A Newark state of mind
Ann Hayes’s hybrid experiment ended when she realised she was making almost no profit on £80,000 turnover from bar sales. Nigel Huddleston meets a wine merchant whose mojo is definitely back
Ann Hayes is swimming against the tide. While the wine retailing world has been front crawling towards hybridism as the optimum operating model, she’s gone the other way, slowing down the on-trade element of her Ann et Vin business in the Nottinghamshire market town of Newark, to refocus on retailing.
Having opened in 2004, Hayes incorporated a bar/café/restaurant side in 2007 and ran it like that for nine years before deciding to return to the shop at its core, resulting in a better quality of life and, she says, increased profitability.
The drink-in side of things hasn’t been abandoned entirely. There’s still a small seating area and a patio-garden with wine by the glass and bottle-for-corkage sales but it’s very much geared towards weekend, daytime drinking rather than competing with bars and restaurants for night-time trade.
The shop is situated in an old garage in the centre of the town, with its own covered forecourt that serves as parking and is still used to stage events including portfolio tastings, wedding receptions and fashion shows.
“It had been empty for a couple of years,” says Hayes, recalling how things started. “I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. I came in with some friends who were thinking of opening a restaurant, just to help them have a look, and thought ‘wow, this is it’.”
Hayes first came into professional contact with wine working for Booker before joining the Hull-based chain House of Townend in the 1980s. From there, she had a spell with Bottoms Up that straddled the chain’s Peter Dominic and Thresher eras before deciding to go it alone when venture capitalism started to take its toll on the multiple specialist off-trade of the 2000s.
How did you come to open your own business?
I ran the Newark shop for Bottoms Up and I was a training manager, opening new shops, all that sort of stuff. I loved it. The venture capitalists ripped it to bits and did this blanket thing where they were going to turn all the Bottoms Ups into clearance shops. I’d got this amazing turnover across the road and they just gave me all the junk to sell. I had customers coming in for a case of Chablis and I had to say, “sorry, I haven’t got any”. It was just awful.
I started mentioning it to some of the customers and a couple of them said “don’t whinge, do something about it”. It was then I started hatching a plan. A couple of them offered me investment, which was quite flattering and gave me the confidence to do it.
You were quite early to the hybrid model when you did it in 2007.
Yes, there were only maybe half a dozen more in the country. Everybody’s doing it now.
Why did you decide to call time on it when you did?
About 18 months before I’d had a new hip, because I had bad arthritis. I had six weeks off, sitting at home in the garden, watching the tennis, relaxing, thinking: why I am I working like a dog? I was effectively trying to run two businesses. If anyone went off sick or anything happened, muggins had to step in. I also got my six-monthly accounts for the bar – which were done separately from the shop – and there was about £50 profit on £80,000 turnover. I’d had enough.
Was it the model that was wrong or was it just not right for you or for here?
Being in a city probably makes a massive difference. Here, there’s no other trade in the evenings except on Friday and Saturday. And then everybody else is looking for that same trade as well. While we never did food properly in the evening it was quite buzzy and we had a nice regular trade, but staff costs, wastage, and perhaps not charging enough corkage … once you start doing it at a certain price it’s really difficult to lift it up.
It’s also a small town. It was once very prosperous and in the rural areas there is a little bit of money around, but it’s not London or Cambridge or Oxford or Cheshire. Kate Goodman at Reserve Wines is doing really well with Altrincham in an amazing old market hall with tables in the middle and a food court. It’s perfect – but it’s not here.
What have you kept from the hybrid format?
We still do food on a Saturday, but it’s a very small menu – paté and toast, hummus and pitta and so on. It’s like living the dream on a Saturday: the place is full, shoppers are shopping, and there’s a nice buzz. But not being open at night enables me to do tastings and parties, where I can make real money.
What’s the core of the business now?
It’s about 30% wholesale. It’s obviously lower margin but is good turnover. I never chase business; but if they come to me, I’ll look after them really well. Once you look after people and they are locked-in they tend to stay. I have customers who’ve been with me for five, six, seven years now and, touch wood, had no bad debt.
Retail and events make up the rest. I’ll go out and look after people at weddings which is great business and any big local events that are going on … last year we had an amazing beer festival on May bank holiday on the riverside which was really well attended. I did the gin bar which was fantastic business.
I do fun tasting events for people. We do blind tasting evenings with four whites and four reds. We give them the wines to taste and they have to swirl it around and work out which is which. It doesn’t matter if they get it right but it helps them look for a bit more when they’re tasting wine. Then we do a wine quiz. We always end up with a couple of new customers.
I do Ann et Vin TV on Facebook, talking about what we’re tasting today or about events.
We advertised our summer portfolio tasting in January and it was sold out within two weeks; 12 suppliers, maybe more, 100 people. You can sell afterwards as well. That’s my marketing: Facebook and wine tastings.
I’ve gone back to being a shop with a little bar. I still get people in every day for a drink but it’s less hassle to do it. I shied away from e-commerce because it’s fiercely competitive, with stock implications and high costs.
How did you first get into wine?
It found me, really. I worked for Booker in sunny Scunthorpe from around 1976-1982 and ended up running the booze and cigarettes department in a depot. It was just starting to get a little bit interesting then, despite things like Hirondelle and Don Cortez. I went back to college for a year to do a year of accounting and bookkeeping and had an idea to join the police force but I couldn’t get in because of my eyesight. I still think I would have made a good copper – a fierce sense of justice, and six foot tall.
After they built the Humber Bridge, John Townend expanded on to the south side of the river and I applied for a job managing a shop in Brigg and got it. We sold a lot of Siglo in the hessian bags. I did four or five years with them and did all my WSET exams.
What was it that sparked your interest?
Tasting. There was one moment, tasting my first Aussie wines with Brown Brothers. They were really different, because I guess we’d done Spain, Germany and France and all that. And when I first tasted my first Puligny-Montrachet it was as if I’d found my spiritual home. If people say “what’s your favourite wine?” I say that. I’d love to go and live there.
I say to people at tastings, wine is fascinating and magical, that there’s this plant, and in March there’s nothing there, and then it turns into these gorgeous green leaves and fruit, and those magicians pick them, put them in presses and it comes out looking and tasting like this … and yet some people whinge because they’ve got to pay £6.50.
What’s striking is the energy that’s gone into making the shop look good.
I always think I’m a good shopkeeper. It’s not necessarily the wine thing; I’ve always had pride in my shop or my department; it should look nice. My purpose is not to sell expensive Burgundies and clarets to lay down. It’s to introduce people to different nice wines. There are just millions of amazing wines out there that most people have never tasted.
What’s the secret of getting the look right?
I think there’s a knack. We used to say retail is detail: tidy, interesting, information, which is why I like hand-written tickets. You’ve got to make time. It was a big job at first but I see customers reading my labels and they love them.
My style is a bit of humour but no wine-speak. People don’t understand it, do they? I have a few knowledgeable customers but a lot who aren’t, particularly. People ask me if I’m a wine expert and I say I’m not but I know a bit more than a lot of people. I’ve got a good commercial palate I think. I hardly ever have any bin ends; I’ve probably only had to sell off 25 wines since I’ve been here.
The property is very unusual.
It was an old, proper garage and the lift is out there still in the floor. Then it was car sales, then a place called the Potting Shed, full of chimney pots. Then it went into vintage car sales. I have a rolling lease now. When I was shutting the café I originally decided I was going, completely packing it in, so I gave notice to everybody – the landlord, staff, everybody. I then thought, “ooh, I need a job”, so I talked to the landlord about splitting it into two shops with maybe somebody looking after the café – and then I thought I’d really like to give it another go as a shop. I rang the landlord and said what I’d like to do, but I needed a big chunk off the rent – and he gave me it.
I signed up for another three years. It was a bit scary because I didn’t know what would happen, but the business has grown every year.
What’s the hardest thing about being a wine merchant?
Trying to get past the British public’s price fixation. I think it’s magical that this plant produces these beautiful grapes that you can turn into wine, but that costs money, doesn’t it? I don’t really try to compete with the supermarkets anymore. Waitrose prices sensibly. My customers are Waitrose customers. I often have people go to Waitrose [just around the corner] and then come to me for their wine.
The biggest challenge when I opened was buying. It’s not until you’re your own boss that you realise how amazing it is to have a head office to do all your buying and admin, and all you’ve got to do is move it around and sell it. It was terrifying.
Have you got the hang of it now?
I think so. Boutinot were brilliant from the start and I still spend a lot of money with them. They’ve got amazing entry-level wines and amazing top-level wines. I guess if you sell a lot of entry-level it allows you to have the other bits. I’ve got rid of a few suppliers but Boutinot’s still there and the number one.
Alliance is brilliant and Hatch is a nice company; they look after us very well. Fells are similar in having some nice family-owned wineries, and not insisting on silly minimum spends. I only buy from people I like. Fortunately there are lots of nice people in the wine trade.
When I opened, Spain was my specialism really and it’s still quite good. I’ve got a lot more Italian wine than I thought I ever would. It’s incredible; just one big vineyard. I’m not sure I could live there though. I’d still go for Burgundy.
And what’s the best thing about being a wine merchant?
Tasting amazing wines. I love Burgundy and I’m a Chardonnay girl. It’s elegant, generally beautifully made and they don’t seem to be too fazed by the “we’ve got to do it cheap” ethos. I’ve introduced a lot of people to white Burgundy because of my enthusiasm for it in a subtle way. Sometimes they don’t even realise they’re having a Chardonnay. I do a lot of wine at £10-£20 but people do come in and buy Puligny-Montrachet for £40 or £45.
Has the whole natural/organic/biodynamic thing taken hold in Newark?
I get biodynamic and organic but I don’t get natural. It doesn’t always work does it? It’s horrible, some of it. I’m not an expert. I work on the basis, when I’m buying, of whether I can sell a wine to my customers. If I taste something and it doesn’t taste very nice, I can’t. I do get asked for natural wines and I have to go, “I don’t have many of those”.
Do you have any particular heroes in the wine world?
Jancis Robinson is amazing. She was there at the beginning and she’s still there. I just bought Chrissy – who works for me part-time – the DVD of the TV series Jancis did in the 1990s because it taught people about wine in a relaxed, gentle way. It wasn’t pretentious. She’s really natural and has this lovely manner. Chrissy has a good wine memory but just needed a bit more background. She goes out on the van – the most glamorous van driver you’ve ever seen in your life. I guess in retailing, Majestic was who I looked up to in the beginning, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore.
Having done the evolution from bar and back to shop again, are you happy now?
I’m happy that I get time off, and only work five days a week, and I don’t work late nights unless through choice. I think I’ve got my wine mojo back because it was actually a bit bashed into the ground. I’m enjoying going to tastings and finding new things. I’m not killing myself anymore; I really was exhausted.
What would you still like to change if anything?
Make a bit more money! I guess my plan now is to keep nice steady growth and then sell it in a few years. It would be nice to have turned it into something that someone would want to buy.
But you’d have to find someone called Ann.
Or Dan. Dan et Vin would work.
Published April 2020