Jonathan Cocker took a gamble when 12 years ago he invested everything he had in a loss-making wine business. It’s been a tough journey, but now Martinez Wines is trading from two sites instead of one and has a turnover of £2m. Nigel Huddleston reports on a hard-earned success story
It’s 12 years since Jonathan Cocker took over Martinez Wines from his former employer Julian Martinez. He’s definitely put his own stamp on the business – but that didn’t extend to changing the name.
It already had such a good reputation,” Cocker says. “Cocker Wines doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?”
Martinez was established by Julian’s father John in 1982 and still trades from its original site in Ilkley in West Yorkshire. After traversing some rocky terrain it’s been revitalised under Cocker’s stewardship with a second store/wine bar added at the former Conservative Club in Bingley, 10 miles down the road.
Both sites run as hybrid operations but with clear boundaries between their on- and off-trade sections – all on one floor in Bingley and with the bar in the cellar at Ilkley.
“They have very different demographics,” says Cocker. “In Ilkley payments are 70% card and Bingley is 70% cash. Ilkley is very much high-end and a lot of Monday to Friday London commuters. Bingley is still very much middle-to-working class. I’m happy either way.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me whether we sell two-for-£13 or a £100 bottle of wine, because at the end of the year you’ve one figure and it all adds up.”
Cocker’s trade career had its roots bottling-up in the family pub at the age of 11.
“My father would give me some red wine with water in it. He had a love for Graves at that time and he used to tell me a little bit about it.”
Cocker’s first professional role was helping run the Riverdale Hall Hotel in Northumberland, bought by his father in the 1970s and which is still in the extended family today.
He then had spells working in bars and restaurants, in London, South Africa and Australia, before finally being courted by the Martinez family in 2004, initially to help build their wholesale business.
The Cocker-owned Martinez tale is one of hard work and endurance. Just over a year ago, Cocker had to take several months off to have open-heart surgery to correct a problem undetected since birth. He acknowledges the role played by Chris Wood, who joined as a van driver 12 years ago and is now a minority shareholder, in helping him get through that time. “He did a cracking job. Without him I don’t know if we’d have survived.”
It’s also a story of family solidarity, whether it’s mum and brother stumping up savings to get off the ground, or his wife’s hands-on contribution in the form of interior design for the bars.
And it’s also about constant reinvention and adaptation to meet changing market conditions.
“I’m the least complacent person you’ll ever meet,” Cocker says.
How did you go from employee to owner?
The more money I made, the harder Julian made it for me. We fell out, and I left and came back two years later and renegotiated terms. After I’d been back with him for two or three years, I started to become more involved in running the business as well as doing the wholesale. Julian was a brilliant wine man and a larger-than-life character but he wasn’t a very good businessman.
John Martinez died and Julian died 18 months later, and his brother came in to try to sell the business – but it was a mess and eventually they decided they were going to close it instead.
The turnover was £675,000 but it was making a loss. My dad said, “you took over our hotel when it was on its backside and turned that around”. I said to my wife: “I can do it, but you won’t see me for four or five years – but I believe we can build a future for our kids.”
We had literally £5,000 in savings, plus a bit of money from my mum and my brother. I went to the Martinez family and said: “I’ve got £10,000. I know it’s worth more than that but it’s what I’ve got. I’ll be able to build the business back up. Year three, four and five I’ll give you X amount each year and I’ll own the business officially. And if I don’t, you’ve lost nothing, and you get it back.”
What did you do to build it back up?
When we bought it, it was five months into the year and £28,000 in the red. I went to the landlord for a new 10-year lease and told him I needed to put a wine bar in the cellar and an extension on the back to create the cashflow to get the business built up. He agreed. It cost him £60,000 and I paid him an extra £6,000 each year on my rent over 10 years to pay it off. I ended up with a wine bar in Ilkley for £6,000 a year.
It was very tough. I was working 70, 80, sometimes 90 hour weeks, often throughout the day and in the wine bar at night.
I needed a focus in wholesale and we decided it should be Spain. We had the name, we had the wines. I secured an account for three Spanish restaurants in the north east. I virtually had to beg. I said, “I need your account and when I’ve turned it around I’ll give you great prices”. He was very human about it, and liked the wines and came on board.
He’s still a customer now and we supply Ambiente in York, Leeds and Hull, Lunya in Manchester and Liverpool city centres and The Old Yard, a long-established tapas bar in Darlington.
It means we can bring in our own Spanish wines and give them exclusivity in their city and great service. None of them have ever left. That worked very well.
What does the rest of the range look like?
Two thirds of the shop is Old World. I’m a massive Burgundy fan. France is where it’s at for me. £15 to £20 is about where we sell most. It’s a bit higher in Ilkley. We keep daily records of footfall and average spend. When we took over, footfall was quite low and the average spend was about £54, which was a bit too much. At that point we had a three-wines-for-£12 offer. I focused on pushing that to get the footfall. The average spend went down by about £10 but the footfall went up quite a lot. What I didn’t expect was a bumper Christmas on the back of that because all the footfall kept coming back but bought better wines. It was a pleasant surprise.
About a year ago I decided to go the other way. In Ilkley, a Majestic opened about four or five years ago. To start with, sales went up because people wanted to buy from their local independent, but Majestic has a lot of money to throw at it and gradually our lower-end stuff dried up because people are buying Ned at £6.99.
So I’m slowly phasing out the wines under £10 and I’ll focus on high-end Burgundy and Old World over the next two to three years. We used to be called Martinez Fine Wines and I’m looking to get back to that fine wine market because it is where we need to be.
The supermarkets and Majestic have some good wines, but all our wines are good. That’s the difference: no risk. If you go there and buy three bottles at £5 each you’ve paid £15 perhaps to get one good one. If you come here and buy two at £7.50, you’ll get two great bottles for £15. But people are lazy shoppers. About 5% of the population know about wine and appreciate it. The other 95% are drinking because it’s alcoholic, it’s cheap and they’re in a supermarket already.
How did Bingley come about?
When Oddbins went under it had one in Baildon [five miles up the road] and they sent me the details. I could see there was a need for a shop in Baildon but it was on a horrible retail park and I like premises with character.
I was driving through Bingley and my wife noticed there was a building for sale. It was the Conservative Club. It was a horrible mess of a shell but it was perfect because we only needed to put in one door [between what is now the shop and the bar]. We bought the freehold and I’ve now got planning permission for seven two-bedroom flats upstairs, which is huge. It’s the old dance hall.
I pay £1,000 mortgage a month, whereas, including service charges, Ilkley is about £3,000 a month to rent and is about a third of the size.
Bingley’s got a stripped-back, exposed brick look and it appears as if lots of original features of the building have been retained.
I pulled a wire out of the wall and the plaster came away and revealed bricks. I thought: no plaster, no decorators. If I chip all this off myself, I’ll save a few thousand quid. It was a happy accident.
I was very fortunate in having a father-in-law who’s a retired builder/joiner/electrician. We spent three months with me as his labourer working at night after normal work to get ready for opening. Everything you see, all the chipped-off walls, I did it. It nearly broke me. I was in tears at one point.
I wanted something that was timeless. People spend a lot of money on making bars look old-fashioned and after 10 years they need to do it again. If you do something that looks timeless you never have to change it. Upgrading and refurbing is a big cost.
Why the hybrid mix at both stores?
I want to be a wine merchant but we have to be a wine bar, because retail just doesn’t work on its own unless you’re in a city with lots of footfall. In market towns like this … at Christmas it’s brilliant, obviously. I’m not religious but if there were two Christmases a year retail would work. We do about 60% of our retail in December, which is crazy. So to be a wine merchant, we have to open wine bars.
Most people might intuitively think it was the other way round: big city equals bar, small town equals shop. What’s the trick to making a wine bar work in a place like Bingley?
The key is not to open 24/7. I open Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday day and night. I have one bar manager; he deals with everything. It’s open 36 hours a week and takes anything from £3k to £8k, which is fantastic.
We offer about 40 wines by the glass and they are all available to taste in the shop and in the bar. We do a basic list and we’ve got Coravin, so you can have Vallet Frères Gevrey Chambertin 2013 by the glass. On top of that you can have anything in the shop for £9 corkage.
I’m offering the customers on average about 20% cheaper than anyone else in the on-trade, but obviously I’m buying it cheaper. So I get the same margin as the pub or restaurant but the customer gets a great deal. I like things where everyone’s a winner.
Why separate the bar and the shop completely rather than mix the two?
It means I can open the shop for more hours and it’s just easier. I’ve toyed with the idea of having some chairs in the shop, but I like the shop as a shop.
We’ve got a sign saying “souvenir shop” over the door between the two, so it’s a bit like a ride where you go through the gift shop at the end. The combination of the two works very well.
How do you get the most out of the on-trade side?
Sipping Society is something we do once a month. We work with suppliers and charge £12.50 and customers get six wines and a discount on any wines bought on the night.
We did our first pop-up restaurant recently, with Las Bodegas and an outside caterer doing classic Argentinian food. The feedback was exceptional so … more pop-up outside catering nights. It’s just diversifying and trying to use the space.
We have a buskers’ night. I was struggling for a way to fill Bingley on a Wednesday night but didn’t have any money to spend on bands. Once a month at both bars now we have between 12 and 15 buskers playing for about 15 minutes each and they pass the bucket around. In Ilkley it only takes 45 people but if you get 10 buskers they all bring three or four mates with them.
Is Ilkley still a work in progress?
We put temporary decking outside for the summer and then we took it out again to give us more parking space for Christmas. In October we put in a cheese shop. A quarter of the shop is cheese supplied by Courtyard Dairy in Settle.
His cheeses are brilliant. When you come in the wine bar you can match your wine with some cheese and when you come in the shop you’ll be able to buy cheese and we’ll recommend three levels of wine to go with it: budget, medium priced and discerning taste, if you like.
We’re hoping it brings retail back to where it was. We’re not destitute or anything, but we worked really hard to build it up. I’m very driven and I have to have everything – wholesale, wine bar, shop – successful. The knock-on effect for each is very important.
As a business, where are you today?
Since we bought it, turnover has increased three times to just under £2m which is a huge success. But it hasn’t come easily. It’s been very, very difficult.
In Ilkley we were treading water, although things had got much better. We broke even in year two; made a very small profit in year three. Year four and five were better but it was still relatively small, and only worked out at about £5 an hour for me. Then we bought Bingley and went from having a £35,000 overdraft for five years to having money in the bank within a year.
We are definitely moving toward importing more direct ex-cellar. We can afford to do it now. Now I’m holding £50,000 of stock that’s not drinking yet. I can go to Burgundy and buy wines that will be drinking in four or five years. I bought 10 dozen bottles of four different vintages of Chateau Musar, which I love, because they’ll all go up 60%. I’ve been able to do a bit more of that and become what I want to be, which is a wine merchant.