For 30 years, Lightfoot Wines was adored for its defiantly old-school approach and its mysterious dark corners. Under new ownership, the tiny South Yorkshire shop is a much brighter place and has been modernised just enough to keep the locals onside. Business has boomed, as Nigel Huddleston discovered on a recent visit
Ask most outsiders what they associate with South Yorkshire and they’d put its industrial heritage in coal and steel near the top of the list. The lush green farmland that lies east of the M1 between Barnsley and Rotherham is less feted, but it’s here on the main street through the village of Wentworth that you’ll find Lightfoot Wines, a tiny, traditional wine merchant in an old stone building, next to the village pub and across the road from the general store.
Once a butchers, the site has been a wine shop for 35 years, most of those in the guise of Lightfoot Wines, the name given to it by former owner Derek Lightfoot who retired four years ago.
That’s when it was bought by well-known local businessman Sir Dave Richards, whose interests also included a company importing wine to the UK to be consolidated for onward export.
The Lightfoot building is part of the Fitzwilliam Estate that owns much of the village and specifies the shade of green that its door and window frames have to be painted. Half a mile up the road is the tourist hotspot of Wentworth Woodhouse, reputed to be the largest-fronted house in Europe.
“We can’t actually ever own our building,” says Matt Thompson, who worked with Sir Dave in the export business before taking the managerial reins at the shop on its acquisition. “The rent is nothing really, because of the square foot of it, and we utilise every space we’ve got.
“People are amazed by how small it is, but they look around and realise how much we’ve got here. We have tourists coming and asking if they can take a picture. I don’t think there are that many old-fashioned bottle shops like this left.
“The estate likes to have it as a wine shop because it’s a destination and gives them a bit of kudos. And they give us a bit of kudos. It works both ways.
“There are a lot of people who work on the estate who are roofers, stone wallers, proper blokes, who’ll come in here and ask for a Vinho Verde. I suppose it’s just because it’s been here for 35 years and it’s managed to change a few attitudes in that time. They’re interested, eclectic customers.”
What was the thinking behind buying the wine shop?
We had an office down the road, so we knew of this place and always liked the quirkiness of it. We needed another string to our bow. Derek was coming up to retirement and he offered it to us. We tried to cut a deal straight away but it wasn’t enough for him to retire, so he waited a couple of years, did a bit of seething, frantically saved for his pension by phoning everyone he could for orders, and then he eventually sold it to us. It’s an old-fashioned wine shop and we didn’t want to change that in any way. A lot of the regular customers were sceptical that we would come in and modernise it.
So what have you done?
Tidied it up. It was used almost as a store cupboard. Derek had his regular customers but he was never very interested in finding more. He knew what he made every year and that was enough for him. He was very old-school; he’d work by going through the phone book and ringing people up. You used to have to come to the door and ask him for what you wanted and he’d go out the back and shuffle around looking for a bottle and he’d find it after half an hour. It was really dark. We put new lights in, carpet, a lick of paint, heaters for the winter, and just sectioned everything off into countries. We wanted to actually get people in the door – like it should have been.
What other changes did you make to the way the business operates?
We’ve put a system in that does all the stock and accounts. Derek literally used to write down every sale on paper for the tax man. You just couldn’t do that now. It didn’t even have carpet; you couldn’t even see the floor. It was a mess. We wanted a bit of mess, but we wanted it to be usable.
What’s the customer base?
People come from all over the place. Because we’re very close to the M1 we have a couple of people come in from Leeds. You can get to Leeds in 35 minutes from here. We’re five minutes from Sheffield, technically in Rotherham, and Barnsley is two minutes down the road. We’re right in the middle of a very populous area with a chunk of green and it attracts people. There’s not that much green around in South Yorkshire. The old mining towns like Goldthorpe and Mexborough are very close to here, so you get a real eclectic mix of people, from landowners to retired miners.
Does the product range reflect that?
Yes, we go from £5.99 to very fine wines. We’ve got some old Cristal magnums from the 1980s in the original rosewood boxes, and they’re close to £2,000. The whisky range goes from £24 to old Macallans from the 1980s which are getting up to £1,000 a bottle. People phone us and want to make an offer but we’re never in a rush to sell them because they never go down in value. We’re never desperate for cash flow so we don’t have to sell things like that. We’d rather keep them because it retains value in the business – and at the right time we’ll let them go.
What does Lightfoot look for in a wine?
We’ve got a real random, eclectic mix. We’ve got some bottles of Chinese wines in the back room which sell. We quite like eastern Europe. Romania does really well and Germany is coming into its own. Romanian wine has developed a bit of fanbase. People like it because it’s different. You can’t … well, perhaps you can go into Aldi and buy a bottle of Romanian wine, but it would be on the cheaper side, I think. We sell some more premium Romanian wines and they do very well.
The older customers find it difficult to get some of the old-fashioned sweeter red German wines like Dornfelder, so they do very well. We do a really old-fashioned eastern European red called Sangele Ursului, or Bear’s Blood. The name’s in Latin, not that there are many Latin speakers round here. But we have a quite fanbase for sweet reds like that. Not even your posh London wine merchants do too many of them anymore.
We try to cater for everyone. Sometimes the patrons of the house, who live on Jersey, come in, and they want your Montrachets and other Burgundies. We can literally cater for all tastes and all pockets. That’s the customer base: anyone and everyone.
We’ll buy off anyone, including receivers of companies that have gone bust. We got quite a lot of wine from Jamie’s Italian
What’s the supplier portfolio like?
We’ll buy off anyone, including receivers of companies that have gone bust. We got quite a lot of wine from Jamie’s Italian, ex-stock via the receiver. If you went on the website you could see it’d been charging £23 or £24 a bottle and it was just standard kind of Fiano or Greco, though it did taste quite good. We got it really cheap.
Then we go for big boys like Boutinot. The Romanian and Moldovan wine guy is a one-man band in Halifax called Transylvania Wine. His wife’s a doctor at Leeds General and he was an old general in the Romanian Army. We like him because his net doesn’t reach that far, so we get something fairly exclusive to us in this area.
I like some of the things the big companies do, but everyone else is selling them as well. We tried to support other independent businesses I suppose, and then you get something different.
How does the whole organic, vegan, biodynamic, natural thing go down in South Yorkshire?
I’m not entirely sure I subscribe to that movement of putting a fancy piece of artwork on the bottle and not actually telling you what it is. If you look at half the German stuff, they’ve been doing it for years anyway. They have vegan wines and don’t even shout about it [pointing to a traditional looking Riesling]. You could probably put a fancy piece of artwork on it and double the price. If you pick your wines well in the first place, you often find they’ve been farming like that for years anyway, so I don’t really understand it.
Do you import directly?
We did bring in some ourselves from Spain, but the local bond closed down, so it became increasingly difficult for us to do. The nearest one now is Burton upon Trent. We do occasionally bring stuff in, but we try to get other people to do it for us now, especially after Brexit.
How has that impacted the business?
We sell baijiu, the Chinese spirit. There’s a big Chinese community in Sheffield but, rather randomly, we have a customer in Denmark for it. It’s a hard thing to get in Europe. The customer is just outside Copenhagen and orders two bottles of the most expensive baijiu, which is £60 a bottle. They ended up paying £100 on the delivery yesterday. I had to fill in a different form and go online and give a very accurate description of what’s in the package, or customs somewhere will send it back. You also have to apply for a EORI number, which is basically your tax code with GB and two zeros on the end. You have to fill in a form for them to send you a number you already know … but you’ve got to do it.
What about with stock coming in?
Prices are shooting up, but to counter that we’re buying more in bulk to get a better price. We put in an order with North South Wines the other day. We usually order 60 cases, but we realised we’d get a better price if we put a 100-case order in, so I did that. It brought the price back down to where we were before. Transport costs have gone up considerably. It’s not worth bringing in a pallet in anymore. You could bring one in for about £200 but now it’s about £500. They say the costs are coming from delays at the ports because lorry drivers are spending an extra night in the cab doing the paperwork in a layby. Eventually, that will be streamlined and maybe the cost will come back down.
What about Covid and the lockdowns. How has all that been?
It was strange here because half the people were very cautious and the other half are farmworkers who are out in the open air who carried on as if nothing had happened. We had the door shut at first [in March 2020]. But the website was going mad, the phone was going mad, and people were literally banging on the door. I think we served just about everyone in South Yorkshire at some point.
After lockdown, some customers who we’d picked up from the supermarkets left us – and they were probably always going to, which is fine. But we retained the good ones, who were happy to have found a really good independent wine merchant. We made some brilliant customers who probably wouldn’t have searched for us, but couldn’t go to where they normally bought wine and found someone closer to home.
So not all bad then?
No, people have tended to go back to local and independent. Some people may have had a perception of this place as being really expensive and you had to be one of the local landowners to come in. But you can get a sweet bottle of rosé for £5.99 if that’s your thing, and we’ll not look down on you.
We also tried to make ourselves as convenient as possible, so we deliver free locally. I’ll close up early and do the deliveries on the way home. I live on the south side of Sheffield, so I can cover quite a lot of ground without going too much out of the way. One customer said, “Could you deliver some wine dressed as Elvis?” We drew the line at that. And anyway, we don’t have an Elvis costume.
One of the locals was here and looked at me and said, don’t you change it too much or I’m not coming in again
How do you put yourself out there in normal times?
We’ve got a wine tasting at the house for charity in September. Everyone kind of supports each other locally. The house attracts a lot of people and they do a lot of weddings, so they push that business back to us, and, in return, I’ll do the charity wine tasting up there.
There’s an antiques shop up the road, and they like doing social media, so they help us with that. We share each other’s posts and it all sort of snowballs. It can be very touristy with people pottering around, so we send the tourists up and down between us.
You’re right opposite the village shop. Is that a friendly relationship?
They buy wine from us to sell but they’ve found more success with local beer recently, which we don’t do. We did beer in lockdown because people couldn’t get to the supermarket but we’ve never really been known for beer. They stock all the local beers, so if anyone asks for beer we send them over the road. It’s £2.50 a can, so there’s not enough per spend in it for us to do a couple of cans, but it works for them.
What about spirits? There’s quite a range in the shop.
Spirits have always done well, especially whisky, because it’s so collectible. People might buy some whisky because their money’s dead in the bank, and they buy one to drink and one to stick in the loft.
You can always tell when one of the collectible whiskies has gone out of circulation. If we’ve got some left in stock, all the whisky nerds come in and ask how many of them we’ve got and look a bit sheepish.
We’ve got the Filey Bay whisky from Yorkshire. They do a Rioja Cask, a Moscatel Cask and a Peated Finish and we literally put them on the shelves and they were gone.
People round here like Yorkshire products. We also stock the local wines from Renishaw Hall, which are popular because it’s a Sheffield postcode, even though technically I think they’re just over the Derbyshire border.
How’s the shop laid out?
It’s by country. More new world in the front, and eastern Europe, with old world at the back. Although we have California and New Zealand in there, but don’t ask me why. It’s just the way it is. Or the way it was. You can’t change too many things. The locals won’t like it.
I remember coming in to do a stocktake with Derek – which was nigh on impossible – when we wanted to make him an offer, because we wanted to check a cross-section of the stock. One of the locals was here and looked at me and said: “Don’t you change it too much or I’m not coming in again.” We didn’t change it too much; we just made it better. He still comes in and he loves it.
Have the changes that the locals allowed you to make resulted in growth?
It’s got to be close to 100% from just making a few changes. We still see Derek now and he comes in and says: “I should have done all this, but I didn’t”. But he was on his own and he didn’t get any support. I’ve got the support of Sir Dave. He comes and covers for me on my days off and he’s got great contacts.
Derek’s a customer now. He still comes down and sits on a stool and chats to me. And when a customer comes in, he can’t help himself and starts trying to sell them stuff. I have to remind him he doesn’t work here. The customers wonder who he is.
So what’s mainly driven that growth?
Social media, building a proper website … opening the door helped, turning the light on helped. Some people come to see us now and they’re surprised they can get in the shop.