A survival of the fittest scenario is playing out in the UK on-trade at the moment, and venues are being forced to adapt in order to stay afloat. With restaurants and bars in England currently shuttered for a month save for takeaways and deliveries, a number of sites have been finding creative ways to keep cash coming in while they ride the second wave of the pandemic.
Aussie-born, north London-based Alexis Noble turned her neighbourhood restaurant, Wander in Stoke Newington, into a bottle shop during the first lockdown and has been running the venue as a wine store ever since.
“I closed Wander to guests a month prior to the second lockdown as I could see it was heading that way and wanted to prepare to transition to a takeaway service again. I had already decided to do it before the 10pm curfew was announced. We did three services with masks during the curfew and it wasn’t what I wanted Wander to be.
“It’s too much stress and risk for my staff, and by transitioning to takeaway, I can guarantee them hours and we aren’t living without he constant anxiety of getting a news alert saying we have to close again,” says Noble, who isn’t planning on reopening Wander as a restaurant again until next March. “If things improve before that’s amazing, but I’d rather plan for the worst case scenario.”
Noble received an off licence in April and quickly set about launching the Wander x Wine shop, which sells artisan wines, craft beer, cider and meal kits. Keen to pay homage to her Aussie roots, she used lockdown as an opportunity to begin directly importing Australian wines from the likes of Dormilona and Borachio, giving her a point of difference in an increasingly competitive market.
Understanding the importance of exclusive listings, Noble teamed up with Bobby Fishel of Bunch Wine Bar in Liverpool, and between them they list 24 wines from six producers that you won’t find anywhere else in the UK. She has also teamed up with Gus Gluck of GB Wine Shippers on bespoke six packs of Australian wines.
She’s hoping for a surge in sales in the run-up to Christmas. “There is heaps of potential for retail leading up to Christmas and New Year’s. We need to try to make the next two months as profitable as possible and hopefully the real recovery can begin in spring,” she says. “A lot of my customers are Australians, so they are familiar with the winemakers I list, and with many of them trapped in the UK over Christmas, they’re desperate for a taste of home right now.”
While wine is the main focus at Wander for now, Noble hasn’t turned her back on her culinary roots, and offers a different five-course meal kit each week through the shop that customers can prepare at home with minimal effort. Making the most of the festive season, she’s currently planning special occasion meal kits for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. To avoid food waste, only meal kits that are pre-ordered online are prepared and sent out for delivery.
While the wine shop and meal kits are helping her through this tricky trading period, Noble admits that this new business model has a shelf life. “Selling wine at retail is a way to ensure cash flow and support my suppliers and winemakers, but Wander is an A3 premises with rent and fixed costs that reflect that. The retail margin on wine is quite low, and a space like mine is not designed to house a purely retail business,” she says.
For sommelier Sandia Chang, the first lockdown gave her the chance to launch a venture she’d long toyed with doing but hadn’t found the time to – an online grower Champagne shop, which, sadly, coincided with the permanent closure of Bubbledogs, a quirky hotdog and grower Champagne venue on Charlotte Street that had been going strong since 2012 until the pandemic hit. The venue is also home to Chang’s husband James Knappett’s two Michelin-starred Kitchen Table.
“Bubbledogs was a great space, but with its business model it was very hard to predict how it would bounce back from the pandemic. We were looking to expand Kitchen Table to incorporate a lounge area, so in the end it made sense to use the space occupied by Bubbledogs,” Chang says.
Launching at the end of July, like Wander x Wine, in addition to grower Champagnes from the likes of George Laval, Tarlant, Olivier Horiot and Marie Courtin, Bubbleshop also sells hotdog kits for those keen to get their salt, fat and acid fix.
“I always wanted to launch an online grower Champagne shop but never had the time, so in a way it’s a blessing in disguise that Bubbledogs has closed,” says Chang, who is excited to be selling grower fizz to a broader audience outside of the confines of London.
She’s been pleasantly surprised by the take up so far, with orders coming in from all over the UK and strong sales in cities like Manchester and Liverpool. Over half of her sales come from outside of the Big Smoke. Another surprise has been the interest in her top drops, which she puts down to the fact that they are exclusive listings that can’t be found elsewhere.
Her unicorn wines have proved so popular that she’s sold out of them, and while she’s keen to replenish her stocks, a smaller-than-usual cash flow is presenting her with a conundrum. “It’s a difficult time. I’ve stopped ordering in more Champagne as our cash flow isn’t so fluid, but the demand for them is there. We have to move a bit slower at the moment and schedule our spending,” she admits.
While things have been tough for the UK on-trade, 2020 hasn’t been a day at the beach for small producers in Champagne either. “The growers are really starting to feel the effects now that restaurants are closed, as a lot of their customers are holding off on buying from them while they’re trying to run down their stocks,” says Chang.
Putting his faith in small growers is Matt Wicksteed, manager of the Streatham Wine House in south London, which morphed into an artisan wine shop during lockdown. Since its inception four years ago, the venue has benefitted from an off licence, but it only began pushing takeaway wine sales when the pandemic hit.
“Luckily, we’ve sold our wines to go on Uber Eats and Deliveroo for a while, so that part of our business was already established when the first lockdown hit, and we massively extended our wine listings on those platforms in March, which saved our bacon,” Wicksteed says. When on-trade venues were allowed to reopen again on 4 July, he made sure the bottle shop side of the business was far more apparent to customers.
“We changed from having the back bar set up as a shop to installing a wine shelf within the bar and started pushing our takeaway sales as much as we could. Having that shelf space led to a big jump in sales,” he says. The shop proved pivotal while the 10pm curfew was in place, with a lot of customers choosing to drink a bottle at the bar and buy another to go.
He has used the second lockdown as a chance to launch a personal shopper service, where customers looking for a set of wines for a specific occasion can book a one-to-one with Wicksteed, who will curate bespoke cases for them. Fizz sales shot up last weekend due to the election result, as customers sought to pop open celebratory bottles of Champagne, Cava and crémant to toast the new US president. Wicksteed is hoping half bottles of Charles Heidsieck will do well over Christmas as sophisticated stocking fillers.
While 2020 hasn’t been easy, Wicksteed considers the Streatham Wine House lucky compared to a lot of hospitality venues. “We’re an established neighbourhood bar with a loyal customer base who have been happy to support us, so we haven’t had is as bad as hard hit venues in central London, and the lockdowns have given us the chance to do things that we hadn’t had time to do before,” he says.
While 2020 has been one of the most challenging years in recent memory, the UK on-trade remains resilient and has proved itself to be admirably agile, changing shape in order to survive the stop-start nature of the lockdowns. With news of a vaccine on the horizon, there is hope that 2021 will offer venues the chance to regroup and rebuild.