Like many indies, Liquorice Wine & Deli saw its sales boom during the pandemic. When turnover looked like slipping back to pre-Covid levels, the business searched for new ways of keeping its customers engaged. It invested in its delicatessen offer, and introduced a full programme of evening events. The plan ensured that Liquorice has had plenty to celebrate in its 10th anniversary year.
By Graham Holter
Heading east, Shenfield is as far as you can go on the Elizabeth Line. As you wend your way alongside the Olympic Park, past Romford greyhound stadium and finally beyond the confines of the M25, the landscape widens, the sky gets bigger, and you find yourself no longer in London but very definitely in the home counties.
Shenfield is not a large place – the population is less than 6,000 – but it seems to support two quality butchers, two excellent independent wine shops, and all manner of eateries. There is money here, perhaps not all of it legit. As we are greeted on the doorstep of Liquorice, manager John Kernaghan observes a Range Rover being driven on the wrong side of the road by a man wearing a balaclava. The Canadian smiles. “Welcome to Essex,” he says.
Liquorice is looking like it might have been purpose-built by retail gurus as an exercise in demonstrating what the ideal 21st-century hybrid wine shop and bar could aspire to be. Big windows. Outdoor seating, demarcated by planters. Wine to the fore, of course, and a long wooden table at which to sit and enjoy it, should you be in the mood. The work of local artists on the walls. A back-lit spirits display and then a room full of beer to the rear, some of it on tap.
What catches the eye, perhaps more than any of these things, is the food. Charcuterie gleams in a four-deck chiller. All manner of packets, tins and jars beguile the browser from a multi-coloured wall of sweet and savoury goodies. The cheese cooler is big enough to accommodate customers as well as comestibles. When reticent types are encouraged to open the door and get inside and explore, they can’t quite believe their luck.
It all looked very different a decade ago, when John – who had left a career as a broker in the City – was working in the shop that once stood on this spot. It was, according to Jo Eastwood, “an old-fashioned sticky off-licence with neon signs everywhere”. But the former Harrods buyer was looking for a business opportunity, and John convinced her the place could be transformed into something much more exciting – and profitable.
Did you have a blueprint in your minds for what you wanted Liquorice to be?
Jo: We put our heads together and worked out what we wanted. We had ideas from what we’d seen travelling and at ski resorts – that kind of vibe. We wanted something that suited the area and so we brought in a designer. Ten Green Bottles in Brighton was one of my inspirations. I went there with a friend and came back raving about it.
John: We wanted it to be open-plan. The original shop had a massive white corkscrew counter right down the middle, so like most traditional shops there was a counter here, two elbows on it and a dude leaning against the wall. The whole idea was to smash the whole thing open.
How did the wine range come together?
Jo: When I took over the business it was all about volume lines: Pinot Grigio was our biggest selling wine. We had case after case after case of it from the wholesaler. We sold tinnies and we sold cigarettes, which used to be 10% of our turnover. We don’t sell tobacco now, apart from cigars, and they have maybe taken 50% of that turnover. Dan [Gough] has always bought the beers. It was a big beer business and then with the development of the shop we brought in craft beers. We’ve probably got the best range in Essex. We’ve got a reputation for that now. We have quite a good core spirit business. Dan also took over on spirits and we are now full of small-batch, artisan lines.
John: We evolved the range and carried over John E Fells, Liberty and Bibendum and we’ve expanded on that. We have taken on Ellis quite heavily, and Carson & Carnevale. There’s a few others in there … we work with Pol Roger and New Generation for a few bits and bobs.
Are you the moderating influence on John’s expensive tastes?
Jo: I’m always saying “buy more”. John’s got a fantastic palate, he’s got great taste; very eclectic. He’s very brave and bullish and he’s highly regarded in the trade. He’s not afraid of price, he changes the range all the time to make sure we’ve got a really great balance. We’re still asked for things that we haven’t got because that’s always the way – we’ve got very limited space. You try and be all things to all people because you have to be. We cater from 20-year-olds to every age group.
What’s the demographic like in this part of Essex?
Lisa Chisholm, sales assistant: With the connection from Liverpool Street to Shenfield, you get a lot of the finance industry who live in Shenfield but work in London. It’s the bankers and the brokers. That correlates to house prices and shops – it’s all linked. So the demographic is high net worth and good disposable income.
Jo: I do think it’s one of those economic bubbles in the UK. Shenfield is very top-end, a bit like south Manchester and Cheadle, that kind of thing. Where else would an area be able to support two wine shops, and also two butchers, just 100 metres apart? A lot of people come in and say, “oh, why don’t you come and open a shop near me?” But we have targeted this area and the business has evolved to suit it. To lift it and put it somewhere else is not necessarily going to work.
John: We have people who have originally come from the East End and made good. They’ve made a lot of money but aren’t prepared to be ripped off. So you get people coming in that think “no biggie” when they buy a Montrachet because they’re having roast chicken. The next person might pull up in a Rolls and be bashing for every single discount they can get and pay in cash. It literally is reading the person when they come in and not just presuming.
Can you take them into some slightly experimental directions? Orange wine is usually the barometer of these things, isn’t it?
John: Orange wines is an interesting one. We’ve been tasting a lot. I’m not a big fan of it, but Dan loves that kind of stuff. The thing is, you either like it or loathe it. We’ve got a couple but we don’t have a queue of people going “where are your orange wines?” There are places championing orange wines, and good on them, but I don’t know how well that translates into consistent sales. I heard someone describe it recently as the emperor’s new clothes.
How are you refreshing your wine knowledge? We see you at a lot of tastings.
John: That’s my kick now. After Covid, I threw myself back into the into the industry in a big way. Because we didn’t taste anything for all that time. I prefer the smaller bespoke events and I think that’s how you do it. You can take as many courses as you want but until you start chatting to the winemaker or owner and get that connection …I love the industry, but every time I get off at Liverpool Street, my neck gets that kink because I could have been retired right now. I don’t have any regrets. I love the whole connection with travel – and the idea of a bottle of wine is about location, isn’t it? It’s a piece of plot somewhere in the world. It’s got a story behind it. It’s somebody’s passion and you meet these people constantly.
You’re from Toronto. So is there a full range of Niagara wines in the shop?
John: There are two up top – pay homage before you leave. We had Thomas Bachelder in store recently, literally an afternoon with Jo’s parents and two customers. We sold seven bottles at £36 each and then messaged someone else who had wanted to be there and they ordered 42 bottles for over a grand. That’s an example of doing something you don’t expect will be massive but is. Then we could hold a really good evening with a well-known Chablis producer, have 25 people sitting down and not sell a thing. There’s no consistency, but that’s OK.
What do you do locally in terms of marketing?
Jo: When the new website is up and running, that will be the core. We’ve got Instagram, and 1,000 followers on Mailchimp at the moment and we target them every week.
John: We send out our programme of events to let people know what’s coming up, and outside of something really totally weird, everything is usually sold out within 48 hours. It’s deposit-paid as well, so it’s a locked-in event.
You have a full programme of events. Is that a team effort?
Lisa: Anyone can suggest an idea and that’s what’s nice. Someone can see something in London and we make a tasting out of it, or a friend might say they haven’t had a Chablis tasting in a while. We have done music nights, and some great fun events that you might not think would be associated with a wine shop.
Jo: We do one or two events a week. Our programme has got to be eclectic and different to reflect the store, so we’re constantly looking for new ideas.
John: Emily [Parkinson] gets involved with the deli side too, so some events are deli-led and the wine is just the back focus. We can comfortably seat 25, maximum, in this room, another eight in the back and about 18 outside.
It’s hard work, but it sounds like you enjoy running events. Are they all profitable?
Jo: Yes. It has certainly helped since lockdown because we have now got the tables, which are much higher margin. The events are also much higher margin. And so we can spread the cost across high-margin areas and become more profitable as a result. We’ve got a high cost base here. We have eight members of staff; four are part-time.
What’s a typical price for an event?
Jo: £35 and that includes a full cheeseboard, five wines and us.
Have you noticed changes in customer behaviour since Covid?
John: The late-night train business never returned. We used to work up to maybe 8.30pm and when the last train would come in you’d get another few people in store.
Lisa: My husband works in the City and his contract has changed so he works three days a week from home now. They don’t want to pay for the floor space anymore, so most people are working from home.
Jo: We did really well in lockdown. Our turnover doubled and we thought: do we go back to where we were before, or do we find a way to give us the turnover that we don’t want to lose now, thank you very much? That’s why we introduced tables, events and deli, and pushed the floor space so that we ensure every inch works.
How does revenue break down?
Jo: Wine is 60% if you include fortified and sparkling. I would say the deli is about 15%.
John: But it’s 70% of the time.
Jo: Yes, that’s true, it takes forever to wrap a piece of cheese.
John: At Christmas, Dan was cutting about 10
pieces of cheese. It was a good sale: it came to £38 and it took him about eight minutes. Then someone I’d not seen before pulls up outside and buys three bottles of Napa and spends about £250. So that’s the weird balance. But if you don’t have the cheese then you don’t have half the customers sitting here on a Friday and Saturday – that is so important.
Lisa: The thing to note about the deli is that there’s nowhere else like it. If you’re of a certain age where you don’t want to sit in a rowdy bar, you want to chat with your girlfriends or chat as a couple, there is nowhere else you can go if you don’t want a full meal. You can get a beautiful cheeseboard and charcuterie and a lovely bottle of wine. You get the best of all worlds and it’s a reasonable evening out. That’s the win for the local community.
Do you have a fixed corkage for everything?
Lisa: Yes, it’s £10, so the higher you go up the better value it is. Our by-the-glass list has been popular. We’ve introduced some unusual grapes and different producers. The Furmint has been so successful.
John: It’s not a massive list but we have three red, three white and two rosés and change it every month.
What are your future plans?
Jo: We are nearly at the point where we can launch the website, and that will become an additional selling arm. Online is our next growth area. I would imagine we would be looking at local sales, not national, but we’ll see where it goes. It’s very competitive and we don’t want to be competing at that [discount] level.
John: If we can tap into wider Essex, there’s a lot of business to be had. One of our biggest customers during Covid lived in High Ongar. They are probably ordering their wine online now. I doubt that someone who drank that amount has suddenly given up drinking, so if we can tap into that again …
Would you consider a second shop?
Jo: I did open a second shop, in Buckhurst Hill in 2016, but it failed miserably.
John: That was a hard one because it was a beautiful little shop with a ridiculously low break-even, in a mega wealthy area.
Jo: We got out after two years rather than let it drag us down. Obviously, I’m a businesswoman and I’m always looking for opportunities. But I’m not getting any younger and there will come a time when I can’t be the face of my business anymore. You have to realise when it ends.
I’ve got three very competent managers so the business could run without me very successfully. We have a system that drills down to every single line in the business. We run it like a big business. We have very tight management controls, financial controls – we have to. I could step back happily. Probably do one or two days. I don’t know.
John: You could run it from your yacht in the Med. Rock up on a Zoom call every Tuesday.
Jo: I have options! The most important thing is that it is sound and well run.