Italian food in the Czech Republic: The answers to be given to the local market

Four generations of commitment in the food sector, since 21 years in the Czech Republic, primarily at the service of the channel, but not only: Cortelazzi family, with Max Food Se Company, 50 employees including members and collaborators, helps build the image of Italian style abroad. For two years, beside the activity of importer of Italian products, the Company has combined the one of distributor, by opening a Cash & Carry as well as small retail stores. Ernando Cortelazzi, owner of Max Food Se, told us about the company strategy. Both import and distribution are organised starting from the logistics platform at Badia Polesine (Rovigo), where the goods coming from Italy converge, are checked, and immediately sent to the Czech Republic. Every week from 3 to 5 trucks start, with 160 pallets of food products. The products arrive in the 2,000 sqm warehouse near Prague, where the goods are prepared for both local customers and the ones from such other European Countries as Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, and France. Deliveries are daily, with 9 trucks leaving every day. Beside customers, restaurants, pizzerias, Cortelazzi serves its own Cash & Carry at Chrastany, 15 km from the centre of Prague, about 1,500 square meters with 4,000 only Italian products including fresh products, grocery, and a small part of non-food, technology, and accessories to work better in the kitchen. Cash & Carry sign is Cortelazzi logo with the words ‘Cash & Carry Italia’. In 2016 it tested small points of sale of about 140 square meters in the name of Italian style with the idea of ​​developing a franchise for the towns of 20,000 -30,000 inhabitants.

Ernando Cortelazzi, owner of Max Food Se

Why did you start from the channel? Are you interested in large-scale retail trade, too? is the channel we consider as the most congenial to us, and in addition catering often speaks Italian, while local large-scale retail trade still has a very confused idea of ​​Italian style and lacks a clear line. For the past two years, however, with our new distribution centre we have begun to reflect on the opportunity to enter the large-scale retail trade sector, where we are already present, but through the intermediation of other distributors.

How does large-scale retail trade proposes itself in the Czech Republic, and what will you propose?
Czechs are very interested in a Mediterranean-style diet, such as the Italian one, but the possibility of buying our products is limited to a few very expensive specialised shops. This has persuaded the customers that eating Italian products is reserved for a few. So we opened a cash & carry, which met a great success, and two weeks ago we opened another one, addressed not only to our customers, but to the whole population, and this one, too, is working very well.

Are the products you are selling identical to those we find in Italy?
Yes, we want to differentiate our offer precisely on this aspect, that is to say, we want to maintain our identity. The products are the same, we have not adjusted our offer to the local taste, which is very different. Surely, if we had done so, we would have had a higher turnover, but we chose not to weaken our mission: we are here to do business, but also to propose our culture and show our origins.

Do you propose any courses to explain Italian products?
The presumption that the customer knows and knows how to use our products would be arrogant. That is why in our Cash & Carry we have created an open space with double kitchen, where it is possible not only to enjoy a restaurant, but also to learn how to cook according to Italian tradition. Our philosophy consists in finding recipes that are appreciated and easily replicable at home by purchasing the products proposed by our Cash & Carry. The answer is excellent. In fact, our project is more complex, and includes the activation of cooking and pastry courses. The most important thing is contact with our customers.

Are Cash & Carry points of sale open to anyone in the Czech Republic?
Yes, the combination between VAT-registered Company and private is granted. Our formula has been successful because, by buying directly from Italian producers, we have managed to propose interesting prices, which are usually accessible for either restaurateurs or channel only. So people have begun to understand that it is possible to eat Italian courses spending the fair price, with quality products. I believe that here, in the Czech Republic, we are the first to follow this logic.

How do you select your assortment?

For many years we have always tried to create a food culture, not just to sell food products. It has not been easy, because there are many differences, we had to choose the products that we thought would be more appreciated, gradually adding new ones, proposing a cuisine with the right mix, but without giving in to Italian style. The method works and we will continue in this way also for the future.

What did give you greater satisfaction? What is more difficult to propose? Cheeses: in the Czech Republic they are very appreciated, both very fresh and seasoned. Instead, there is more mistrust towards salami and cold cuts, even if we are slowly inserting them in our assortment. We started from 4-6 basic and quality products, at the base of Italian originality, explaining how they are used in cooking, and then we expanded our basket.

What are the differences in comparison with the Italian
The difference is first of all cultural, concerning the type of products that are used. On the one hand, Czechs want to eat Italian courses, on the other hand, the restaurants have created some hybrids that distort Italian culture. We have tried to change this approach, and recent trends in healthy eating have also helped us as for this. At the end of this ‘war’, I would say that we have succeeded in our intent. The other differentiating element is the fact that restaurateurs are often very young, there is not a long tradition, as it is present in Italy, and the line of restaurants is in fact established by the chefs. Compared to such other Countries as Germany, above all, but also Austria, Spain and France, here they did not make big mistakes and in the end here people do not eat so badly!

In your proposal, do you prefer famous brands or small producers, or both of them?
It depends on the channels: prefers big companies specialised in catering, the big brands work in the large-scale retail trade, but not in the, where the operators consider both quality and yield of the product. In this balance, we are also able to propose small producers, because our platform at Badia Polesine works as a real foreign office, facilitates small businesses that do not own one, and offers us the opportunity to distribute even more original and exclusive products.

As for variety, Italian cuisine is not just lasagna and tiramisu...
Unfortunately, however, the menus here are often very similar. We continue to insist on diversifying, Italian cuisine is regional, and even municipal. We want to avoid becoming the Italian fast food, we distinguish ourselves also proposing different recipes: the cook of our Cash & Carry is Sardinian, the operator who takes care of the cuisine comes from Padua, I come from Verona, but my mother was from Modena and my father from Reggio. The ‘argument’ was born in the family.

Do you deal with all fresh and very fresh products? Fruit and vegetables, too? And what about wine?
As for fruit and vegetables, we started with our Cash & Carry. We take great care of very fresh products, and it is a great satisfaction to see that in summer burrata and stracciatella cheeses, too, are bought, in addition to the classic buffalo mozzarella. Wine has proved to be a very important sector: the Czech Republic is one of the biggest producers of beer, which is perhaps the best in the world, and wine has been a discovery that began in the female world. Growth is vertiginous.

How do you select the labels?
We certainly focus on important brands, but first we look for good value for money. It is useless to offer exclusive wines, which will be purchased by a few customers; for now, we aim at Pinot Grigio, Bardolino, Valpollicella, which we are more likely to succeed in selling. With great patience, we will expand our offer: however, customers are informed and low price does not always convince them, the product must be to their taste.

Is packaging important?
In my opinion, yes, it is: a well-groomed dress always gives a beautiful image, especially for wine, because it is a product that is often given as a present. I insist on careful packaging, even if the Czechs are more practical.

In order to work with you, what must an Italian manufacturer guarantee?
With our experience, we select the types of products that can be immediately appreciated, and those for which it is necessary to work harder. Most of the difficulties are solved thanks to the platform at Badia Polesine, but next to our product we always offer a service, that is to say, delivery within 12-24 hours from the order. In addition, since the Czech Republic is in the European Community, the aspect concerning certifications has become much simpler. Some years ago we had to fight to import Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, because in the local logic they contain heavy metals. Regarding the volumes, when we are forced to do it, we turn to non-Italian products, an example are olives. Our goal, however, would be to propose exclusively Italian products.

Do fakes bother you?
They create confusion, but it is also true that they are meteors that we have seen extinguished rapidly. Czechs, thanks to their natural diffidence, are skilled in their choices, prefer structured companies, and read the labels.

How do you advertise? Do you ask producers for support?
We are now a well-known company, as we have been working in the Czech Republic for 21 years. However, we advertise on the mass media and organise parties and events that combine business and entertainment, to allow tasting our products. By promoting culture, we have opposed the initial distrust, even towards the gifts, as well as excessive attention to price. In addition, many people who travel in Italy now claim to find the same products at home, and this helps us. During the past years, however, the almost total effort has been borne by us; the Italian producers have helped us very little. We participated in Anuga because we think it is a functional investment, but unfortunately Italy in this respect still has a long way to go: only big companies make big proposals, most of the small ones cannot afford these investments yet, which are indispensable in order to offer products abroad and improve customer loyalty.

Do you sell raw materials only or even ready meals?
Until today, we have focused only on raw materials, but we are selecting some companies for ready meals, as women work in the Czech Republic, too, and they have little time to cook. Our ultimate goal, however, is to prepare gastronomy dishes, using our raw materials with specifics that we will define. This would enhance the cultural work carried out over the years.

That's the way it looks

Wine? It must be declined for women
Cheeses? A natural leadership
Cold cuts? A very complex game
Tastes? They are different, but you can ‘convert’ them to Italian taste
Selection? The importer puts his experience at your service
Training? Indispensable, with long-term proposals Let's try to expand the menus at stake
Ready meals? The new frontier
Deliveries? Within 24 hours
Catering? It wants specialised producers
Large-scale retail trade? It wants big brands
Small producers? In synergy with the importer

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