Teacher’s steep learning curve

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Like her former pupils, Kat Stead has had to work hard to get the results she was hoping for – in her case at the wine shop and bar she opened in November 2018

By Nigel Huddleston

 

The allure of wine tempts people from all sorts of professions into running a wine shop. Kat Stead was an English teacher in a secondary school when a chance encounter at a wine tasting in a Nottingham restaurant set in motion a chain of events that ended with her opening the wine merchant with the best name derived from a sixties French actress/classic wine region pun.

Brigitte Bordeaux is a cool-looking hybrid with a great garden, in a Victorian property on a main arterial road out of Nottingham, north towards Mansfield. It’s a little off the main drag, but just a hundred yards away the road turns into a busy high street with a mix of shops and cafés, indies and the odd chain, including Wetherspoon’s, which has taken over half of one of the city’s busiest bus depots.

Known as Sherwood, the locale is a destination spot that also caters to two residential areas: the affluent Mapperley Park and the not-so Carrington.

Kat’s encounter at the restaurant, back in 2012, was with Laurie Moran, who ran the Wine in Nottingham enthusiasts’ group. She joined the club, started studying for WSET qualifications and eventually agreed to co-run it as Laurie was spending a lot of time in France.

“To accompany the monthly tastings he used to write a blog and he had a nom de vin, Corkmaster [taken from the honorary name of the head of a snooty wine group in the US sitcom Frasier].

“He told me I needed to come up with a wine name to write the blog. We were batting names around – Marilyn Merlot, things like that – and Matt, my partner, came up with Brigitte Bordeaux. I was calling myself that writing the blog for a few years.”

Teaching began to lose its lustre after Kat had her first child in 2015. “I was finding the workload too much,” she says. “Before having kids I’d quite happily spend all day on a Sunday marking books.

“I started saying to people I wanted to do something in wine. I wasn’t quite sure what but, as I’d been a teacher, I thought maybe it would involve wine education.
“But the dream was to open a place like this, though I had no idea how to go about doing it.”

 

 

So how did you go about it?
We moved close to here in 2017 and we were out walking – it was a really cold dark January afternoon about four or five o’clock. We passed by and saw the building was up for sale. It was an old antique shop. The way it was laid out was ideal, because my dream was to have the shop in front and the bar behind.

We spent the whole of 2018 taking two steps forward and one step back. We couldn’t get a commercial mortgage because the business wasn’t up and running. We got turned down for planning permission at first because we had residents either side. We had to go and sit down with the planning officer to convince him we were opening a reputable establishment with well-behaved guests.

Was there ever a thought of giving up?
We got halfway through 2018 and it looked like it wouldn’t happen, but by that point I’d decided I was going to do it somewhere, wherever it was. Because it was taking so long, the vendor put it back on the market at one point and we were looking at other premises.

Eventually we got permission but we had lots of conditions. Initially, we were only open until 9.30pm at the weekend but we’ve managed to change that to 11pm now.

I spent the autumn term teaching and trying to get this place set up and get funding. I got turned down for my start-up loan while the workmen were mid-job, so it was all a bit stressful. But I’m really glad I did it now, looking back.

So you didn’t buy the property outright?
We ended up buying the flat upstairs and taking a lease on the ground floor, with a really good deal on the rent and an option to buy the ground floor at a later date for a fixed amount. We got a really great deal but we also put a lot of money into doing it up.

We opened on December 14, 2018, and I finished teaching the following Friday. There was a lot of initial interest, because we were new, and then days at the beginning of January 2019 when there were no customers. But it gradually built up.

Then early 2020 happened.
The pandemic was a whole different way of doing things. Before the first lockdown was announced we started offering deliveries even though we didn’t have an online store. That was more of a long-term plan.

We could have stayed open but we decided to close and we were at full capacity with deliveries. It went absolutely mad. I did call-forwarding from the shop phone to my mobile, and from late March through to May this place turned into a warehouse, with boxes and boxes of wine. All my suppliers were wondering why I’d gone from ordering really small amounts of wine to huge orders.

We used to deliver to some people two or three times a week who we’ve never heard from since, and lots of customers discovered us through that and have stayed with us. That pushed us to get the online store up and running.

 

 

What was the design approach with the physical shop and bar?
We’ve kind of gone with the French thing: it’s red, white and blue, and the red is a kind of wine colour. We scoured all the auction houses for furniture and the maps on the wall, picking up various things. The tiles in bathroom and the backroom were what we were putting in our dining room at home.

I was in Green Man Wines in Dublin and they had tables made of wine boxes. That gave us the idea for our tables which are basically IKEA tables with wine boxes cut up to make the tops.

And how did you go about filling the shelves?
I just emailed a list of wholesalers and suppliers from my living room on my Hotmail account – and got two responses. Enotria and Liberty were the ones that got back to me, so when we opened it was just with the those two, plus our own-label.

How did that own-label wine come about?
When I did my WSET Level 2, I met these guys who had a place in Bordeaux and wanted to import their neighbours’ wines. We drove out there, tasted the wines, and they were really great, and, brilliantly, we found we could put our own labels on them. It was really cheap as well. We had those as our house wines for the first year but unfortunately they stopped importing them. We’ve been searching for something to replace it since then, but we haven’t come up with anything so good.

Have you consider shipping wines yourself?
We’d like to start. I’m having French lessons to try to make that easier when it comes around.

How has the supplier base expanded?
Initially, the rep from Enotria saw an opportunity and basically came and stocked my shelves for me. When we opened it was about 75% Enotria, and 25% Liberty.

It’s so different now. When we first opened we probably had three or four facings of each wine, but now we don’t do that because we have many more wines. But Enotria have always been good to us and they have some great wines that are still some of our bestsellers.

We’ve probably got 15 or 16 suppliers. I’m a sucker for discovering new wines and suppliers and we use a lot of specialists like Best of Hungary, Maltby & Greek, Marta Vine for Portugal, Dreyfuss Ashby for South Africa and the Loire.

What do you look for in a wine or a supplier?
Interesting wines from new regions and different grape varieties. Obviously the wines that you’re mad about are not always going to be the best sellers in the world. But if I really love a wine I’ll end up putting it on the shelf. Even if it’s too obscure or expensive we’ll still end up selling a bit of it.

I like to have a broad range and some niche things, but for most people who come here the average bottle spend is £12-£15. Price point is important at the moment, particularly with the cost of living. We can’t compete with the supermarkets on price and people come here for the experience – but it’s good to be able to offer good value. I’m always on the lookout for a really good bottle of wine that’s around that £10, £11, £12 point. There are certain wines that sell themselves and others that you have to work a bit harder to convince people of.

Do you have a favourite region or country? Do you feel obliged to say Bordeaux?
No, it changes all the time. At the moment, I really don’t have a favourite, though we’ve probably got more French stuff on the shelves than anything. We’ve got some really interesting Greek stuff, Hungarian stuff … those countries that have their own indigenous grape varieties are quite interesting. Italy is so vast and varied. That’s the great thing about wine; I like most of it.

What’s the best thing about running a wine shop?
I love thinking of new things to do – tastings and promotions. We do online and social media giveaways and the like. We get involved in things like International Sherry Week, Bordeaux Wine Month and 31 Days of Riesling, to get people excited about wines they may not otherwise be.

We’ve done quite a few Greek tastings recently, with wine clubs and societies. I started off working with Best of Hungary after a tasting The Wine Merchant magazine and, on the back of that, we had some Hungarian winemakers who did an event in our garden, which was really successful.

Your location is near a lot of money in Mapperley Park. Have you tapped into that?
I’ve started a wine club: on the last Monday of the month we deliver a case of wine. Quite a lot of subscribers are in Mapperley Park, but it’s also the sort of area where people might have their own cellar and buy from Berry Bros. It has a residents’ association and we did their Jubilee thing at the local cricket club. Things like that are good to get us noticed.

We thought it was going to be cancelled because of the apocalyptic weather forecast. Then we heard mid-morning that it was going ahead, so we were a bit annoyed that we had to go and do it – but it was worthwhile because lots of people came out and drank Nyetimber.

There’s a lot going on in the world at the moment. What are the biggest challenges facing businesses like yours?
The cost of living and people’s disposable income. We are a bit of a premium thing. That’s why it’s really important to have really good value wines on the shelves, wines for under £12 that don’t price people out of the market. If we can get a good deal we pass it on to our customers.

When you’re a public sector worker, you think people who run their own business automatically make lots of money. But you discover that’s not how it works at all. The bills keep coming in. You think you’re doing OK and you get a fat bill.

But that’s aIl part of the enjoyment as well – the reward. We’re very lucky, touch wood, that we have a great customer base. We’ve got regular customers who are only shop customers and we’ve got others that are only bar customers, and some who are both. Our tasting events are very popular and we’ve got people who come to probably over 50% of them. We get to know people and become part of the community.

You can go to the supermarket and spend six quid on a bottle of wine. If you come here there’s a lot more choice and better wine, and you also have a chat and get a different experience.

So having got this far with the business, are there things you wish you’d done differently?
Nothing major jumps out. It’s a constant learning curve. I’m really bad at saying yes to everything and doing tastings for free and that sort of thing.

So many people tried to scare the living daylights out of me in the run-up to opening with that intake of breath and “do you know what you’re doing?”, making me think it was attempting the impossible.

When I was applying for a start-up loan from First Enterprise they wanted a 25-page colour business plan. They asked me what experience I had and I told them I’d worked In Wetherspoon’s when I was at university. I remember sitting there at midnight getting pictures of fridges off the internet at midnight to put into the business plan.

When you’re in the middle of that, people suggest things that are massively important that turn out not to be. I could quite easily have let people scare me into not doing it. But here it is.

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