Philippe Olivier, the master of cheeses
Fromager affineur Philippe Olivier is known the world over. He's also a shrewd businessman.
Philippe Olivier, a name often heard on the radio, in the mouth of a certain Jean-Pierre Coffe. The latter sees this Boulonnais by adoption as one of France's greatest cheese ripeners.
This notoriety makes Philippe Olivier smile, as he continues to talk about his local products with the same passion and simplicity. Yet today, his business is flourishing all over the world. His cheese buffets take him all over France, when he's not dressing up as a lecturer or president of the Club des fromages ...
Cheese in the genes
"I practically fell into cheese as a child", confides the cheesemaker with amusement. Born in Normandy, where Camembert is famous, he grew up in Dieppe, where his family's grocery and cheese store flourished. "I was doing a BEP in accounting. I wasn't thinking of working in the world of cheeses". And just as today he's keen to take the time to refine his products, his passion for cheese has matured: "I went to the creamery and cheese-making school in Paris in 1969, then spent two years travelling the roads of France as a journeyman. From there my passion for regional products was born.
Former butcher's shop becomes cheese factory
In 1974, he set up shop on rue Thiers in Boulogne-sur-Mer. "I bought an old butcher's shop. I started with no customers, just this debt.
The cellars are just waiting for the cheeses to be matured using traditional techniques. However, nothing is certain. " I'll always remember the lady who walked past my store and, in dialect, gave me six months before closing the curtain," he recalls. Thirty-three years later, he's still there...
In the early days, the young cheesemaker wondered where he was going to get his supplies. "I could go to wholesalers and buy basic cheese" Attached to products with character, he began to criss-cross the roads of France in search of small producers. " For ten years, I devoted my weekends and vacations to finding cheeses with real taste.
His approach did not go unnoticed by manufacturers. "Producers have sometimes looked at me strangely, because I'm prepared to pay a fair price for their work. I want my Maroilles to be made with Flemish cow's milk, I want the cheese to be ladled..."
The beginnings of export
Philippe Olivier has found his suppliers, but now he has to sell. As is often the case in his career, he's going to have the idea that makes the difference. "Cheese dishes are rarely featured in restaurants. So I thought I'd contact local restaurateurs and offer them a varied, well-decorated platter. In the evening, I would book a table and watch how customers behaved when they passed this prominently displayed tray. 80% took cheese."
The par works and its cheeses are found on the best tables in Boulogne,e-sur-Mer.
In 1980, two Michelin-starred English restaurants called on him: "From two, I grew to 25 establishments. Then we moved into Belgium, Luxembourg... I was worried, 20% of my business was based on exports. It was flattering, but at the same time, things were moving very fast."
Today, Philippe Olivier looks back: over 55% of his business is export-oriented.
"Everyone was going to Japan. I wanted to be there too. Only, I didn't have much money, even just to pay for the ticket." However, his ideas and initiative were to prove decisive. He took up his pen, wrote to the Japanese ambassador and, a few months later, the first gourmets in the Land of the Rising Sun were clamoring for him after the series of lectures he had given there.
From embassy to embassy, from major restaurant chain to major restaurant chain, Philippe Olivier now exports his cheese to Singapore, Dubai, Qatar ...
However, this success doesn't turn his head. What he loves most of all is talking to customers in his various stores and discovering new producers.
"Eating good food doesn't mean eating luxury food. I may sell my cheeses for 15-20% more than others, but they come from the terroir and I pay a fair price to the people who make them with respect. We don't mind saying it again. I've always been obsessed with explaining my differences."
Philippe Olivier's career
Philippe Olivier cheeses sold in Japan
Philippe Olivier's son Romain joins the company
A passion shared by his son
Philippe Olivier's obsession with explaining his love of cheese over and over again has become even more intense since his son Romain, just 24, chose to join him. "He went to the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Tours. There were lots of other things he could have done, but he preferred to take part in the adventure. I'm as proud of him as a father can be." For a moment of confidence, the company boss gives way to the father, discreetly.
Business soon caught up with the Olivier fathers and sons. "Romain speaks English fluently and is already involved in numerous conferences around the world. From now on, he will also be interested in the company's organization and our positioning in new technologies."
Former butcher's shop becomes cheese factory
Philippe Olivier is also thinking more and more about a project close to his heart. "I'd like to find a farmhouse about ten kilometers from Boulogne-sur-Mer. I'd like to rebuild the cellars and workshop there. Why not add a library with books on cheese?"
The boulonnais cheesemaker's head is always buzzing with ideas, so he came up with the idea of creating a beer that would go well with cheese.
This gave rise to "bière à frometon". The word frometon is a nod to my father, who was also a cheesemaker." It's only a short step from beer to cider. In a corner of his mind, Philippe Olivier dreams of opening a new boutique where farmhouse ciders would rub shoulders with cheeses. For the time being, however, this business leader, who can't stop talking about his passion, is also thinking about making time for his duties as vice-president in charge of trade at the Boulogne Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as his role as president of the soccer club's partners' network.
In the midst of this tight schedule, the man also knows how to savor good things. I don't smoke," he says, "my only luxury is to drink Saint Julien sparingly.
As with his cheeses, Philippe Olivier believes in giving things time.
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