Geoffrey’s of London: a Riviera institution turns 25
In 1990, Geoffrey Garnett was looking for a new challenge in life and identified a business opportunity in Antibes while on holiday there with his family.
The following year, he moved his family to France and took over an existing English food shop, Barney Cox’s failed Ashleys of England, which was in dire financial straits. (Later, Cox would be convicted of killing his mother by setting fire to her house.) In April of that year, Geoffrey opened for business in his first shop, which was a 40 sqm unit in the Galerie du Port in Antibes. He had soon outgrown this space and over the following five years expanded until he was running the business known today as Geoffrey’s of London, from a total of five units in the Galerie du Port.
Believing that location was essential to his business, Geoffrey battled on in these restricting circumstances until a premise on the outside of the Galerie became vacant in 1996. Geoffrey then converted this much larger unit into a 350 sqm supermarket of English products, based as far as possible on an English convenience store. Today, suppliers say that “Geoffrey’s is certainly the largest independently owned UK food shop in France.”
When Geoffrey first started twenty-five years ago, he regularly drove his own van down to the South of France from London, full of stock. He then progressed to only flying visits to London to source and buy the stock that could not easily be obtained in other ways. Suddenly, in 2001, there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK that stopped all imports of meat and dairy products from his usual suppliers. Not one to be easily beaten by mere technicalities, Geoffrey immediately invested in a large fridge van that he drove himself to and from Dublin every three weeks and loaded on the return journey with the only English sausages, bacon and cheese that was to get through legally to the Riviera while the bans were in place.
A year later, convinced that Antibes was a unique location to be able to support a British supermarket successfully due to the large community of working expats, he turned his eye to the idea of wholesale. Wholesale and retail do not necessarily go hand in hand but Geoffrey, as usual, fearlessly made his decision and would not be talked out of it! His vision was to sell British food products to French supermarkets with expats in their vicinity, and to do it with the authority that only a Brit can bring to the subject. And so, in October 2002, he purchased the goodwill of an existing French wholesale company in Antibes, and continued to run the business from his new warehouse.
Unfortunately, Geoffrey’s fun was temporarily disrupted in the autumn of 2005 when he suffered a serious stroke at the age of 59. Typically, he came out of intensive care fighting back and extremely angry at the inconvenience this stroke might cause. Paralysed on one side and unable to walk at all, he was hospitalised for three months. His laptop went with him and he quickly converted to calling the shots via email and by phone. He was told that it would be possible to walk again but not to run. When advised to do two hours of physiotherapy per day, he did five. He would fall over and, undaunted, just get himself up again refusing all offers of assistance. He absolutely refused to have anything to do with a wheelchair, and became the talk of the convalescence home for his fearless bravery.
Now quite able to walk unaided, from choice he continues to do two hours of physiotherapy per day and installed a running – or perhaps walking – machine and an exercise bike in his office. All the medical staff who have helped him agree that he has a mentalité extraordinaire, which is certainly seconded by his loyal staff.
Other than that, Geoffrey no longer jumps in a van and delivers a rush order himself, yet the stroke has done nothing to slow him down or curb his enthusiasm for business. He can still be heard in the warehouse each morning booming out instructions in his big voice.
From a small start back in 1991, he has built his two businesses in his relentless style and Geoffrey’s of London has become a Riviera institution. And while there’s still no progress on Geoffrey speaking French, his physios are now all fluent in English and know all about Southampton football club!
Staff & Customers
The day-to-day running of Geoffrey’s of London is left to Mike Chamberlin, who joined in 2003, and Alice Eddy, on board since 2012. The sales assistants tend to stay a long time, too, enjoying the friendly atmosphere and banter with the many regular customers. While numbers vary according to the season, about a thousand people a week make the trip to Geoffrey’s.
A small proportion of regulars are French, searching usually for some authentic crème anglaise, ginger preserve, or real British teabags. At Christmas, of course, it’s mince pies, Christmas puddings and party crackers they’re after. The younger French customers, like their British counterparts, are more interested in the vast choice of sweets, crisps and cold drinks.
Mostly, though, it’s the resident Anglophone expats, the tourists and visiting crews from Port Vauban who make up the majority of Geoffrey’s clientele. The shop offers them an unbeatable range of British groceries, and supplies many of the largest motor yachts and finest villas on the Riviera with their monthly provisions.
A quick click on the website (www.geoffreysoflondon.com) and you can search through 3000 products listed to place orders for collection from the shop or home delivery, which is free for every order over €50.
Product Range & Deliveries
Whereas once Geoffrey used to trundle back and forth to the UK in his own van, these days, with both wholesale and retail operations to stock, all his deliveries are consolidated in the UK and come across once a week on a large lorry. On average, the warehouse, led by right-hand man Chris Brand, who’s been working there since 2001 (and is on everyone’s speed dial 24/7) receives 15 pallets each week, a mixture of fresh, frozen and dry goods.
As well as food, Geoffrey’s also dedicates a section of the store to DVD rentals and another to the very popular range of English greetings cards.
Unsurprisingly, many of the best sellers are based around the traditional full english breakfast: baked beans, sausages, bacon, PG Tips and Marmite. Cadbury Dairy Milk continues to be a hot item also. In fact, over the last quarter of a century, Geoffrey’s has sold some 80,000 bars since the shop first opened, and shifted more than 300,000 cans of baked beans (over 100 tonnes!), 85,000 packets of sausages and 170,000 packets of bacon.