It started out selling 12 products from a small shed in Napier's seaside suburb of Ahuriri.
Twelve years later Jan Patulski's Mediterranean foods shop Vetro stocks nearly 1000 products, has moved twice to larger premises and has four other franchised stores around the North Island.
Sticking to your core business and taking opportunities as they arise sounds like a fairly prosaic philosophy for a company dealing in such exotic goods, but it has been the secret to Vetro's success.
Patulski opened his shop in 1999 after completing an international business degree at Auckland University. Originally from Taranaki, he chose Hawke's Bay for its climate, because it was relatively "untapped", and because "the region does seem to lend itself to what we're all about".
The idea was, and remains, simple: stock quality and affordable Mediterranean foods.
"We still stock the same 12 lines we began with. Olive oil, pasta, anchovies, balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese ... The very basic commodities. They are still our core lines but today we carry just under 1000 lines," he said.
"They were very humble beginnings. Our philosophy is to supply good food and to keep it simple. Ten or 15 years ago a lot of what we sell was perceived as deli items and were high priced. But there is nothing special about a gherkin, or sun dried tomatoes or polenta. It's pretty peasant food. Our goal was to make products like that affordable and for everyday use," he said.
The perception has changed over the past decade, he said, with the likes of Jamie Oliver and others promoting the use of these types of products.
If anything, Patulski may have been a bit ahead of his time.
"I remember when I first got large jars of sun-dried tomatoes. They literally kept the shelf warm. That changed, but now it's almost come full circle with people looking for fresher products. We've constantly adapted to meet that demand".
The number of products increased over time, as did the store's popularity. Today it is still in Ahuriri, but in a much larger premises.
Mediterranean goods remain the focus but the store now stocks goods from other European and Middle Eastern countries, plus a few local Mediterranean-style products like olive oil.
The Napier store remains the largest of five, with others now in Hamilton, Rotorua, Gisborne and New Plymouth. They are independently owned but Patulski buys the core lines in bulk as a co-op from his Napier base.
"The advent of the other stores, which came about from people approaching us because they liked what we were doing, allowed us to increase the volumes we were bringing in. All of a sudden we were buying smart. To be honest if I was still a stand-alone store I'm not sure I'd still be here. If I was, I'd be just surviving," he said.
The biggest challenge has been food regulation compliance, particularly meeting the labelling requirements of New Zealand.
The biggest successes have come from taking every opportunity as it arises.
"Each time we pushed ourselves it was a good move."
The global financial crisis has had a little impact on the business "but really I don't think much has changed. The tide went out and there were a lot of people skinny-dipping," he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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