About Stefano and Naoko Vallebona.
Stefano, your family has been a business since 1890, what has changed since then?
We have exactly the same philosophy as when we started out. The highest quality ingredients, sourced from family business suppliers who are very proud of their produce. The relationship I have with all my producers is exceptional, we have a mutual respect for each other. The biggest change has been importing to the UK.
How did the idea of Vallebona come about?
I am the second of 4 brothers. My mother has always been obsessed with feeding us the best produce she could find. When I was 4 or 5, I was bigger than my older brother Andrea, so I started helping my mother with the shopping. We would buy our fruit and veg from people’s houses, they had organic plots in their back yard and would sell some on a very small scale. Same with the fish, we would knock on the fisherman’s door. She taught me to buy super high quality produce at a fraction of the shop price.
In the summer I’d spend one month in Genoa with my grandmother Amalia, and she would tell me really interesting stories about my Grandfather Edigio (my dad’s dad) travelling by horse-back or walking for days to reach cheesemakers and producers around Nuoro and Sassari in Sardinia. He was a very successful businessman, and used to trade exclusive ingredients like bottarga, cheese and oils. He used to meet his producers every year to bring them money to finance their campaign, in return he would get back Pecorino cheese which he would trade to Rome, Puglia, Spain and France via his on fleet of sailing vessels.
It is these two things have changed my approach to sourcing food for my family and my customers. When I set up my food business in 1997 I started selecting items for a few really talented chefs, as if I was putting together a dinner party for some friends, it is from this I started my own range.
Has the market changed since you started in 97?
Absolutely. I was the first Italian to trade in Borough market. It had a lovely local feeling until the 2000 economy boom! People’s eating and drinking habits changed. They were spending more. Italian food wasn’t just pizza, pasta and cappucino. We were already at the top end of the market, but competition was new to us. It was in 2000 my wife joined the company.
Naoko, what has changed about the business since you joined?
The work ethos is more organised. Nothing is left unfished. Italians are laid back compared to Japanese, we are much more rigid.
Has your Japanese heritage influenced the company?
Yes. We have since introduced the platters, which are stunningly displayed. Gift wrapping is engrained in our culture too. So our displays and presentation is always immaculate. It comes naturally to me to offer exceptional customer service and a welcoming environment.
What is your background before joining Vallebona?
Originally I dreamed of being a garden designer, but when I met Stefano I was working in an Interior design studio in Camden.
I recognised he was quite unusual, not just an Italian selling salame. He had great qualities and passion, and I could tell he had a lot more to offer.
I started to help once or twice a week, then it became a permanent thing. I realized I could transfer my skills into a food environment.
In 2003 we got married and I became a business partner.
Do you both cook at home?
Of course. We love to eat. We cook the same way we want to eat.
London is the ideal place for any foodie. There are so many choices and nationalities, and we love to cook them all. We don’t really follow recipes, we open the cupboard and create something from the ingredients we find.
We always host dinner parties for friends. It is in both our cultures to entertain, our kids are constantly asking who’s coming this week for dinner.
This is how the idea for dinners at Vallebona came about, and we host it exactly like we would around the table at home.
You have a warehouse in Wimbledon, what made you decide to open the doors to the public?
It was around 2003. We were invited to show our produce at a stinking rich private house. The weather was horrible, we didn’t make any sales, we had to hire a van and pay for staff. It was a very disappointing and unwelcoming event, and we just thought, we can’t do this anymore. On the drive back we had an idea to open our doors once a month, which then became weekly, and now daily. Revenge is sweet, but we will never forget how it all started.
You have 2 sons. Do you want them to continue the family business?
It would be nice because they are so different. But at this current day, to be able to succeed you need to know it all, not just the product but the ever changing market and a strong business knowledge. We have created this and they can apply more to it. We absolutely love what we do and hope they find something they love equally. They have a lot of the world to see first!