Merchant profile: Vino Gusto, Suffolk

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Vino Gusto popped up when its parent pub group was forced to close during Covid. It was only expected to be a temporary solution, but now, at its bigger town centre site, it’s become the best destination for wine lovers in Bury St Edmunds and the surrounding area. By Nigel Huddleston


The crossover between off-trade and on-trade wine retailing is commonplace but the origin story of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds is a bit different, spawned not from the commercial imperative of a wine merchant looking to maximise revenue streams, but from a pub company improvising to outwit the pandemic.

Roxane and David Marjoram are the couple behind the town’s successful Gusto Pronto pub group and the local Brewshed brewery. In 2018, they brought in Jake Bennett-Day to look after the drinks side of the pub business.

“When Covid hit we had lots of booze and no one to sell it to,” says Jake, who now runs the Vino Gusto store. “I’d been furloughed and spent a few weeks in my garden getting bored. Rox was living above the flagship pub in the middle of town and needed something to stable the ship and concentrate on, so we opened a little pop-up store.”

The team had plenty of pedigree. Jake had worked at the acclaimed Old Bridge wine shop in Huntingdon, while the pub, the One Bull, had won awards for its wine list.

“It was one of the first pubs in eastern England to offer all its wines by the glass and was known for the variation and creativity of its list, as opposed to the average selection of claret and Burgundy that most were offering 15 years ago,” says Jake.

The pop-up store went through various physical iterations, eventually launching an e-commerce site that was serviced from the brewery warehouse – and when the mists of the pandemic began to clear, the success in retail led to the decision to open a permanent Vino Gusto. It’s in a street just a few seconds’ walk from the central shopping area of the town, best known in drinks circles as the home of Greene King.

The Vino Gusto store covers three floors, with white walls, white shelves and wooden floors painted white, giving a tight environment a feeling of light and space. The bulk of the wine range is on the ground floor and there’s a tasting room with a boardroom-style table upstairs. Downstairs is home to fine wine and an orange neon sign depicting the shop motto: “All killers, no fillers”.

Jake notes of the Vino Gusto evolution: “At no point did we intend to open a wine retail business. We’re here by accident, but we’re very happy about it.”



How did the decision to go from pop-up to permanent transpire?
We’re in Bury St Eduminds because we love the town, but it didn’t have a specialist wine retail business as it had done in the past. Greene King used to have Thomas Peatling but for five years or so there hadn’t been an independent wine merchant in town.

This was one of the first sites we went to look at on the same day as a few other potential pop-up locations – and really we decided at that point that if we were going to do it, that we might as well commit and do it properly.

Why did this site appeal?
We instantly saw all the lovely features that we could turn into what it is today. The cellar wasn’t in use at the time; it was pretty dark and dingy, but the components were all there. It was an old shoe shop and the ground floor shelving was all there. We put some MDF trim on the front to make it look slightly more premium and posh, but there was a lot of structure in place already.

It had a lot of offer. It’s just off the town’s main street. It’s got a loading bay and on-street parking outside. It seemed to tick almost all the boxes. We also wanted to be able to open bottles and host people in the site. The upstairs seemed like an attractive option that we could convert into something fresh and have nice groups of people in and open some bottles and have a good time.

Is there a significant rent advantage over being on the main drag?
The 50 yards or so that we are away from there does come with a significant rent and rate advantage. It wasn’t necessarily one of the driving factors that convinced us to take the site, but it meant we were able to go in with more capital cash and make it look and feel exactly as we wanted it.

We came into what was an OK shell, but we have spent a considerable amount of money making it look and feel fresh, which it certainly didn’t when we took it on.

What was the vision for that look and feel?
We set out to be the antithesis of what most wine shops look like, with cases slung on the floor, and pallets and scaffold boards. We wanted it to be a proper shopping experience, as opposed to a jumble sale of bottles. I think we’ve achieved that. By painting the insides to be a white canvas we’ve let the bottles do the talking.

Was there a lot to do to get it to how you wanted it?
We completely gutted the place. The cellar staircase had a hatch over the top of it and there was no shelving down there. The cellar was ultimately a hole in the ground with puddles on the floor. The ground floor was carpeted and we’ve done very well to retain the shelving, pretty it up and turn horrible outdated cabinets into shaker-style things. There was a lot of carpentry work – the big one was creating the balustrading around the stairs.

The building as a whole suffered from asbestos, so we were stalled for a few weeks while that was taken out. It was a cost we hadn’t anticipated.

The top floor was a real mess and it took quite a lot to be able to make it a functioning space with a bathroom and kitchenette. Sometimes I’ll have my dog in and she’ll play fetch with herself by dropping her ball in one corner upstairs and collecting it in the far one because there’s quite a slope. The table is chopped at every leg to ensure it doesn’t wobble. But we’re lucky that the building has character.

You’ve included an Enomatic. Would you say you’re a hybrid?
It’s lovely to have the capacity to have eight bottles open at any time and let people taste in a try-before-you-buy fashion.

I love browsing in wine shops but I’m very aware that I’m in the 1% who does spend a lot of time looking at the labels and working out exactly what it is I might want to drink, whereas we’re more about the “consumer experience”. For the sake of the tape, I’m using air quotes there because I don’t like the word experience. But ultimately we want the customers to come to have a lovely time while they’re deciding on the wine they might have with the chicken casserole they’re making.

While the concept looks a bit hybrid because we have the Enomatic, it’s really there as a tasting machine. We’re not a bar, apart from accidentally on a Saturday afternoon when the regular punters who have an access card to the machine spend a little bit too much time – but that’s never an issue.

What is the local customer base like?
We’re very lucky in Bury St Edmunds in that the food scene is growing quickly and becoming more exciting. People refer to it as the foodie capital of Suffolk and I’m pleased to be here for that. We’re riding that wave and there are a lot of people who are doing a lot of word-of-mouth advertising for us.



What does your own marketing look like?
We do quite well with email with a relatively localised group of regular customers. We’re building social very steadily. It’s by no means a big driver for us and we’d like to grow it. Both myself and David write a regular column in the local paper about hospitality, food and wine. We always feel like we’re shouting about the business and the ultimate goal is to tell people how great it is without them coming through the door. It’s something we know we need to get better at.

David and Roxane have five pubs, so there are thousands of people every week who we can tell that we exist and that they should come and buy their wine here. That is important to us.

Is there a crossover between the wine range in the shop and the pubs?
There’s very healthy crossover but we’re looking to streamline it over the next couple of months so that there will be 100% crossover. It doesn’t make sense to give customers the opportunity to drink wines in the pub, tell them we own a wine shop, and then they can’t buy those wines from us. It’s something we need to fix and we’re looking at doing that.

Is there a potential conflict between shop prices and the pub mark-ups in customers’ eyes?
Yes, there is. A consumer’s expectation is three times mark-up [in the on-trade versus retail]. There will be a degree of trepidation going into that but I think we’ll be able to manage it as well as we can.

Wines are merchandised according to style rather than country. What’s the reason for that?
The average consumer that comes into a wine shop isn’t particularly well-educated about wine. Obviously we have a greater proportion of people who are than the supermarkets do, but most people who walk into a wine shop want to be able to choose a bottle of wine quickly and easily, and the best way of helping them do that is by laying the wines out cleanly and using stylistic headers rather than geographical ones. It’s clean, fresh and self-explanatory.

It allows us to be creative and different, rather than needing to fill the red wine Burgundy section because we’re short of Rully, for example. We’ve got a dynamic and ever-evolving wine list.

How has the supplier base grown since you started?
We still work with the same people. Through me wanting a diverse array of wines we probably work with too many importers – 25 or so, which for a 600-bin list is probably too many. Like a magpie I get attracted to lovely, shiny, delicious things. We tend to work with lots of people who have specialities. A lot of our Spanish portfolio is from Indigo, for example, but we don’t buy much outside of Spain from them.

As we grow and take on wholesale accounts our purchasing volume is increasing. We’re able to buy quite handsomely from everybody to make sure we’re buying at the right price.

With the way it’s laid out it doesn’t look like a range of 600 … in a good way.
We try within those 600 wines to be as sensible or restrained as possible. Most consumers who walk into a wine shop don’t want to be overwhelmed. They want to be able to find what they’re looking for or be guided by the hand sell – and not search through 400 Bourgogne blancs to discover they should be drinking South African Chardonnay as a good alternative. If you go to the “rich and round” white section you’ll find four or five Burgundies but you won’t find four Meursaults. We’ll taste four or five and find our favourite one that delivers what we’re looking for commercially.

Do you have your own areas of specialism?
We’re fairly strong in South Africa. We work quite closely with Dreyfus Ashby and ABS, and Liberty for some higher-volume stuff. It’s partly because there’s cracking value coming out of the country and partly because the first shop assistant we hired is from Durban and has a particular penchant for the wines of his motherland. From the get-go we had quite a demand for wines from South Africa. A Bourgogne blanc at what used to be an average of £15 a bottle now costs £24-£25 and I can provide excellent and better value with a stylistically similar wine like South African Chenin Blanc. You can find genuinely interesting, textural and delicious wine at much better price points from the new world.

The stylistic section that bulges with probably too many wines is the “light and bright” red section. It’s just a particular area of wine that I love, those sort of fresh, acid-driven, mineral red wines.

Where did “all killers, no fillers” come from?
We came up with the name Vino Gusto and Rox said we need a slogan – and I came out with it within about 30 seconds. Ultimately, it’s no duff bottles, in the same way that duff tracks on an album are called fillers. Everything on the shelf is tasted and trialled against other bottles of wine. Everything’s killer: why would we be selling a wine if we didn’t believe the value justifies its quality on-shelf?

We do everything from £10 a bottle up to £500-£600 but our sweet spot on price is probably anything from £12-£13 up to £17-£18. We’re also heavy just above that; from £18-£25 you can find outstanding juice and we do really well with those. I think value generally tails off quite dramatically after 30 quid.

How has the cost-of-living crisis impacted Bury St Edmunds?
We’re quite sheltered from it, to be honest. It’s a wealthy town and those who are wealthy are quite conservative. They’ve remained that way by not spending 50 quid on a bottle of Burgundy for every occasion. But those who have always been happy to spend on wine continue to do so. We’re probably seeing a little decline from a retail point of view but we’ve filled that gap by moving into a few wholesale accounts.

The most important is a restaurant called Lark, named after a river that runs through the town. They were visited by Jay Rayner a few months ago and scored incredibly well. It’s worked out really well for us. We’re at the point of taking on a general manager, someone who will be skilled in the logistics involved to be able to handle increasing wholesale customer requirements.

You have very strong branding. Is that the work of an agency or done in-house?
The logo has been adapted from the brewery logo. The winery you see on it is the brewery and what look like vineyards were sloping hills that capture the rolling Suffolk landscape where it buys its hops from. It’s all been done in-house.

We’ve had lots of feedback on it and people generally like it. I’m pleased it’s always been done in-house and never gone outside to anyone else. I still build and maintain the website myself, which is much more time-consuming than I ever imagined it would be.

Are spirits or beer on the radar?
It’s just wine. It’s a really conscious decision. Firstly, we’re called Vino Gusto. I personally don’t walk into a wine shop to buy anything but wine and the margin on spirits is really difficult to justify working with. My expertise is solely in wine and we want to be a wine-centric hub.

So not even the sister brewery’s products?
We had them initially but they weren’t fast movers for us, so we decided to drop them and focus entirely on wine. I’m quite comfortable with the decision.

How important is online?
Sales are about 90% physical. I’d like to put more into online but we’ve put a lot of investment into the bricks and mortar base. Online is an easy way to scale your business but there are logistical nightmares in finding the right couriers and packaging – and to make any margin is difficult.

For every wine we sell online there are multiple companies doing exactly the same thing from a warehouse in an industrial park where rents are low and they can justify selling it with less margin than we can. I’d like to grow online but I’m very happy that the bricks and mortar side has been so well-received – and long may that continue.

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