August 17, 2017

Passion for quality plus tradition drives specialty retailer growth

Rosalie Rotolo-Hassan started serving customers in her parents’ food business at Adelaide’s Central Market when she was just 12 years old – and launched her own export business at 18.

Bottega Rotolo is a South Australian-based premium food and wine merchant that’s been expanding interstate since 2009. Business View speaks to founder and owner Rosalie Rotolo-Hassan about the development and evolution of her business, and her insights into succeeding in the specialist food sector.

It would be fair to say that Rosalie Rotolo-Hassan, owner and founder of Bottega Rotolo, has food in her blood. When she was growing up, her parents had a shop in Adelaide’s Central Market, and she helped serve customers there from the age of 12.

“It’s amazing what you learn from conversations around the dinner table – not just business acumen, but the confidence to do things,” she says.

It didn’t take long for Rotolo-Hassan to put that confidence and acumen to work, but perhaps not exactly how she might have imagined. “It’s a long story,” she laughs.

After finishing school, she began an economics degree, but “wasn’t enjoying it at all”. Her parents sold their stall at the markets, and went to Italy. On their travels, they happened to stop in Singapore, where a chance conversation in upmarket gourmet grocer, Jason’s, led to an invitation to export Australian product to Singapore.

“So my parents came home and gave me this business card and I put a whole group of products together – all sorts of eclectic things from people I knew through Mum and Dad’s shop … and they ordered! I hopped on a plane and went and did my first tastings in-store, which no one was doing then.”

It was 1992 and, at just 18, Rotolo-Hassan had started an export business.

Every product, every business, has a story

 Today that business is a wholesaler and retailer that employs as many as 50 staff. It has a retail store and head office in Adelaide, as well as distributors in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart.

Rotolo-Hassan describes the business’s growth into retail from its wholesale beginning as almost inevitable.

“Having a retail background [from the Central Market], there was no way I was going to have these beautiful products only in a box in a warehouse. So I took them out of a box and put them on a shelf,” she says. “It was an opportunity for people to taste and learn the stories behind the products.”

It’s there that Bottega Rotolo has had its niche from the start, providing high quality products with a history and cultural tie. In a global market with so much available online there’s still a personal food experience to be had.

Rotolo-Hassan sees her business as distinctive. “Competition is not an issue. We may well have a competitor in our cheese sector or our pasta sector, but there aren’t other businesses that do the variety and quality that we do, all in the one place.”

Growth on the agenda

 Bottega Rotolo continues to grow and expand its presence nationally. This year it entered a partnership to supply its exclusive range to Australian supermarket Foodland, and also has an annual contract with Qantas to supply Australian and imported cheeses, quince jelly and crackers on domestic and international flights.

“We’re supplying quite a few national businesses and offering services such as portioning products that value add. Our future market is putting our products on shelves across Australia, for exposure and for growth in turnover. When you commit to suppliers for annual sales growth, you can get the best price.”

Of course, building the business to where it is today has not been without challenges. Managing staff and cash flow are the two most significant, Rotolo-Hassan says.

“You do find and create amazing relationships, but not everyone will grow with the business. And cash flow. There’s a lot of upfront costs. And a lot of shipping costs – until you’ve done it for quite a few years, you don’t appreciate how important stock management is, the difference between profit versus sales.”

For anyone interested in the specialty food business, she stresses the importance of finding their point of difference – and having courage.

“If you’ve got the courage and faith in your own ability, there’s always room.”