Tag Archives: COVID-19

How have Wine Merchants adapted to COVID?

A lot has happened since the first lockdown was announced on 23rd March and as this is being written, we are about to enter a second national lockdown on November 5th. It has taken a good degree of ingenuity and resourcefulness to navigate the different tiers and rules associated with these for a consumer, yet alone a business owner, and it will continue to pose challenges for operators throughout the country.

Whilst our On Trade cousins have been incredibly unfortunate not to be fully open for business for several months, Off Trade wine outlets have been permitted to carry on operating. We are truly grateful for the support of all our customers in these uncertain times, and in tune with this special edition of Assemblage, we wanted to highlight a few of those customers and how they have managed to thrive in the face of adversity over this year.

 

Loki Wines

Despite being able to open their premises when the Prime Minister said wine shops were on the permitted list, owner, Phil Innes, decided to keep the Loki Wines shops closed until 4th July to focus on their online offering. At the beginning of the year he had already put the wheels in motion to make his online sales a key part of Loki’s strategic plans, so he was well placed to capitalise on the situation; but its success has been phenomenal and what Phil described as an ‘insignificant’ part of their business now represents 30% of his sales. Central to this success was the ability to adapt to, and market online tastings via social media.

By pairing up with a local deli, Phil has been able to provide a wine with food tasting, often featuring winemakers as an added dimension. Free same day delivery for the produce being tasted is offered in the local Birmingham area, and next day via courier for those living further afield. The tastings have been a roaring success and they have regularly sold between 200-300 tickets for each session to participants all over Europe – even as far away as Canada!

Business has been brisk and never one to stand still, Phil is close to opening his third site, saying:  “Although online has become a really important part of the business, I still believe that the core business in the future will be in the bricks and mortar. This is because what sets us apart from online is our ability to hand-sell every bottle to the customer, and give them an experience in a store that starts the journey to enjoying the wine”

 

Wine Down

Wine Down in the Isle of Man was faced with closing their premises for On trade sales and the prospect of losing a significant amount of turnover, so owner, Anne Harrison, lost no time in emailing a daily changing menu and wine offering to her extensive database for delivery the next day; it became a vital part of her income during those initial few months. So much so that she was able to retain all kitchen staff and floor crew for taking, preparing and packing the orders for delivery with her husband and son – who was an enforced return from university – in support, to undertake the deliveries.

Emboldened by the success of the Off Trade wine sales and in preparation for re-opening, she grabbed the opportunity take over the next door premises, and create a dedicated shop and bar area. It would be easy to suggest that it is business as usual on the Isle of Man because they have no cases of COVID, but as business and leisure visitors are not permitted, and events like the TT races were cancelled, footfall is significantly down which has had an impact, so they need to be as rigorous as ever in their pursuit of a great wine offering and service for their residents to maintain their position as the best wine retailer on the island.

 

Love Cheese

As the name would suggest Love Cheese is first and foremost a cheese shop, but their wine sales have trebled since the pandemic. Whilst they have stayed open throughout, Harry Baines explained that they were forced to reduce their opening hours in order to cope with the increase in deliveries. Love Cheese is another example of an operator rapidly adapting to the online tasting platform; they decided to advertise their cheese and wine tastings via Facebook in order to gain traction quickly.

Their customers would receive a box of 5 wines – decanted into smaller format bottles – and five cheeses, sufficient for two people. They began by offering weekly tastings, selling 46 boxes for the first one and 150 boxes for the second – given the labour intensive nature of the preparation, it prompted them to conduct the tastings once a fortnight instead. They sold 285 boxes for the latest tasting in November, so there are no signs that the interest is subsiding, and Harry believes this is a direct result of “people looking for distraction and entertainment”. On the back of the confidence he has built with his customer base, the café which was always attached to the shop has morphed into a wine bar which was beginning to do well ahead of the second lockdown. He is convinced this new look bar will do well once again, as customers crave a return to social interaction and a normal life.

 

This is not an exhaustive list and there are too many examples to mention everyone, but we trust these real-life scenarios can bring a ray of light, a glimmer of hope and the prospect of better days for all of us!

Has COVID-19 caused lasting damage to the Restaurant Sector and will it ever truly recover?

The short answer is yes, it will recover, and it will do so in a way that will bring pride to the entire nation. This might seem a little unwarranted, but I do need to point out at this early stage that I am an eternal optimist. What makes me so confident, put simply: I believe in the people involved. Our industry is built around the people that work within it; whether it be the visionary owners, the tireless managers or the charismatic front of house team that make our frequent visits so memorable. It’s the People that give me Hope.

I am writing this article a couple of days after the second lockdown to our industry was announced. Like thousands of operators around the country this came as a crushing blow. I woke up the following Monday morning, took the kids to school and my journey home took me past the large stainless steel vats of the Wiston winery on the A24. Let’s just say that the wines are far better than the location! For some reason I made a quick decision to pull off and see if the head winemaker, and my good friend, Dermot Sugrue was around. Not only is Dermot one of the country’s leading winemakers, he’s also a force of nature. Spending time with him is like getting a shot of adrenaline, and it just so turns out that on this morning he was just the tonic I needed.

Over the next 30 minutes he danced around the various vats and barrels extracting base samples from a tap or, in some cases, a large syringe. He was not worried about our current plight, he was excited about the eventual bounce back and what the customers would make of his new vintage – ‘The Trouble with Dreams’ 2015. For the time I was with him I completely forgot about COVID. It was a brilliant impromptu Monday morning and without me sounding too corny, my wee Irish friend gave me hope.

I then got home and started to think about our industry and what else should give us optimism for the future. One important fact to remember is there are huge swathes of the population who can’t cook restaurant quality food at home (and long may this continue)! Restaurants, when allowed to open, will always be busy because guests crave that unique experience, don’t they?

Another reason for optimism is seeing how the trade has adapted during the pandemic. During the first lockdown some of our customers turned their restaurants into wine shops and started peddling wine across their local community. We have one such customer from Winchester who ended up doing up to 20 deliveries a day out of the back of his estate car. Absolute madness, but utterly inspiring!

The ‘finish at home’ concept was also born, which enabled customers to create restaurant quality dishes in the comfort of their own kitchen. Even Michelin starred chefs such Michael O’Hare got in on the act – I am sure that some menus were easier to finish than others! Sunday Roasts also got the delivery treatment. I mean, come on, what is wrong with people…? They must really hate doing the washing up.

Zoom was also being beamed straight into customers’ homes in the form of online tastings and live cookery classes. The ability to diversify was inspiring, but was any of it profitable? Absolutely not, but it really wasn’t about that. The aim was to keep their brands alive and stay within the head space of their customer base.

Seeing this unfold gave me immense hope, so when the trade reopened on the 4th July I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. And the bounce back didn’t disappoint – it was huge. Central London aside, the population of this country turned up in their droves to support their local pubs and restaurants. I think we were all proud to be a part of our fantastic industry.

Then the tier system crept in and literally took the wind out of people’s sales! Tier 2: welcome to no man’s land – you’re open but who’s coming in? You’re hoping for a Valentine’s Day style service every night of the week and then good old family time at weekends. It’s just never going to happen, so maybe the second lockdown, with furlough support, is the lesser of two evils?

How much more can the hospitality industry take and has permanent damage been caused? You have to say for those unfortunate operators that haven’t survived, absolutely, but for those who have it’s probably made them stronger. Operators have had to really look at every facet of their business and how different aspects can be streamlined, therefore making them more efficient. Longevity has to be the common goal.

One thing is for sure. When this has all been put to bed, the hospitality industry will enter a boom period like no other. A period that is prolonged steady growth, rather than the boom and bust cycle we often see. In my opinion this industry is just too dynamic to be held down. The general public’s love affair with the restaurant sector appears to have been galvanised, which I hope will continue for a long time to come.

Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder

– Joe Wadhams,
Business Development Director