Laithwaites veteran Kieran O’Brien took over a traditional off-licence in Staffordshire in 2017. He liked the old-fashioned exterior, but knew he had to make big changes to the products on the shelves, as Nigel Huddleston reports
Eccleshall is only about five miles off a busy stretch of the M6 north of Birmingham but it has a rural tranquility that seems to place it in less hurried times. It’s the sort of place where a wine merchant can find themselves taking in post for the nearby pharmacist who still closes for lunch and selling loose tobacco from Edwardian-looking tins to pipe-smoking farmers.
But appearances can be deceptive. “It’s a bit of a party town in the summer, with lots of live music on in the pubs,” says Kieran O’Brien, dad to three under-fives and owner of the town’s Three Pillars Wine.
Appropriately for a place with such a split personality, the Staffordshire location doesn’t seem to be able to decide on its own municipal status.
“There’s always a debate whether it’s a town or a village,” says O’Brien. “Estate agents like to call it a village; officially it’s a town. On my website I call it a village because it sounds a bit nicer.
“It’s developed into a big battle. There are quite a few new housing estates on the outskirts, so it’s a reasonably-sized town really. But you can still park on the high street, so there are always people out and about popping into all the independents to do their shopping.”
It was the party town personality as much as the well-heeled village idyll that attracted O’Brien to taking over a traditional off-licence in late 2017 and rebranding it as Three Pillars, the name a natural choice inspired by the shop’s exterior architecture which is distinct from anything else on the town’s high street.
He decided to go it alone after 10 years in retail with Laithwaites in Surbiton and Solihull, and a short spell at Loki in Birmingham.
Where did it start for you and wine?
My first wine job was as a sommelier at a Waldorf Astoria in London. It was a new hotel opening in Syon Park [to the west of the city]. The idea was to get all the celebrities to stop outside London, close to the airport when they were using Heathrow. I was thrown in at the deep end on my first day, opening boxes of Lafite, Latour and Pétrus. It was a little bit intimidating. In the first few weeks we had the England rugby World Cup winning team in. One of the other sommeliers told me to stand next to Martin Johnson and just keep pouring.
I was there for six months. It got downgraded to a Hilton and all the food and beverage team moved.
How did you make the leap from Loki into Three Pillars?
I had six months at Loki, while they were planning the second site in Edgbaston, with the idea that I’d manage the city centre shop while they opened the new one. The second shop got delayed, and we all ended up being a bit on top of each other in Birmingham, so I decided to do something different.
I live in Rugeley and I had thought of setting up on my own, but it’s tricky in Staffordshire finding the right place. When this came up, I thought it was the ideal sort of place for a wine merchant. It’s an affluent area, so I jumped at the chance. It’s an iconic location because everyone you speak to knows where you’re talking about when you say “the shop with the three pillars jumping out into the road”. The locals love the fact that we’ve honoured the building with the name.
It was already an off-licence, so what have you changed?
It was the local rugby club bar as well before that, so I think it’s been a supplier of alcohol for around 100 years in one form or another. I’ve tried to move it more in a wine merchant direction.
It had a really good range of spirits – mainly whisky and gins – but the wines were really just what you’d find in the supermarket, Barefoot and Yellowtail, so I had to get rid of those in the first few weeks. I didn’t want to upset the regulars but I wanted to put my own stamp on it and get more quality wines in that you couldn’t find in the multiples.
A part of me wanted to start again and rip it out and do everything exactly as I wanted, but it had quite a good customer base, so I warmed to the idea of keeping all the customers it had and building on that by adding quality wines and craft beer and more premium spirits.
What about now – have you got the shop looking the way you want it?
I’ve been looking at a refurb to bring a bar element in. It’s up in the air because the building’s gone up for sale. I’ve got five years left on the lease and the interested parties who want to buy it have said they’d be prepared to sit down with me and put another 10 years on. If that all goes to plan I’ll decide to invest a little bit more in it and that’s when those old elements will probably fall by the wayside.
When I took over we had a small refit. It used to look like a proper convenience store with big open fridges. We painted all the category panels around the top to section out the shop. Everything is really building towards the next stage. Hopefully that will all happen by the summer.
It’s not a tiny shop, but it’s not huge either. Have you got the space to bring in a bar element?
It’s not huge but the space isn’t used very well at the moment. Most of the till area is completely unnecessary. It could have a very small till station with an iPad and that would be completely fine. The idea is to have wood flooring throughout with most of the current till area as seating and a little bar area at the far end of the shop as well. There’s an ice cream freezer there which I was going to get rid of from the start, but then my girls came over to look at the shop and fell in love with it, so that had to stay. But it might have to go now.
What did you change in the wine range?
We got rid of the branded wines; I brought in a selection that I’d got to know over my 10 years in wine. Loki has a great selection and introduced me to different suppliers. I got to know a lot through Laithwaites too. They’re quite well known for their lower-end cases but they’ve got a really good mid-priced range.
Nearly all the wines we sell are new since I came in and I’ve tried to put a focus on organic and natural wines. Les Caves de Pyrene is one of my biggest suppliers. Organic wines are something I get asked for every weekend – natural wines not so much – and in the last 18 months it’s been vegan wines as well. Liberty is another big supplier just because they’ve got such a wide range that covers a lot of bases. Bibendum is another.
Is the word “natural” a barrier? Do people understand what it means?
The natural wine movement often doesn’t do itself any favours because it’s sort of saying that other wine isn’t natural – “this is the proper stuff” – and people find that confusing. There isn’t a perfect definition but I think you can explain it to people quite simply: that it’s more a way of doing things that starts with organic in the vineyard and then just trying to make wine without the addition of commercial yeast, acid or sugar. I do a brief introduction on it when we do tastings, but for most people organic is something they’re familiar with from food.
People enjoy the wines though. I try not to bring out too many funky, cidery wines because I think a lot of customers might think they’re a bit too extreme.
What’s been selling best for you overall?
Traditional styles go well. Red wines – Malbecs and Riojas – are the best-sellers still. I get a lot of customers shopping for gifts and I’ve got a few nice Burgundies that are going down well on that score, and some of the New World fine wines as well. Some of the wines I’m really keen on are from southern France, a bit more rustic – unoaked, really pure fruit, really delicious. Appassimento Italian reds are becoming more popular as well. When we were doing a lot of tastings last Christmas we had an Amarone-style red, but from southern Italy, which was popular – a Negroamaro-Primitivo with a bit of natural sweetness, low tannin and full-bodied.
What’s your own real love in wine?
Red Burgundy. Before I had the kids, I used to treat myself to a bottle of Burgundy Grand Cru every pay day. I only have pay days now and again these days. A nice Crozes-Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, that’s my sweet spot. I’ve visited Bordeaux and Rioja a few times so I have a soft spot for those as well.
What learnings from Laithwaites and Loki have you adapted to here?
Loki was a big learning curve. At Laithwaites you’re ordering from a central place and putting things in the required shop order. Loki had about 25 accounts, so realising that you had to shop around importers to really get the range you wanted was important. I’ve probably got seven or eight suppliers and I’d like to cap it at around 10. I’m thinking of bringing a few in this year. I like a lot of Hallgarten’s wines, and I’ve been meaning to get them in from the start. I also want to try FMV for some of their fine wines. Once we get those two on board I’ll be pretty happy with the range.
We get fine wine parcels in at different times of year already. I’m planning on putting a small dedicated fine wine section in though, probably with eight reds and eight whites, for when people are looking for a gift or something a bit extra special. It worked really well at Laithwaites in getting people to trade up a little bit.
Are the tastings important?
With the bar being on hold I’ve been trying to make it an events business as well. I did 12 tastings in November and December last year in the shop and there are another six in the first half of 2020. It’s difficult to make things work with just what comes through the door. It ticks over quite nicely but I think you need another element to the business. The events do well and are profitable and they bring in new customers. If you do an event for 20 or 30 people, you’ll see a handful of new customers who you start to see on a weekly basis.
I like to do them in the shop because everyone’s got access to buy everything. I’ve started to do private tastings for people at home for birthday parties, and a few staff team-building events for local businesses. Whereas that used to be a complementary element to the main business of retail, for a lot of people it’s become front and centre to turning a decent profit.
Do you work with other shops in the town?
We’ve collaborated quite a bit within Eccleshall. The butcher round the corner has just won UK’s best butcher and started a cookery school, so they’re doing food and wine matching, and we’ve got involved in that. It’s been really positive for us. I did a few tastings in there last Christmas and people were picking up their turkeys, tasting some of our wines and then coming in here to buy them.
There’s a wine bar up the road called Sancerre where we’ve done a few tastings. Eccleshall is twinned with Sancerre. We’ve recently started working with Hatch Mansfield who have some good connections there and we’re trying to organise some winemakers to come over in the summer and do a tasting and have a bit of a party.
There’s always been a spirit for independents in Eccleshall and a few business groups that try to support them. We’ll meet up with other retailers every few months to come up with new initiatives to make it a destination shopping area. The way forward is to be more experience-based because online is so strong. All the pubs and cafés are working together to put on events and trying to work collaboratively to bring people into town. There’s a good atmosphere between businesses; everyone’s trying to help each other wherever they can.
Is there scope to take your model to other locations?
The place if I was going to do something would be a proper town centre, probably Stafford, and I’d set it up as a tasting room and shop from day one. Stafford hasn’t got an independent wine shop of its own. But the focus now is on Eccleshall, at least for the next 18 months. It’s been two and a half years and it still feels like we’re building something, but we really saw the difference last year. I really want to solidify this place first but I’d definitely open a second shop in the future.
Has doing it yourself rather than for Loki or Laithwaites been all you’d hoped?
I’ve absolutely loved it. It doesn’t really feel like coming to work most days, not having a boss and making your own decisions. There are times where I’ll do a double shift or I’ve got four tastings in a week but … I think you get to the point where you want to do things for yourself and make all the decisions, and succeed on your own terms, or even fail on them. But so far, so good.
Published March 2020