Sitting at a Paris bistro one day in 1997, Marc Refabert and a British friend, David Nutt, were chatting about Nutt's upcoming trip to the U.S. As usual, he would be taking along a bag of French cheeses, gifts for American friends hungry for specialties such as Epoisses and Reblochon that were hard to find outside France. Surely in the Internet age, the two mused, there had to be an easier way to get cheese across the Atlantic.Et voilà--fromages.com was born. Based in the Loire Valley city of Tours, it is one of the few European e-tailing startups that has thrived as an independent business. That's due largely to the savvy of Refabert, 40, who has built a loyal worldwide following, with three-fourths of his customers in the U.S. Fromages.com and its English-language counterpart, cheese-online.com, offer secure online ordering, overnight delivery to most U.S. destinations, and extra touches such as wine recommendations and tips on the order in which cheeses should be tasted (hint: Save the Roquefort for last). "When people come to our site, they are not just looking to buy cheese," Refabert says. "They want to be part of this classic French experience."
Refabert admits he didn't know much about cheese before he started fromages.com. But he had many years of marketing experience, having sold everything from toys to photocopying equipment. Even so, French banks didn't buy his business plan. So he recruited Nutt and seven other partners, who together raised $150,000 to start the business. While he won't divulge earnings, Refabert says fromages.com has been profitable since 1999, and sales will top $600,000 this year. Orders average $70 to $90, including delivery. Analysts say Refabert could easily sell out to a bigger e-merchant or to a traditional retailer looking to expand its online offerings. But for now, he's not interested. Perhaps success, like good cheese, improves with age.