-year-old. "When I saw it today, I immediately needed to get it."

The best-selling item at the stop last year was not actually a British product. Instead, it is Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the American sweet treat.

Yet Leicestershire's finest - Walker's salt & vinegar crisps were not far behind.

'Politeness'

If you have ever met many Argentines, you will know that most are rather partial to a caramel spread called dulce de leche. They put it on everything.

When Marta Cruz and her family emigrated from Argentina to France in the late 1980s then couldn't find anywhere that sold the product.

Image caption Sergio Barrera runs the Madrid branch of La Franco Argentine

So an entrepreneurial Mrs Cruz decided to start making and selling her own, setting up a business called La Franco Argentine.

While still making its own caramel spread, the company also imports a range of food and drink items from Argentina, which it sells at four shops in Spain, and one in both Paris and London.

In Spain the firm's busiest store is its Madrid branch, which opened in 1996 and has an annual turnover of around €100,000.

Its commercial manager Sergio Barrera says the business is continuing to grow thanks to both the growing Argentine population in Spain, and Spaniards who have travelled to Argentina.

Image caption La Franco Argentine makes its own dulce de leche

"Many Spanish people try products in Argentina and come to our shop because they know we have them, especially wine," he explains.

Although dulce de leche is now increasingly available at European supermarkets, La Franco Argentine prides itself on offering a better quality of service.

Diego Savanez, a customer at its Madrid shop agrees.

"The concept of politeness is very different in Argentina," he says.

"The way Spanish waiters talk to you is almost rude for an Argentine. When you come to La Franco Argentine you can enjoy the friendly way they ask you how you are."

'Big demand'

While Liu Na and her family moved from China to Zambia in 2009, Chinese food wasn't readily available in the African country's capital Lusaka.

Image caption Liu Na originally set up a restaurant, but demand from customers meant that she added a supermarket

This was despite a fast-growing Chinese community, as Chinese mining firms increasingly set up operations in the mineral rich nation.

As Ms Liu had a reputation as a talented chef, a friend suggested she start her own restaurant, which she did in 2013, when Bright Star opened its doors.

From day one she was frequently approached by customers who wanted to purchase products like spices and rice wine.

"So many customers asked, this is a big demand, so I decided to open the supermarket," explains Ms Liu.

Today the supermarket, which is also called Bright Star, has about 200 customers every day, and an annual turnover of almost $50,000 (£32,975), with Ms Liu importing a range of goods from China.

The products are shipped by container ship to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, before then being trucked into land-locked Zambia.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Thousands of Chinese workers are now based across Africa, and are keen to buy Chinese goods

While most of her customers are expat Chinese, Zambia's increasing trade with China has helped popularise Chinese products among locals.

Ms Liu says that for her Chinese customers she is a centre of the community.

"Many Chinese people don't only come here for food, but we also chat and have parties," she says.

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