The Bow Lane branch of Planet of the Grapes is the latest to fall foul of the lasting effects of the pandemic. But owner Matt Harris is not ready to throw in the towel.
Unable to reach an agreement with the landlord, the independent London wine shop and bar firm vacated its Bow Lane premises to be replaced the following day by a famous London cocktail bar operator. With such a swift change of tenancy it’s easy to suspect some Machiavellian manoeuvring behind the scenes. Harris says his solicitor was “flabbergasted” by the landlord’s actions and described it as “nasty and underhand, but legal”.
Harris was hoping for a payment plan to deal with arrears accumulated over the period of enforced closure during lockdown, but the landlord was not willing to play ball. “I have been there for nearly 14 years and paid my rent in full every quarter, and that didn’t seem to count for shit,” he says.
“When we run our wine shops or wine bars, it’s not just about making money. We put our hearts and souls and passion into it and for that to be ripped away from you in such a way is heartbreaking.”
I have been there for nearly 14 years and paid my rent in full every quarter, and that didn’t seem to count for shit
Planet of the Grapes has two other locations (Leadenhall Market, and Fox Fine Wines & Spirits in London Wall) and Harris is happy to report that, after reopening in the second week of September, things are looking positive.
“We had to wait until it was actually viable to open and the City hasn’t been financially viable until now,” he explains. “But this week [in late September] we have seen a massive difference. The trains were busy and people were out drinking last night and the night before. Last night we absolutely smashed it at the Fox – it was great. That side of things will be good, but it will be a staggered way of coming back.
“I think Mondays will be a write-off as most people are working a Tuesday-to-Thursday week, and lunches are still quiet because people are getting used to being back in the office with their colleagues.”
The past 18 months has seen a decimation of the hospitality industry and Harris admits that the way forward for Planet of the Grapes is to make some operational changes. “I wouldn’t open another City bar; I’ve been there and done it. I’ll keep the two I’ve got but the need to diversify is quite key because there is every chance there will be other lockdowns,” he says.
The online tastings which Harris describes as having “massively boosted” his business during lockdown have begun to drop off as people return to their old routines and so his thoughts have turned towards a “residential wine shop”, perhaps in Peckham, which will ideally serve as a warehouse for the rest of the business.
“I’d do it as a shop to start,” he explains, “with the potential to have some outdoor seating and do some cheese and charcuterie. We will go down the route of e-commerce and we are talking to courier companies. At the moment I want to open, do Christmas and sell wine to our loyal band of followers.”
So, lessons learned from wrangling with landlords? “It’s important to know that there are shysters out there,” says Harris. “It makes me angry that it happened but it also makes me more determined to succeed with what we have left.”