When the only food shop in his village closed, Frank Ago decided it was time to set up an “old-school” local store. Three years on, it has become the heart of the community. Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski reports

Retail, it has to be said, often runs in families. For Hungarian Frankie Ago, however, growing up in his parents’ communist-era local store hardly inspired him to follow the same path.

“My family business in Hungary went bust and my parents got divorced, so I really did not ever want my own business,” he says.

But 12 years after arriving in Britain, and having originally been searching for a nine-to-five job a million miles from his parents’ life, Frankie is an award-winning retailer who has found his life’s passion.

“You know when you go to work, but you’re not working?” he says brightly.

The story revolves around the Surrey village of Shalford where Frankie acquired his first business seven years ago.

“I was fortunate enough to fall in love with this small takeaway sandwich bar, just by the cricket green,” he says. Between two busy roads and in an area that had few amenities, the business case behind the purchase was as clear as the beauty of its surroundings.

“A year after we bought the sandwich shop the only source of food shopping, the nearby petrol station, closed down. There was nothing else, just two toy shops, a gallery and a small post office and fish and chip shop,” he remembers.

His initial response to its closure was to install a chiller in the sandwich shop for a few essential products, but there was “no way” the small 250sq ft shop could cater for the community’s needs.

Frankie believed a true local shop could work in the village and luckily, one resident, a financial ‘angel’ investor, agreed. “With his backing we managed to buy an abandoned building just around the corner and spend £200,000 refitting it. Snooty’s Groceries – to complement the Snooty Fox sandwich shop branding – was born.

The store’s development was done “hand in hand” with Nisa and Frankie credits the company with instilling in him modern retail practices such as “just in time” ordering and offering detailed projections for him to work with. This is vital for a small 900sq ft site where compact shelves and a tiny store room mean even bestsellers like Kellogg’s Cornflakes can only be kept four at a time.

Another key element to the success was keeping prices low and taking advantage of any of the group’s promotions: “With our position we could have quite easily taken advantage and charged extra. We wanted to be like an old-school village shop, affordable and down to earth,” Frankie says.

Nisa stickerAnd though he is adamant that none of this was done for the money, the results have been impressive: “We had a survey to find out how well the store should do for the area it’s in. In the first year we did 50% more than this figure and by the end of the second year we had beaten the four-year projection.”

But Frankie and his wife Adriann – who manages the store while he looks after the rest of the business – are by no means the only ones to benefit. Firstly, between the coffee shop-cum-sandwich bar and the store, the Snooty Fox mini-empire employs 30 local staff.

As well as this, however, villagers have benefited by having somewhere to socialise. “When we first opened up, next door neighbours who had lived together for ages were meeting each other for the first time in years because before they had to get in their car and drive somewhere else to shop,” Frankie says.

“It’s brought the community together and the village has got a lot younger because young families can come out for a cup of coffee. House prices have gone up by at least 5%,” he adds.

So it’s hardly surprising Snooty’s Groceries won Independent Store of the Year Award from Nisa in April.

“I went to a presentation by former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King when we were in Vienna for the Nisa conference,” Frankie remembers. “He said the only way to fight the supermarkets is by being special, where they can’t be like you.”

On this score, he’s confident: “They cannot be Frankie, they cannot be Adriann and they cannot be Snooty Fox.”