International Women's Day: La Fromagerie

Q&A with Patricia Michelson, founder of La Fromagerie.

 Tell us about your role and your business…

I like to think I am the Godmother in the business. The person everyone can go to for advice or counsel, but who also oversees the buying of the products and the quality of the products from the bread to the cheese, to the wine. I liaise with every department and I am a visible presence in the shops nearly every day. I do try to take a bit of a back seat now, and I like to see how the team goes about their day-to-day duties. I like being involved and I love talking to the team and discussing how to manage stock, how to make it look inviting to the customers, and also make sure they know all about each item we sell.

Tell us about your career journey so far.

I left school in 1964 with just a few certificates in Shorthand, Typing, English, and Commerce. I didn’t like school and I certainly didn’t like the way pupils were treated, and when I was summoned to the headmaster’s office he wanted to know why I was leaving as he thought I should stay and take GCE’s, but I said that I wanted to get out of the system and even when he said I could be Head Girl I almost laughed at the absurdity of it. I said my education would be in the wider world and I would learn and progress on my own merits. Lofty words for a 16-year-old but it was the early 60’s and I’d read a lot of books by authors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and I wanted to ‘experience life’!

Little did I know it would take another 27 years before I had the courage to start my own business. I had seen so many women through the years, demoralised, undervalued as well as underpaid at work. Even with Women’s Lib and all that nonsense it still didn’t crack the surface; the only way forward for me was to start my own business. It was a risk and I sacrificed a lot to get it going and keep it going.

My husband, Danny, absolutely understood that I wanted to be my own boss but had grave misgivings given I had no formal training in running a business, or a real understanding of the main element of the business, cheese, would I have the ability to make a go of it. I remember only too well his words ‘do you think we’ll make any money with this idea?’ to which I said with great positivity ‘of course.’ In a couple of years, we’ll be all singing and dancing. The one thing I had on my side was that I was 43 years old and had many different jobs under my belt – all secretarial and PA roles – and was a sort of Jill Of All Trades. I knew a bit about accountancy, legal work, advertising, public relations, theatre and film. I was well-rounded! The boss with his name on the door is only as good as his PA and Secretary as they run his office and his life!

I felt ready to do something completely different from what I had known all my working life, and do it well and with a clear and honest approach; I wanted to change the way people could go shopping and introduce something simple like cheese into the realms of sophistication. I am really pleased that I was that naïve to think it was all possible, but it is that clear and simple truth that has kept me going all these years. I speak from my heart as well as thinking with my head.

Have you faced any obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your business?

Where do I start!? Of course, especially since I was starting a very niche business in a sector that had no other references to go by, and was being run by a woman who had no previous experience. I would contact a cheese business supplying continental cheeses and ask to meet them to discuss my project only to be told that as I had no experience or contacts, I would not last 6 months. Again, if I had been younger I would have crumbled; being more mature I just got angry and more determined to succeed. There were simple steps I took, ones that I would have used if I was trying to imagine the backstory of a play and get into the life of the characters. I would find books to read, and one that was recommended was FRENCH CHEESE by Patrick Rance. I’d gone to Books for Cooks and Clarissa Dixon Wright was the Manager at that time and I asked her for a good book on French cheese and she said that was the best book ever written. It is still my bible, and I tell all my cheese team to get a copy to understand and acquaint themselves with the history, geography and traditions of French cheese.

The bank of course would not give me any money other than a small overdraft; so other ways and means had to be sought and dipping into savings and downsizing our home had to be how we could move forward. By this time Danny was starting to get more involved and we made a pact to push this as far as we could. The Garden Shed housed the cheese and then I started a Market Stall in Camden Lock at the weekends. Once we got our first little shop things started to move fast and we were riding high and seeing just how popular our little business was becoming.

After 8 years I wanted to expand and went for a lovely space in a side street in Smithfield only to be turned away very abruptly as the business was headed by a woman and I was not deemed to be a safe tenant. Just so you know; both the man who gave me 6 months before going under, and the man who said I was not a good enough or strong enough business to be his tenant, a few years down the line came to the shop in Marylebone and apologised and then congratulated me. They wanted to come to the shop and let me know; I didn’t feel anything, neither elation or sweet revenge, I just felt so sad that they had both had such a negative stance towards my business and me and would it ever really change?

Which women have inspired you most throughout your life?

I loved reading about Anita Roddick and also Laura Ashley as well as Barbara Hulanicki (Biba) as they all started from their ‘kitchen sink’ and I started from my garden shed. There is also a link in history to women and cheese insofar as women make the cheese while the men tend the fields. In the past, the cheese was made in the kitchen and could be tended through the day allowing the woman to look after the house, the children, the cottage garden etc., while the milk warmed and then turned into curds before being made into cheese. It is a slow and precise work, much like the way La Fromagerie’s day is run. As you become better at it you can grow and develop new skills – it is not a race, it is rather a steady journey with many interesting stops along the way.

What made you choose Marylebone Village as a destination for your restaurant/store?

My family moved to Marylebone in 1965 and I knew the area very well, especially the shortcuts through the alleys and streets from Baker Street to the West End and Soho. I used to cut through Moxon Street every day; I loved the old building with the big doors. However, being a tenant was a wish but something I had not pursued as I thought La Fromagerie was not ritzy enough for the West End; although secretly I did think it was!

One day the Howard de Walden Estate approached me and asked if I’d like to have a shop in Marylebone. I said I’d like to be on Moxon Street in the shop with the big warehouse doors - I said I wanted to make Moxon Street a food destination. The rest, as they say, is history.

What do you love most about being positioned in Marylebone Village?

Marylebone Village is very much a live, work, play area; and it has everything you’d want right in the heart of London. Schools, green spaces, churches that are really part of the community and not just for worship, great restaurants, shops, history in its architecture and streets. There is so much to see and do and so many of my customers who live around here have been in residence for many, many years – when I walk down the street there is always someone who stops to talk to me or wave and say hello. They say that I and La Fromagerie are an integral part of the Marylebone Village vibe and I can see what they mean. Where you get your daily bread, cheese and other groceries is part of your life and if it’s a shop where they know your name and chat, then it really does become part of your day.

What does this year's IWD campaign, “Inspire Inclusion”, mean to you?

I have been fighting for that all my working life! I remember going to work in 1968 wearing a trouser suit and being told to go home and change. I refused and said that it was a very smart trouser suit and not casual. They couldn’t sack me as I made a very forceful and sensible argument. However, the person who told me to go home and change was a woman and I was furious that she felt it necessary to show me up, when in fact, she was showing herself up. Woman have, for years, been indoctrinated to be subservient and I knew that as I was a secretary and we were glorified servants to the boss who was a man. The only time I had a woman boss she was amazing but knew that her position was never going to go further than middle management. When I decided to move on she was delighted and said she hoped I would make my mark. It would take many years down the line, but here I am, telling my story.

How do you “inspire Inclusion” within your business?

I work with a lot of women in the business and my fellow director, Sarah Bilney has been by my side for 21 years and she also has a shareholding too. She is the yin to my yang but we have very similar ideals when it comes to running the business. We are all in it together, we have a tier system for remuneration which is the same for both men and women. It is all based on performance and there is an open door to grow and develop your skills. We have group meetings whether departmental or with the whole team and communication is key although it is sometimes hard to get everyone on board. La Fromagerie is a family business and they all know that I am here every day on the shop floor as well as in the office or warehouse. The only true way to get the best out of your working day is to feel you’ve done something worthwhile; not just in the work you’ve done but also your fulfilment.

I know what it’s like to be a mother and not be able to work because I am held back by not having childcare – back in the day that was when I started a little home/office business typing up letters and manuscripts. However, these days, more advances are being made to assist women in the workplace and the government has to help businesses to be able to get the most out of their female workforce as well as giving women the tools to strive and push forward. I have always applied myself and pivoted as and when needed but that’s probably due to the fact that I started my work life very young and had little to no expectations until I decided that I could be more, but that comes with being strong enough to go and do it.

Based on your own experience, what advice would you have for women wanting to get into your industry, or start a business of their own?

With all the rich tapestry of social media, online information and business courses available, I would say get a grounding in the basics of how to run a business. You need to be savvy as well as being innovative and creative.

Research what you want to do, and look at other small businesses and how they are run or how they have set up. Start small, with as few overheads as possible to see if the business has ‘legs’, and then slowly grow. Don’t be in too much of a rush. The joy of business is the journey and the ups and downs and learning as you go along – don’t be in such a hurry as to miss those moments.

I’ve always said I wouldn’t sell something in my shop unless I wanted to eat it or drink it myself; it is my choice really and I want my customers to enjoy it and I want those who work with me to get the La Fromagerie ethos too. Be true to what you are doing and believe in it. The moment you don’t or you find yourself not totally engaged then think again if it’s right for you or not.

What is your favourite song to make you feel empowered?

I listen to a lot of jazz and I love all sorts of music from Hip Hop to Classical, but Miles Davis is one of my favourites and Milestones is my signature tune. My husband Danny piped up one day when we were driving to a party and the tune came on the radio. He turned to me and said … that song reminds me of you… every day…. Moving forward and being optimistic and hopeful. I remember I became a bit tearful because he could see me and he knew me like no-one else. I miss him every day.