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La Sovrana brings Italy to Nine Elms

La Sovrana brings Italy to Nine Elms

Alfonso Picaro runs La Sovrana, a wholesaler that specialises in Italian produce. He works alongside his father, Salvatore Picaro, who helps on the stand, while his brother is based on the family farm in Campania, in the south of Italy.

What’s the history of your family business?

Me and my brother are the fourth generation of fruit and veg traders. At the beginning we were only traders, then traders and farmers, and then we moved to London three years ago and started out in business.

My grandfather had a place on a market in Naples. He and his brothers then divided the company, my grandad went on the farm side and his brothers on the market side. My father is helping me now in London while my brother is on the farm, which is near Battipaglia in Campania in the south of Italy.

That is how we came to start our business here in New Covent Garden Market. At the beginning, before lockdown, I went around the wholesalers and supplied the products we grow – rocket, fennel, parsley. I used to work for Vincenzo then I started to supply them. Then I started to supply The French Garden, sometimes S Thorogoods, Covent Garden Supply and then when everything happened in March 2019 all the people in the market cancelled the orders so me and my brother said ‘Oh my God! After four generations, BOOM! The game is done.’

What happened next?

I said ‘No. It isn’t done. Let’s try’. So I got my first small van – a 2005 Nissan Primastar for £700. I asked my brother to send me a mixed pallet with all of our goods and I went around the shops. On the first day I sold 13 boxes to five shops. And then slowly, slowly. In a few months the business grew in a good way. We now have around 100 customers and four vans. It is very good for two years.

Basically, I think we have been repaid as we had a bitter experience. Me and my brother know what we’re doing. I understand the needs of this market and gradually, we try to bring in all the good stuff to satisfy everybody.

So what do you sell?

At the beginning we sold only products from our farm and nearby. Then we began to link up with Sicily and then Milan Market and we have another farm in Puglia which supplies puntarella, cime di rapa (sometimes known as broccoli rabe).

All the suppliers in the south send to our warehouse on the farm. And the other suppliers from the North, like a farm in Veneto that grows Castelfranco and Tardivo, send their stuff to Milan Market. I have a friend there who does the logistics. He buys the stuff we cannot find in the south. We import twice a week from Italy.

I supply mainly shops. When you deal with good quality, people start to ask for other products. I have a Neapolitan friend of mine who makes fennel sausages in London. Then we do loads of cheese as well, directly from Italy. We specialise in mozzarella and burrata.

Mozzarella is a speciality of Battipaglia. In my city, you find mozzarella and that’s all. You even can’t say the name ‘burrata’. If I asked my brother to find a burrata he would kill me!

Our burrata started like a game. I took three boxes from Milan. Now after two years we sell around 200 boxes a week. We sell to most of the people here in the market.

Then there is also a farm that supplies us with artichokes. They also do all the products in jars: grilled artichokes, sundried tomatoes, tapenade, sundried tomato paste. We have another farm – during Christmas time – that does dried figs. We try to link everything to our little network of suppliers.

How has Brexit and Covid-19 affected your business?

I think all the real consequences of Brexit and the coronavirus are coming through. Brexit is a big headache. But thanks to God we have an Italian company and an English company. So all our suppliers deal with the Italian company. And my brother takes all the headache and the paperwork.

Before Brexit we had just one guy in the office who was doing everything. Now my brother needed to employ another guy only for the customs. Imagine each product needs to have a code and everything needs to be on the paperwork. A couple of months we mistakenly put the wrong code on and they wanted to charge us 1,1000 Euros.

To be honest, lockdown was a good period in some ways. Thanks to coronavirus we were able to develop our business. Big businesses were stuck but small companies were able to develop quickly. But now is a tricky period. Shops and restaurants aren’t doing great. Hopefully in October pr November they will pick up again. I think a tough period is coming though.

What’s next?

I moved into this unit in January. We will stay here for two years then hopefully we can move into the new Market units.

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