Emmerys is the kind of food “chain” that we would like to see in every country. Run by Per Brun, each outlet is individual, each product high-quality. It is a unique Nordic mix of chic 7-11 meets Dean & Deluca. Yet its success in Denmark is against the odds. The country is hooked on discount food stores. There are 1,150 nationwide, a rise of 65 per cent on 10 years ago. Brun, however, has found success with a maverick, inspirational business plan.
Per Brun doesn’t know what he’s doing. The owner of the Emmerys group of food shops and cafés, and employer of 350 staff, is adamant that when it comes to doing business, he is clueless. Ask about his business model or how he even decides to display his products, and you will get an answer that starts with the phrase, “Well, I know nothing about that.” It’s not that he’s being disingenuous, but Emmerys is a success story built on instinct and doing things Brun’s way.
His winning formula has been to create a business that’s part Dean & Deluca (selling everything we need: great bread and cakes, wine and relishes), part Starbucks (except the coffee is so much better), where the staff are knowledgable and good looking.
He’s cautious, however, about promoting his company. When we tried to track him down, Brun was difficult to get hold of and then when he agreed to be interviewed, insisted he would not be photographed. Yet, when we meet at his HQ in the Valby area of the city, he doesn’t seem difficult. And although he’s coy about his age (“I am closer to 50 than 40, but that’s not much of 100”), it’s not vanity that prevents him being pictured. Rather, he says, it’s a desire to let the products and service do the talking.
“We have never advertised or spent money on PR or marketing. When we open a new shop we never tell anyone, we just let people discover it. I don’t want our business to go too fast,” he says.
First, however, just so you get a picture, the cropped-hair Brun is skinny and fit. He runs two marathons every year but has managed to cut his regular runs to just one a day to the joy of his wife and family. Running is when he thinks about where the company should be heading. His energy also comes through in his speech: he talks constantly and animatedly. He strikes you as a little OCD: “I need everything to be in straight lines, I don’t like any jar to be out of line.”
Brun started his career as a chef, working at restaurants in Paris, Brussels, Beaune and Copenhagen, before returning to his hometown of Århus to open his own venture in 1988. His restaurant, the Prins Ferdinand, was a hit, producing its own cook book. Although he sold the business in 2001, it still thrives today.
It was in Århus that his career really began to take shape, after he bought a 100-year-old patisserie called Emmerys. “It was one of those places that looked good but the cakes were all fake. They used substitutes for flour and butter.”
Brun saw an opportunity to use his chef-restaurateur skills to turn the business around. Not only would he go back to basics, making simple products with great ingredients, but he would also sell the very same ingredients to customers. What’s more, he would treat shoppers like diners, giving them the kind of service that would make even a trip to buy a loaf of bread memorable. Word spread, the customers came, and came again. Today Emmerys has 13 outlets in Copenhagen, five in Århus, and one in Malmö, Sweden (a 30-minute drive from Copenhagen).
As we join the morning traffic, Brun puts the record straight about his fellow countrymen: they are not all quality- loving aesthetes, it seems.
“Denmark’s image is very different from the reality. People think the Danes are so upscale but we don’t even have a good supermarket chain. Ten years ago there were almost no delis, no tradition of eating French food. Today the discount food business just grows and grows.”
Our first stop is the original Copenhagen store in Frederiksberg, which opened in 2001. Inside there are wooden shelves lined with simply packaged products. There’s a small counter where they make coffee and behind which are racks that display the bread made in Valby.
The manager, Mette Marmann, has just returned from a holiday in Cuba and Brun is keen to find out how her trip has been. This personal touch is one of his instinctive management skills. He personally delivers a Christmas gift to every permanent member of staff. Marmann says the bread makes up perhaps 50 per cent of the shop’s trade. It’s made from water, organic flour and sea salt and is thick and spongy. It’s sold by the kilo and at weekends people queue outside the shop waiting for it to open. In Denmark people like their bread fresh, they don’t follow the British example of toasting old bread for breakfast.
These cultural differences are important and Brun admits that he failed to comprehend the nuances of the Swedish market when he opened in Malmö. “That shop has caused a lot of problems, Sweden is such a foreign country. They only want flatbreads. So we had to find a supplier and start selling them there.”
Brun tries to visit all of his suppliers. He’s been to see the coffee farmers he works with in Nicaragua – Emmerys roasts its own beans. Brun went to Tunisia to spend New Year with one of his olive oil suppliers. He knows the orchards where the apples are picked.
Brun would like to take his business to Germany, the US and UK, but there would be problems. And not just over which loaf of bread to stock. Emmerys is Brun, he has no franchises and has not had to seek big backers. This is all his. If you email Emmerys with a comment, then he will read it and respond.
Expansion on this scale would mean loosening the reigns. And in Denmark he has thrived because of local business conditions. There are no Starbucks. The hours aren’t even that bad. The shops close at 19.00 in the week, 15.00 at weekends. Our next stop reveals another benefit of working in Copenhagen.
The shop at Øster Farimagsgade, an area for students and creatives, is on the ground floor of a small house. The store is not much bigger than an old-fashioned pantry. In most European cities nobody would consider such a tiny space viable. Rents here are reasonable, however, especially if like Brun you concentrate your operations in districts outside the centre.
Then it’s back in the car to have a late lunch at his Helleruphus restaurant-shop. This is the Emmerys flagship. The woman sitting at the next table is dressed in fur, her hair coiffured to perfection. Hearing our conversation, and guessing who Brun is, she asks him to open in her home town in the north of the country.
Brun is having none of it: the logistics don’t make sense: “We need to be able to have a minimum of three shops in a town for it to make sense.” Suddenly he sounds like a true number-cruncher and a little of the steeliness you need to be a star in business is finally visible.