On the up · 24 January 2018

How a year in South America led two friends to launch their chimichurri brand

Cantina was born from a love of South American cuisine

Taken from local slang for “bar and grill”, Cantina is the South American sauce brand that’s the brainchild of university friends Miles Nurse and Koosha Kowsari.

In 2010, Nurse and Kowsari met during their study year abroad in Argentina. The pair bonded over many hours spent drinking cervezas, eating delicious barbeques and enjoying the local chimichurri sauces in the streets of Buenos Aires.

Their taste for chimichurri lingered, and seven years down the line, the duo have brought Cantina to UK supermarkets. But, as the pals tell Business Advice, the journey hasn’t always been easy.

Who are you and what’s your business?

We’re Koosha Kowsari and Miles Nurse – the founders of Cantina.

Miles: We have recently launched our first product, a chimichurri sauce and marinade, which is a delicious blend of herbs and spices including parsley, garlic and coriander, infused with vinegar and olive oil.

Koosha: You find chimichurri on almost every restaurant table in Buenos Aires. Think of it as Argentina’s answer to ketchup, but much, much better.

Miles Nurse and Koosha Kowsari

How long have you been around for?

Miles: We’ve been working on the product development side for the last 18 months but are only now just launching to market.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Koosha: Cantina was born from our shared love of South America, we actually met each other there during our year abroad studying in 2010.

“Asados” (the Spanish word for barbecues) are a way of life in Buenos Aires, and it was our shared love of the food – particularly the chimichurri – that laid the foundations of our friendship, and ultimately our business.

Miles: We started Cantina with the mission statement that everyone should be able to share in the love of South American food and enjoy those great flavours for themselves.

What was key in terms of getting started?

Miles: After university, we were both working full-time. I was in marketing and Koosha is a qualified accountant. We needed to save the money before we could take the leap and be able to invest the time needed to start the business.

Koosha: We both knew there was a market for chimichurri and South American food in general amongst young British professionals, in part because our friends loved the dishes we were testing on them!

But, when we dived into market trends and the way the wind is blowing in the industry, it gave us the validation we needed to take that leap of faith.

Any major setbacks along the way?

Koosha: Plenty. Although we are both very passionate and involved with food, neither of us had any experience in commercial food production prior to starting Cantina. It meant that each step involved something completely new to learn.

Miles: Finding the right manufacturer was particularly tough. We thought we had found the right guys to help us, but it didn’t work out and we had to start all over again. That set us back about six months.

Describe your marketing technique. What strategies have you used?

Miles: We’ve worked really hard with our design agency, OurCreative, to create a brand that stands out in what is a really competitive food sector.

Cantina’s beer bottle-style packaging harps back to when the brand started out

Our bright colours and beer bottle style packaging harp back to how we started out – storing our chimichurri in used beer bottles in while travelling.

Koosha: The business has been self-funded so far, which means our budget has been very tight. We’ve focused on generating word of mouth, and social media has been the perfect tool to do that.

What’s been the key to pitching to larger retailers?

Koosha: Our business is structured around two avenues to market – trade and retail. Trade has been a big focus so far, with the goal being for restaurants to incorporate chimichurri into their menus and have our bottles on their tables.

In addition, we want short-term brand partnerships to help raise awareness of the brand. Our recipe offers such a unique flavour that it really does go with anything – from burgers and pizzas, to veggie dishes and sandwiches. It means we have a huge market to tap into.

Miles: Retail is now on the agenda, and we’ve been working with some blue-chip stalwarts to help hone our pitch. You only get one shot with buyers, and so we’re waiting for the opportune moment. Ask us again in six months!

What one tip would you give to other food brands starting out?

Miles: We really underestimated how long it would take to get to market. Everything takes a lot longer than you expect, so keep at it and don’t give up.

Koosha: Know your weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to get help to fill in those gaps in your knowledge. People are always keen to help a business that is just starting out.
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In five years’ time, I will be…?

Miles: Hopefully, commanding a huge space on supermarket shelves and throwing a Feria (street party) to celebrate being five years old!

Koosha: My aim is for us to have played a part in inspiring the British public to try all the unique flavours South America has to offer, which is what made us fall in love with the continent in the first place. 

Who are your business idols and why?

Koosha: Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. He changed the whole shopping market, connecting people in the process, and I value his charitable side. With success comes power, and an ability to make positive change. His actions can inspire us to use success for good.

Miles: Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE) – He turned GE into a business behemoth, while his books impart all the knowledge along the way. He’s full of brilliant advice and interesting anecdotes.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.

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