Running a shop is part of Tony Resta’s DNA. The Italian-born owner of London’s Yield N16 and Yield N1 stores has found a winning blend of wines, craft beers, bakery and deli items that may yet lead to a third, or even fourth, branch
Words: Claire Harries
Photography: Ashley Bingham
Tony Resta is a man of contradictions. On one hand, trading through the pandemic gave him a buzz, made him “feel alive”, and yet he genuinely missed the usual daily interactions with his customers. He freely admits to feeling quite emotional in the wake of successfully navigating his business through the past two years.
He has an eye on retirement, but also can’t resist looking into the possibility of opening a third, and maybe a fourth, shop. He clearly loves being at the heart of Yield N16 in Newington Green and, while he is proud of his second store, Islington’s Yield N1, he expresses relief that he’s not too hands-on with it.
“I’m not opening and closing the N1 shop, so I wonder where I get the enjoyment, really,” he muses. “I guess I see customers being seated, greeted and served and that gives me a smile. The team is happy and that gives me another smile.”
The skill of keeping shop, and doing it well, is the main motivator for Resta. He appreciates his role in the community, the ability to bring something of value to the area and all at the right price.
“There is an honest mark-up that you don’t need to go beyond,” he says. “I dread the idea that someone thinks I’m overcharging.
“Longevity is my game, so listening to the customers and gaining their trust is really important. I’m an old-school shopkeeper; I will have that forever.”
Tell us about your first shop, Yield N16 in Newington Green.
When we opened in 2015 it was pretty much a wine bar and shop with a small selection of natural wines, craft beer, a lot of bag-in-box refill.
I didn’t have the delicatessen then – no eggs, bread or cheese. At the time, the idea of opening a wine shop in Newington Green where you could grab a bottle, have it in with nibbles and charcuterie, was a new concept.
People thought I was rude asking for corkage. They couldn’t understand it and thought I was trying to charge them twice. The idea was to buy a £30 bottle of wine rather than one at, say, £10 because that’s where you’d get value for money: the mark-up at a restaurant can be 100%. We used to have corkage at £8 a bottle, which is nothing.
It looks like a friendly place – a nice kitchen vibe.
It has got that kitchen feel. You come in and there’s somebody slicing, somebody chopping. We did hot food at the beginning, but we stopped doing it as we didn’t feel that was the way forward.
We get big cheeses and dissect those to order or wrap them to put in the fridge. Often when you ask a customer what weight they want of something, they don’t know because food in a supermarket is pre-packed, so you don’t think about how much it weighs.
So when they ask for salami, for example, we ask how many people they are serving and what they are cooking and we can recommend how much they need. We give them the first slice to chew, so they fire up their taste buds, and then you have that rapport. Otherwise, what is a shopkeeper? We like to be around people, we love the products, and we want to support our suppliers.
We haven’t done them for a couple of years but our open tastings, which we used to do on Saturdays, really gave the shop some dynamism. Customers really love to meet the winemaker, or the cheese or charcuterie maker.
When did you open the Islington shop?
We opened Yield N1 on February 15 last year. It was supposed to open the previous February but in many ways, if I had opened it before the pandemic, I wouldn’t have had the team in place or the time to turn it around and make it work because I was on my own. So the focus was on N16.
The idea was always to have a second shop that was wine-focused, a similar model to N16. But that has also changed in the past year. It was pretty much a wine shop with no seating and it was only two or three weeks ago that we put the tables and chairs in.
I always find if you build a shop and you say the counter is over there, the wine racks will go here, the customers will come in and do this and this … but you know what, a month down the line you see all your ideas need changing because people aren’t shopping the way you thought they would. Yield N16 has taught me that. You see how people shop and move things around accordingly.
How big is your team?
We have wonderful staff who really engage with the customers. We have five members of the team at N1 and I’ve not had to work there yet, touch wood. I’ve not had to open or close that place. N16 is a different beast altogether: it’s busier, we are open more hours and we’ve got eight people working there.
Why do you think they are so different considering they are not that far apart geographically?
Well that’s London though isn’t it, you turn a corner and it can feel really different. Islington is a busy area but there’s less of a community, it’s more offices and people passing through.
And what about Newington Green?
It’s not Stoke Newington or Islington; it’s its own place in the middle of it all and stands proud with a lovely square. The Mary Wollstonecraft statue [by artist Maggi Hambling] was put there a couple of years ago and that’s become a bit of a tourist attraction.
When we opened we were pretty much on our own but now there are some great restaurants, a butcher and a baker, there’s a real buzz going on. It’s a lovely community.
It was tough at the beginning but we’re not the only kids on the block anymore. If you’ve only got a few shops in the middle of the high street but no shops at the top or bottom, that’s a dead street. You need people going from one end to another.
I don’t understand areas where someone has said, oh there’s a really good florist here, let’s open up another florist … what the hell is that about? You need diversity, bring something to the bloody area, not take something away.
Do you have the same products across both stores?
Sometimes the team at N1 will say about a product, “Tony, it doesn’t work,” and I say to just give it time. I’ve used E5 Bakehouse since day one in N16. It’s great bread, and I believe in the product, but for the first few months I was making breadcrumbs from it or giving it away because it takes time for customers to know. I’ve tried a few things that don’t work, but it keeps you on your toes and as long as you don’t stray too far from your concept and be true to what you are, it’s OK; just know your products, that’s key. There is always someone in here that knows about the wine and always someone who knows about the pantry side of things.
Two things that do really well were both recommended by my kids. One is Torres crisps. During lockdown a few restaurants turned into convenience stores to survive and these Torres crisps were everywhere. The second thing is Tony’s Chocolonely. We don’t sell the big bars, we do the small ones at the counter. I like the packaging, the chocolate is great – and my name is Tony.
I think the delicatessen items don’t work so well at N1 as there is a Sainsbury’s and aWaitrose nearby, and a Pret and a Starbucks. I’m not selling what the supermarkets sell. My cheese is from Neal’s Yard Dairy, the salmon is from The Secret Smokehouse in London, but I guess if Waitrose sells another type of smoked salmon at a quarter of the price, will people buy it from me?
What works is wine – we have a really big following for our wine and craft beer.
Is bag-in-box wine still going well for you?
At one time at N16 we had 15 bag-in-boxes for refill. But it was the first thing to go during lockdown. Any refills were axed, even the olive oil, and I don’t think it will come back for us. Nobody is asking for it.
We had a 50-litre container of olive oil arrive from southern Italy and customers would come in and refill their bottle but, believe it or not, we had a visit from the council saying that it was illegal. You are not allowed to decant extra virgin olive oil. I showed him [the man from the council] the details of the supplier, the invoice, details of the product. At first he said I could label the container accordingly and then he came back and said, “actually, the government says it’s illegal,” so he didn’t know that himself.
How did you operate during lockdown?
It was a struggle, it wasn’t fun, especially when customers were coming in and were scared and worried, but we’ve done well. I became a convenience store almost overnight.
It was a big question for me as to whether it was morally right for me to be open. I’ve been in the community for 20 years and I didn’t want to open the shop and be seen to be making money out of essentials.
After 10 days I sent out a message on social media and asked the community what they wanted me to do. I opened 8am to midday for anyone who wanted to come in and have a private shopping slot on an appointment basis. We furloughed the whole team and over time we asked how they felt about coming back. It was up to them to see if it was the sort of place they wanted to come back to.
It was very different: there was no talking to customers, everyone was wearing a mask, they came in to buy and leave – it was just going through the motions. There was a big strain on the team who were with me during lockdown, and it was hard for them. It was a very demanding environment and became emotionally draining. As someone who has worked during the whole thing, I’m finally feeling that I can breathe a little bit.
Did you find it hard to get stock from your suppliers?
At first the suppliers didn’t know what was going on either. Neal’s Yard just gave me cases of milk as there was so much going to waste. I would work more closely with suppliers. The conventional ordering process broke down and that meant I had to hustle.
So the order sheet, where I would call suppliers and say what I needed, didn’t exist anymore. I would just have to find out what they had and how much of it they had. In some ways I enjoyed it – it brought my youth back. Not wheeling and dealing, but having to think on my toes.
I was always so pleased to see the drivers because we’d chat. The customers didn’t want to talk – they were on a mission. They didn’t want recommendations and that was the horrible part of it all – that the customer experience was so different and I didn’t enjoy that.
You sound like a shopkeeper born and bred. What’s your background?
I’ve been a retail shopkeeper for over 25 years and a restaurateur for 15 years.
I think it comes from when I was a kid. I was brought up in the south of Italy. My uncle used to have an osteria, it was like a little cave underneath some houses. It was a place where men went to play cards and drink wine and I used to serve there. I used to decant the wine and work for tips, or sometimes a sip of wine. I also had a job in a deli where I would have to grate parmesan by hand.
In the summer we’d go grape picking. I was only 12 or 13 but it was common for kids to work on the land. Grape picking at five in the morning … trust me, it’s not romantic at all. It’s hard, backbreaking work. But it was beautiful because we’d stop when it got too hot around 10am and have a sandwich and some wine.
Which wine suppliers do you work with?
I get a big chunk of our wines from Les Caves de Pyrene. They have a wide selection of really interesting stuff at a competitive price. The reps are really good and they treat us well. We also work with Alliance and Indigo.
We’re only getting the reps back in to sit down with us and taste again now, and it’s brilliant because we can start planning again.
We do try to work with small importers but the problems caused by Brexit, the additional strain with the delays and wine just sitting there waiting to come through, makes that harder. Any stuff coming from Europe, half those workers haven’t been working because of what’s been going on –and on top of that they have to supply their domestic market before they even think about the UK. I have pasta that I love to sell that I’m not able to restock right now because of the lack of production.
Would you consider doing any direct importing?
It was supposed to happen before lockdown with some great wines I found in southern Italy. I don’t want to be a wholesaler, but just getting a pallet for the two shops, with things the way they are at the moment, is too costly.
I hope it might change, as apart from opening another couple of shops I would like to bring wine over direct. But it all takes time and effort and if I open another shop, will I have time to do that?
Where does the business go from here?
I was hoping to open up another couple of shops and they’ve fallen through for one reason or another. But with hospitality being so challenging right now, I’m not sure … it’s so hard to find good staff, and independents can’t necessarily match the perks being offered by the chains.
It’s all still on the agenda. I’m 48 and I’m thinking of retiring when I’m 50-55, but I do like being a shopkeeper.
It’s not all about revenue and money. If I had more shops, I’d tickle myself coming up with a couple of products that would really fly, like my kids did with the Torres crisps and the Tony’s chocolates.