Merchant Profile: Field & Fawcett, York

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Peter and Cathryn Fawcett could see that some disused agricultural buildings would be an ideal setting for their wine business, but local planners weren’t necessarily so convinced.

Sixteen years on, Field & Fawcett is one of the north of England’s most successful independents, with a spirits range that offers almost as much depth as its wine list. By Nigel Huddleston

 

There may not be another wine merchant with a location quite like Field & Fawcett. The business occupies a network of former milking stalls just off what is now a large and busy roundabout on the eastern side of the York ring road.

The dairy farm was owned and run by the parents of Cathryn Fawcett, whose maiden name Field now provides one half of the shop’s branding. The family still owns the land that F&F occupies.

Husband Peter Fawcett is the other half. His journey to starting his own independent wine merchant – with Cathryn alongside him – started in 1986 when he joined Milroy’s whisky shop in London. Working vintages in Australia and New Zealand followed – he’s half Kiwi – before he returned to London to join Wizard Wine, the warehouse-style retailer, around the time it was taking over Majestic in the early 1990s.

When the deal was done, Fawcett jumped ship back to Yorkshire, where he’d been brought up, working for Great Northern Wine Co in Leeds, eventually becoming Enotria’s man in the north, as a rep covering a patch from the M62 to the Scottish border.

“It was a steep learning curve and possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “But it was a really good company to work for. They were never on my case saying ‘you need to get X number of accounts’.”

Which takes us up to 2006 and the decision to go it alone and open Field & Fawcett.

“When I was at Great Northern, they toyed with the idea of getting this site and using it as an outpost but it got knocked back because it was green belt.

“Foot-and-mouth [in 2001] was a game changer because the government were very keen for redundant agricultural buildings to be put into some sort of effective use and start generating income.

“When we decided to open our own place in 2006, we got very good planning lawyers to work on it.”

Initially, the local authority granted retail permission for a small part of the property, which has housed the main entrance, wine and a deli counter since the start. Over time, Field & Fawcett has managed to push back bit by bit, so it now occupies a further two rooms, one housing a mix of spirits and Iberian and new world wine – with France and Italy still in the original front section.

“The planners were originally worried about a load of traffic piling in,” says Peter. “Five years in, there had been no major incidents and they let us extend retail to the rest of the building.”

A third room to the rear operated as a café for a while before Covid brought a change of use to what might be the UK’s only dedicated magnums, local beer and liqueurs space.

 

 

You’ve seen some changes in 16 years. What was the original concept?
We were very much wine-driven initially. We were 90% wholesale for the first two years. When I left Enotria nearly all of my customers came with me and supported the new business. We lost a few along the way, as you do in the ebbs and flows of business, but that enabled us to establish ourselves pretty quickly and buy a decent amount of volume to expand the range and make it more interesting.

But we also had a deli and wine shop from day one and we were trying to think of a name that combined wine and food. Then a friend of ours said, “why don’t you just call it Field & Fawcett? It’s got good alliteration, and it sounds established even if it isn’t”. So that’s what we did.

How has the mix changed since?
We’ve always just grown the business organically. There are no investors, it’s just us, and everything we make we just plough back into the business. We turned over £2.7m last year. We don’t engage any salespeople; I do that. Wholesale is about 60% now, 33% is physically through the door of the shop, but that varies, with about 7%-10% online.

You also had the café for a while.
We used it as a way of building footfall. There was a shed where the car park is now and the front was literally a farmyard with great puddles everywhere. We got rid of the shed, which gave better visibility from the road, but we thought people wouldn’t necessarily associate the building with being a deli and wine merchant, or if they did they would think it was expensive or a trade thing.

Once we got people coming through the building to the café, they realised we had wine on offer at £5-£5.50. But it wasn’t quite big enough to make a long-term living out of it and the wage costs were quite high. The chef’s still with us and makes our ready meals, bread and cakes for the deli. The café had served its purpose in getting us an audience and during Covid it just wasn’t practical.

How else did you change during Covid?
We traded all the way through, but the doors were shut. It was click and collect and free delivery with no minimum order anywhere in the YO postcode area, which is a huge area … and it went mental. It opened us up to a much wider audience of people who’d never heard of us. We already had quite a decent website, which helped.

And since then?
Once we reopened the doors, we moved the till to the end of the café and had a one-way system from the front to back. People just flowed through the building, out the back door and round the side of the building back to the car park. That worked really well. It gave us the opportunity to get the beer and liqueurs properly displayed. The majority of the quirky liqueurs were for the bar trade really, but they were shut, so we thought we needed to do something with them. It’s amazing what people pick up. We had 12 bottles of Cynar, the artichoke liqueur, and we sold the lot that first Christmas.

We’ve got magnums much better displayed now and people can touch them. It’s opened my eyes about the way things are displayed. I can see why supermarkets spend so much money doing market research on how they position certain things to encourage impulse buys, especially around Christmas. People aren’t coming in for advocaat but they see a smart-looking bottle of it and think, “ooh, I’ll have a bottle of that”.

That works in a supermarket because they’re charging £10 or £15 for a litre of Warninks, but how do you get people to send upwards of £20 on things like that?
Our reputation for the quality of what we do on wine and whisky subliminally filters through to people buying other products. We use a company called Sloemotion for sloe and bramble gins. Their packaging’s very good and we get the shooting fraternity north of York who will go for that sort of thing. With more coffee and cream type liqueurs we’ve got an accessible range at £10.95 called Carthy & Black, which is made by the people who do Slingsby gin.

 

 

What about your wine supplier base?
We ship quite a lot out of Europe ourselves. In the UK we use a lot of the usual suspects. Boutinot have always been phenomenally supportive. We’ve moved slightly away from them for retail wines, but a huge amount of our wholesale wine comes through them and the quality to price ratio is really good.

We’re also part of Rolleston Wine Group. We also use Justerini & Brooks, ABS, a bit with Fells … a bit with most people, to be honest. We work very closely with Astrum for Italy. There are some particular agencies that work really well for us. Cantina Terlano from Alto Adige is probably my favourite white wine producer from anywhere on the planet.

Has Brexit and everything that’s gone on since lessened your appetite for shipping directly?
I’ve gone slightly counter-intuitive. I ship slightly more than perhaps I should. It makes us different from other merchants – and Yorkshire’s got some really good independent wine merchants.

We were introduced to a company called Premium Wine Solutions in Verona; I can buy from Chianti, southern Italy, Prosecco, Gavi, and ship it all together. We also ship from Rioja, Majorca, and Cava from Barcelona.

The Brexit thing’s been a nightmare, no two ways about it. What used to take three weeks now takes anywhere between six and 10. We’re currently bringing in seven pallets from Italy, and even shipping at that quantity it’s costing me £8 per dozen. Pre-Brexit that would have been £3.50.

We’re very lucky in that we’ve got a barn at the back and we turned three bays into storage as soon as Brexit happened. We decided to get everything shipped here, rather than go into bond. We invested quite a lot of money in it, but it’s saved on storage costs.

I’m trying to find products that we know can get out into wholesale and get a bit of volume. Instead of shipping one pallet at a time, which we would have done pre-Brexit, we’ll ship three. It ties up a big lump of cash but in the long-term it gives us a different slant.

And a better margin by cutting out a layer of the supply chain?
I keep margins quite tight anyway [on wholesale]. Our Prosecco is a better one than we might get from Boutinot under the group label, but I feel if I’m giving my customers a really good price then everyone’s happy down the chain. We’ve done really well with two wedding venues and a caterer that has weddings coming out of its ears. It’s Prosecco, New Zealand Sauvignon and Malbec, and lots of it. They’re also dream payers.

It’s not the most exciting thing in the world in terms of the wine, but it gives us the ability to buy in volume and means we can tack more interesting things on to the back of those shipments.

What about retail? What’s really worked for you recently?
We have American, Chile, Argentina down the middle [of the main wine room]. We had it just lying in boxes previously but as soon as we put in smarter shelves and a bigger range sales went up significantly, particularly California. It’s a region we’ve been pleasantly surprised by. We’ve got quite a following now and people will spend all across the £15-£50 bracket. You’re not going to sell a lot of Grgich Chardonnay at £52.50 but when you look on Saturday afternoon there’s usually a gap where one’s gone.

The shelving was a game-changer in selling South America. I’d say we sell half a dozen bottles at £20-£30 every Saturday and the display has got a lot to do with that.

We always wanted to be a really good retail shop. It’s where my heart is because it’s easier to engage with people. When they come through the door it’s because they want to be here. With restaurants, a lot of the time, it’s about the price. Ninety per cent of our sales of Malbec in wholesale will be under £6 ex-VAT; 90% of our Malbec sales in retail are north of £12.95.

How do you keep people coming back?
The Purple Card is one of the best things we’ve done, without a shadow of a doubt. It’s a one-off membership for £25, but maybe we should have made it annual. We always used to do 5% discount on six mixed bottles and 10% on 12. We had an awful lot of people coming in once a year at Christmas. We were giving the discount away and wouldn’t see them until next year.

With the card you get 10% off all wine regardless. The idea is to get people in regularly, coming here rather than Sainsbury’s when they want a bottle when they’re driving home on a Wednesday night.

There are also certain offers just for Purple Card holders. It doesn’t have to be cheap either. We had some fantastic Carménère off Hatch which would normally be over £50 and we did it for under £30 and sold the lot.

Round the shop there are certain wines that have a purple price which will be anything from 20% to 30% off. It might be that the price has gone up from the supplier and we don’t want to buy more, so we want to push the stock through, or that the vintage is changing. We thought we might sell 150 cards, but we’ve actually got 700 members.
We don’t offer a discount on spirits because the margins are already smaller.

 

 

Spirits are obviously an important part of the business.
I always wanted to have a decent whisky section because I’d been at Milroy’s and whisky had brought me into the trade in the first place.

But the gin thing took off before we really developed the whisky side of the business. We went from 10 gins to something like 400 at one stage. It began to slow down after three or four years as the supermarkets started to muscle in.

Rum hasn’t exploded in the way gin did but it has grown quite a lot. But the surprise this year is definitely tequila. It’s all these American celebrities like George Clooney and The Rock getting involved. We sell a lot of reposados for sipping and customers aren’t afraid to spend a bit of money. It used to be slammers but people are treating it as a serious spirit category in its own right.

And how is whisky doing?
We do really well with a brand called Filey Bay, from The Spirit of Yorkshire. It’s a good story: it’s their own farm, their own barley and their own brewery, Wold Top. The glass comes from a factory in Leeds, the labels are done in Scarborough; everything is done within about a 30-mile radius, apart from the capsule. It’s got great local provenance.

And beer?
It’s mainly local beers. It’s pretty rare that people come in to buy beer specifically. It will be an add-on purchase, but it goes really well and that’s purely down to having it much better displayed than it was before. We’re constantly having to refill the shelves on a Friday or Saturday. It all helps to boost the basket.

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