Max Graham, owner of Portuguese restaurant Bar Douro in London, has said the lockdown has given him the ability to develop a wine retail division, which he hopes will continue trading long after the coronavirus.
Graham, whose family runs Churchill’s Port, opened the first Bar Douro in Flat Iron Square near London Bridge in 2016. He subsequently opened a second site in the City of London, shortly before Covid-19 took hold.
He said that the lockdown period had been “challenging”, but there were positives to take from the experience so far.
Speaking to the drinks business, he said: “The food and beverage industry has really been innovating at a rate of knots. We’re in a fortunate position of not being too big a company, so we can be nimble, adapt and start up new ideas.
“I don’t know what the retail and restaurant landscape is going to look like in a year. I’d imagine there will be a lot of closures but also you’re going to have a lot of creativity and innovation.
“If we can keep our heads above water for the next year, it will be exciting to have opportunities to move into areas that were too expensive or too competitive in the past.”
Online wine store
He also told db that during lockdown, he’d been able to develop an online wine retail division of his business.
“Ever since we opened Bar Douro we’ve had a bonded warehouse where we’ve stored all of our bonded wines that we import direct. Over the years, we’ve started to import more and more of our list direct from producers,” he said.
“When this [Covid-19] happened, my first thought was ‘we need to liquidate some of this stock’.”
Graham said it was always something he had wanted to do, and he has now developed a separate e-commerce site selling a range of Portuguese wine.
“It has been so brilliant, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a completely different style and way of doing business and it’s been really exciting learning more about e-commerce. The infrastructure was already there because our warehouse was delivering, so it was quite easy to get it up and running,” he added.
While the details remain under wraps, Graham intends to launch a dedicated wine club later this month featuring wines from producers that “are not very accessible in the UK at the moment”.
Graham has sourced many of the wines himself on trips to Portugal, while he has also continued to work with producers when their distributors have ceased trading.
He said is “blown away” but the number of new wines coming out of Portugal at the moment, and feels there’s a lot of unrepresented, good quality producers on the market.
“We 100% intend to continue with the wine shop,” he said. “We were really encouraged by May’s sales, and have development a loyal following. It’s now about trying to cast the net a bit wider and engage with people and teach them about Portuguese wine”.
He is now focusing on creating more content about the featured producers, which include the likes of Uivo, made by winemaker Tiago Sampaio, and Heredade do Rocim in the Alentejo.
“Tiago is really the vanguard of the Portuguese natural wine scene. His wines aren’t super funky, but he is experimental and likes to reintroduce old, traditional techniques, like making Palhete wines in the Douro,” said Graham.
“Heredade do Rocim in the Alentejo have just started bringing in this ‘fresh from amphora’ wine, which comes in one-litre bottle and falls under Nieport’s Nat Cool range. The Nat Cool wines are always gorgeous, quaffable and good value, but this one in particular is just really lovely.”
Graham has reopened his Flat Iron Square site, which has also been offering food via Deliveroo to the local area.
He began bringing team members off furlough in May, creating a simplified menu for delivery as an experiment.
This has allowed the kitchen team to explore Portugal’s “rich sandwich culture”, starting with the “iconic” Bifana (pork shoulder covered in white wine and massa pimentão sauce in bola rustica bread with fennel and savora mustard mayonnaise), which went on the menu last month.
Speaking about the support he received, he said: “In terms of the Small Business Relief Scheme, I couldn’t get over how quickly Southwark Council gave us a grant. It was really impressive. With regards to our rent, we are still in negotiation with our landlords, but they let us defer, which in the short term was a huge relief.”
“It’s now about getting everyone back into the rhythm of coming into work,” he added.