Bottle & Jug Dept, Worthing

Tom Flint Bottle & Jug Dept Worthing

Worthing gets the funk

A small shop focused entirely on natural wines and craft beers has proved to be a shot in the arm not just for a once-sedate seaside town, but for its owner as well, as Graham Holter discovers

 

A shop selling craft beer and natural wine would probably feel quite at home in Brighton, or Bristol – Tom Flint’s home city. Worthing, for all its charms, seems like more of a punt.

The Bottle & Jug Department occupies a compact unit in a residential part of the West Sussex town, not particularly close to the seafront but handily adjacent to the main railway station.

“Our location gets a split reaction,” says Flint, “with half saying ‘why did you open here? It’s such a weird place to have a shop’, and the other half saying, ‘what a great place to have a shop’.”

Across the road there’s a parade of shops including the Brooksteed Alehouse, a bar which isn’t exactly a sister business, but might qualify as a half-sister. There’s a certain amount of co-operation and co-ordination that goes on between the respective owners, but the Bottle & Jug Department is its own separate entity.

Until a couple of years ago, Flint had a desk job in the NHS and, by his own admission, was “bored out of my mind”.

“I was doing freelance writing – food and restaurant reviews – and working in the pub,” he says.

“Brighton had a food renaissance about two years ago, but it’s levelled off now perhaps.
“Food is still lacking a bit in Worthing; I think it’s a price-point issue. Obviously new people coming in are prepared to spend money, but locals were complaining about the new Thai restaurant because its curry was £10. I think it’s Worthing’s biggest challenge.

“Café culture is really kicking off in Worthing, so that’s a start. It’s about getting people used to spending a little bit more and getting better quality.”

Like many coastal towns, Worthing has seen a demographic shift in recent times. “When I moved here five years ago, it was a completely different place,” Flint says.

“Round here we have young families … every couple of weeks there’s someone who has moved from London or Brighton. Instead of going out to the pub, because they have a young family, they come here and buy some nice beers and wine to enjoy at home. They’ve got more disposable income and they want nice things. The demographic shift is definitely going the right way for places like this.

“We do get passing trade from the train station. Brighton has lost a couple of beer shops now and I have a lot of people who work in Brighton and so they come here on their way home.”

bottle and jug exterior

Is everything that you list here natural, and how would you define natural?
Natural for me basically means naturally fermented; wild yeasts and no other additions apart from some sulphur in the bottling. It’s hard to find any with zero sulphur – there is some out there but unfortunately if you do find it the price point is massive.

The really, really hardcore stuff is quite unapproachable for a lot of people who aren’t used to natural wine. I need to come in at a point where I can get people into the idea of it but with more approachable wines. The ones that are made with minimal intervention.

What’s the funkiest thing you’ve got here? Anything you wouldn’t give to a first-timer?
Probably something like Cambridge Road from Martinborough: it’s really, really funky, quite out there. I tend to have a couple of orange wines here and there – a few people are into them, and I’m really into them.

When did you get into that style of wine yourself, as a wine drinker?
Two to three years ago, mainly from going to places like Plateau in Brighton and Mange Tout.

They’re slowly trickling into restaurants around Brighton. As I was doing my reviews and tasting them, I was like, “wow – this is exciting wine”.

I did the same thing as a lot of people, buying a lot of wine from Majestic and similar places, spending £120 to £150 on a case of tip-top wines and ending up with 12 wines that were pretty forgettable. You drink it and it’s fine but you wouldn’t get excited by it. You might get one or two in that 12 that are OK.

I really like funky beers as well, Belgian sours and that sort of stuff. Those flavours work well for me.

What is it you like about natural wine?
The allure and appeal of natural wine is the unpredictability. It’s a living, breathing bottle of wine that can just change. No two bottles will be the same. It takes away that very strict way of tasting wine – which I massively respect – but I think wine should also be fun. Open a bottle, drink it and enjoy it for what it is. If you over-study something, for me it takes out the fun. Natural wines are hard to categorise but that is part of their charm. I have a customer who came in because he said he was bored with wine and his interest has been reinvigorated by our natural wines.

It’s engaging so many young people as well. It’s such a tiny percentage of the industry so it’s not threatening anyone.

Where do people hear about it?
Wine bars help. Social media pushes it a bit with blogs and podcasts. I have a lot of Plumpton students come here for wine too. The Real Wine Fair is really good, you see a totally different demographic to other tastings.

It is gaining traction and people are seeking out natural wines more than they were.
Once people try them, it’s rare that they say, “natural wine is not for me”. Especially if you go with the stuff that’s a bit more approachable and you show them the freshness that’s there and the vibrancy in the wine – they often have very soft tannins, they’re drinkable and very juicy.

How do sales break down between beer and wine?
The beer is definitely our strongest side, our bread and butter, but the wine side has taken off quicker than I expected.

When I first opened, I would’ve had about half as much wine as I’ve got now. You slowly get a reputation; people find you. People come back for a particular thing, so I’ve definitely doubled the amount of wine I’ve been stocking. I’ve got customers now who come to me just for wine. Word is getting out and they know they can get these things without travelling to Brighton, London or other big major cities.

It’s amazing how little value people place on wine. I have a chap who comes in and will spend about £30 plus on beer for himself and he’ll say, “I’ll get some wine for my wife” and go over and look at a £10 bottle of wine and say it’s too expensive. It’s weird. A bottle of wine takes at least a year to produce and beer takes about six to eight weeks. It really throws me out when people spend on quality beer but won’t spend £10 on a bottle of wine.

Would you extend the range further if the demand was there?
I’m quite happy with it now. A lot of wine shops you walk in and they can be quite intimidating; shelves and shelves of things, making it hard to choose.

I like to keep it small and keep it changing. It might mean that when someone comes in and asks for the same wine again I say, “no, I haven’t got it, but I have this one instead”. Keep it quite fluid to reflect what is happening with the beer.

The beer changes constantly, there’s a new beer every few seconds it seems, new breweries non-stop, so that’s always changing. There are a few that I keep fairly regularly. So every time someone comes in there’s something new for them to look at.

Is that partly also because people are not particularly loyal to beers?
People constantly want to try the new thing. You look at places like [the beer app] Untappd where people are scoring beers. I think with wine, some people get stuck in the habit of buying the same thing because they know they like it. My job then, if I haven’t got what they’re looking for, is just to try to steer them to something else and get them to try something new. It takes time for people to trust you.

Which wine suppliers do you use?
Mainly Les Caves, Swig and for the English stuff I work directly with a few people.
Now that we’ve been open for a little while I have been trying to talk to some new suppliers and change it up a bit. It’s very much price-point led – Worthing is still a price-orientated place. People can get obsessed with how much things cost.

The sweet spot for us is £12.80. There’s a lot of great wine for around £15 and it might not be the most super natural, funky, out-there stuff but it’s good wine and I know it’s made properly and has no added crap in it.

bottle and jug interior

Is the green/eco side of things as much of an issue for customers as the flavour?
Obviously in the food world, people have become much more conscious about what they are eating and what they are putting in their bodies. But when it comes to alcohol and drinking generally, people haven’t really made that connection.

People will be like “I’ll only buy organic meat” but then they’ll buy a crate of Foster’s to drink. I think they are slowly coming around and supporting local and independent producers.

What kind of marketing do you do?
Marketing is a funny one. I’m doing an experiment this year: I’m not going to pay for any advertising. Since we opened I’ve paid a few grand out and I’ve not really seen a massive return on it. I’ve done print, leaflet drops, online, town maps, all manner of different things.

I did a local leaflet drop of a few thousand leaflets with a 10% discount offer and I only had about six come in. Maybe it’s the wrong type of advertising, but people didn’t respond.

We do events and things as well – we’ve had a stall at the Worthing Food & Drink Festival for the last two years and that helps. Last winter we put on a festival at Worthing FC, and we’ll do that again in the summer.

We do tastings on a Monday night in the shop. I’ve done a Greek wine tasting and other ticketed events.

I think I’d like to get out and do more events, like pop-up bars at festivals. I can take the casks and kegs and a marquee and get out there.

Is the shop leasehold?
Yes, we have a landlord – it’s nice and cheap. One of the reasons we did it was because the rent was so good and the first three years is fixed. And we know what the increases will be.

It was a very old-fashioned bike shop before. Bike shops seem to be disappearing hand over fist – it’s all online now.

bottle and jug shelves

Do you think wine shops will go the same way?
It is a worry, yeah. Online will always be a competitor but I think with wine, people still enjoy coming in and picking it, talking to people, getting recommendations – so I would think it is fairly robust against online competition in that regard.

And you might be on the train home and think “I fancy a bottle of wine” and online isn’t going to help you out right then.

Alcohol retailers have got a decent defence against online but pricing will always be an issue. It’s amazing what I see online retailers charging for beers compared to what we do.

Maybe they can afford to have loss leaders. Maybe they know if they can put a super high-end beer on for zero profit, people aren’t going to buy just one, they’ll buy that one and six or seven others and that’s how they make their money.

What’s happening in the beer world at the moment?
It’s hard to keep pace really, there’s so much going on. There seems to be a new brewery every three weeks. I think supermarkets are a big danger, they have cottoned on but they are only ever going to be interested in core beers.

There are so many beers out there that are made by Heineken or whoever and packaged to look like craft beer.

I work directly with all the local guys and work with about four different wholesalers.

How do you decide what constitutes a craft beer that you’re happy to list?
I only sell beers from owner-operated breweries. So last year Magic Rock was bought out by Lion who also own Fourpure – all owned by a pharmaceutical company in Hong Kong. I’ve delisted Beavertown because they are now part-owned by Heineken.

How do you explain that to your customers?
I’m an independent shop and I want to work with other independent businesses like myself. All those guys, Beavertown etc, they will undercut everybody else, flood the market and put all the independent people at risk. Why would I want to support them?
I think Brewdog is still pretty much independent, they sold just 21% but they are big enough and they are everywhere and that’s not what this shop is about – we want to find things that are smaller, quite hard to get and we want to massively support local.

I have a huge selection of local breweries and I have as much Sussex beer as I possibly can. As soon as I get an email from Burning Sky, I say yes please. Their price points are amazing too.

What margins do you work to?
The margin on beer is about 40%, and on wine 35%.

How are spirits doing?
Very slow – even gin has slowed down. I did hardly any gin at Christmas.
It’s trying to work out what people want.

I think online and in the supermarkets they have really monopolised spirits.

bottle and jug mural

How did you come up with the look of the shop and the mural?
I pictured it in my head how I wanted it to be and we managed it.

A friend of ours called Will who is a local artist did the wall. The little people are his signature – you’ll see his artwork around Worthing and Brighton. I asked him to do something along the theme of Hogarth’s Gin Lane. He just came and sketched it in pencil and then used marker pen. You’d think after a year and a half you’d be bored of it, but I still love it.

Tell us a bit about your take-out service.
I do it with jugs and wine bottles. When I first opened I had casks in here as well. I thought it would be amazingly popular, but it hasn’t been, so that’s been a learning curve. We use Lindr. I’ve got red wine, white wine and bag-in-box cider as well. I really thought this side of things would fly, but it hasn’t done. I know you can buy these super-fancy refill machines but they are so expensive.

Would you ever consider brewing anything yourself?
I’ve never done home brewing. It would be fun, but I don’t want to be stuck with 20 litres that I can’t get rid of, because with the best will in the world it won’t be as good as what’s on my shelves.

We’ve done collaborations before and we’ll do that again probably with a local brewery. They came up with the base recipe and the hop profile was our choice.

Is there an end in sight for the craft beer boom?
There will just be more buy-outs and that’s what will kill it. I don’t blame the breweries for doing it: if I was a bloke who started off home-brewing in my shed and 10 years down the line someone offered me a few million, I’d take it!

For every one of those that goes, there’s probably four or five to take their place and I see this shop’s role as supporting those guys, rather than the ones who have made it.

I have still got big-name breweries, but they are still independent. There are a few others who I don’t massively stock because they are in the supermarkets.

A lot of breweries have really pissed off independent shops like us because they’ll release a beer and we’ll buy an amount at cost and then a few weeks later it’s in a supermarket at the same price we bought it from the brewery for.

You’ve got a nice sideline with T-shirts and sweatshirts.
I was making online videos talking about the beer and wine and all that anyone ever wrote was “ooh, like your jumper,” so I thought I’d sell them. I only just got them in before Christmas. I make about £10 profit, which is great for something that also works as a bit of marketing.

What do you think the future holds?
I don’t envisage myself retiring with a nice fat profit any time soon. It’s a lifestyle thing. I did years of working in offices and it was driving me mad – I didn’t want to be stuck doing that for the rest of my life and hating it. I’d rather be doing something I enjoy. I was good at office work and it paid well, and I had a lot more free time. But it was so unrewarding. I was unhappy.

I toy with the idea of a second one – I’d go down the hybrid route and have a wine bar place with a few keg lines and maybe specialise in Belgian beer. It’s about finding the right unit and the right location. That would be the next natural step.

Published February 2020