Sunny Hodge interview: keeping it personal

Sunny Hodge, of Diogenes the Dog in south London, launched a ‘phone sommelier’ service to keep his customers investigating wines like Texan Malbec and Polish stickies. The scheme wasn’t an unqualified success, but it has helped the business maintain a bond with customers that might otherwise have started to fray

In recent years, independents have done well because of their one-to-one relationships with customers. Those relationships become harder to build, and to sustain, in lockdown conditions. But Sunny Hodge had a brainwave.

The owner of Diogenes the Dog – a wine bar and shop in Elephant & Castle, south London – decided to launch a “phone sommelier” service to give customers the personal attention that they had become accustomed to.

“Nobody really knows our wines,” Hodge admits, “and buying online you miss a trick because you don’t really know what you’re ordering.”

A glance at the current list (it changes weekly) bears this out. Malbec from Texas; Moravian Müller-Thurgau/Neuberger; Welsh Pinot Noir; botrycised Polaris from Poland … these are just a few of the highlights that have recently been advertised online.

Sunny Hodge

But the eclectic nature of the range is what gives the business its USP. “People are into it and like the idea that it changes every week,” says Hodge. “It’s all about learning, and the hard thing for people I think is that if they fall in love with a wine, it might not be there in a week or two. But it forces people to learn about different aspects of wine.

“We launched the phone sommelier service as a reaction to what was happening. It was scary to think we might lose what we had worked so hard to achieve before, which were those dialogues and interactions with people.

“We didn’t have an online shop at the time and I felt that if we went straight to an online shop the team would essentially just be sitting there reading a docket and putting it in a bag and waiting for the delivery man, and that’s not what we’re all about.

“So the phone sommelier thing was an idea for people to call in and discuss their preferences, tell us what they were cooking and we would pair and put together some wines for them.

“It was a two-bottle minimum order and at first it was a one-mile radius, but then people were calling up from all over London. I’ve got a motorbike so I ended up delivering in Greenwich and Camden and all sorts of places – because we needed to turn over something.”

There is ample space to allow social distancing. Photo: Daniel Ogulewicz

But, by Hodge’s own admission, the phone sommelier service was “incredibly inefficient”.

“You could be on the phone with someone for half an hour and it’s very difficult sometimes when you don’t have that person in front of you,” he says.

“Then we might have to walk over the order of two bottles of wine – and, including the phone conversation and delivery, that’s an hour and a half of your time. So as cool as it was to help the business when we needed it – and as much a novelty as it is – it is still inefficient.

“It worked initially because as much as an hour and a half of labour to sell two bottles of wine is inefficient, it’s still more efficient than nothing – and in those first two weeks we had nothing coming in. So it was super valuable and it let people know we were still operating.” Although the phone sommelier retains a following, the website has taken precedence. “Lots of people like the speed and facelessness of ordering online,” Hodge concludes.

The premises have remained open throughout the Covid crisis, quickly switching to a grocery and off-licence model to keep the tills ringing.

The premises is based in Elephant & Castle, south London. Photo: Daniel Ogulewicz

Social distancing is possible, thanks to the size of the floorspace and a “steady trickle” rather than a surge of customers.

“As much as we are a wine shop, we are a bar and we had fresh bread on a daily basis, and cheeses and meats that were from small artisanal suppliers,” says Hodge, “and I knew that when bars and restaurants were shut, the trickle-down effect is massive.

“The decision not to close and to operate predominantly as a grocer … initially it didn’t work, I think, because people were shocked and didn’t really know what was happening. The first two weeks we were swimming against the tide and cash flow was a massive issue.

“A week after when off-licences were deemed as essential, things got a bit easier and then the real catalyst was consistently getting good, fresh bread. Then things started working again.”

Hodge has only furloughed one member of the team, a part-timer who is studying to be a barrister. “I think it’s been a godsend for her because she’s been juggling her legal studies with work. She comes in once a week for training, and she keeps up to date with how the business is moving even though she’s not here.”

The landlord has not offered any reductions on rent and Hodge has resisted the temptation to take out a bounce back loan to help with cash flow.

“I don’t like borrowing money,” he says. “I would rather make it work or not make it work without relying on loans.

“Our cash flow was fixed in week two. We are actually turning over more now than we did before, but our margins are much, much lower – that’s why the profits aren’t there.” Sales in a typical week now stand at around the levels normally expected at Christmas.

Diogenes the Dog specialises in eclectic wines. Photo: Daniel Ogulewicz

Looking ahead, Hodge plans to reopen as a wine bar on July 4. “I’m ready to go,” he says. “My floor plan is now in place for a bar. Essentially I have everything in place, but I don’t have any chairs.

“I have six tables on the road – it’s still better than nothing. As soon as I’m allowed to have the tables out there I will.”

The past few months have been a learning experience for Hodge and his team. “As much as it’s been a graft, it’s been quite fun being able to tweak the business so quickly and adapt,” he says.

“I see this whole thing as a forest fire. Nobody likes them, and when they happen, they are really, really damaging. But they encourage new growth and allow other things to sprout up in place of the old trees.”

June 2020