Matt Ellis has always found a reason to smile about his job, even when it involves leading a wine tasting trip to Chernobyl. Nigel Huddleston pays a visit to his Smiling Grape store in St Neots
Matt Ellis’s nickname has been Smiler for as long as he can remember. “I used to get into terrible trouble at school,” he says. For the past 13 years, however, he’s been channelling his sense of mischief and a flair for disruption into The Smiling Grape, the wine merchant with a happy face in the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots.
In addition to a great wine range, over the years the Smiling Grape approach has involved wine karaoke, film nights, record-breaking pub crawls, wine trips to countries of the former Soviet Union and mixed cases with unconventional free gifts, such as a screwdriver which came with a flat-pack furniture “recovery” case. There are in-store tasting notes that recommend wines to drink with everything from fast food to popular TV shows to items of underwear sold in Victoria’s Secret. Some bottles have tags for wine horoscopes.
The décor includes pictures of Barack Obama, the queen and Daniel Craig as James Bond drinking wine.
“We want to make people smile through wine,” says Matt. “We’re selling happiness. That’s what wine and booze is.
“We started off as a classic fine wine merchant, the first there had ever been in the town.”
Having opened on St Neots’s main drag, the business moved a few yards to a site adjacent to the car park of the local Waitrose in 2012.
“It’s twice the size and half the cost and we’ve got parking outside,” Matt adds. “We realised after about four years the footfall had really dropped and we needed to cut costs.
“Wholesale was a big part of the business then and we needed more storage. Lorries couldn’t turn up outside where we were. We had a warehouse outside town, but it was very inconvenient constantly going backwards and forwards to get stock.”
Since the pandemic hit, Smiling Grape has ditched its wholesale custom and ramped up an online revenue stream called Low Cost Beer, selling short-dated or out-of-date stock, that launched as an experiment in 2019.
Matt started the Smiling Grape business with mum Denise and dad Robert, who’s now retired. Denise keeps her hand in, helping in the packing department for online orders.
“She’s not too keen to be at home watching cricket,” notes Matt.
Looking back, was the change of location a good piece of business?
The best thing about the shop is we’ve got Waitrose outside. It’s great because there’s nobody there who can give advice on wine. Somebody told us they went in there and asked someone about the organic wines they sell and they didn’t know anything about them, and they suggested they come over here. They’re constantly sending people over if they have no idea what they’re talking about. We find a lot of customers now come in here and select their wines and then go over there and buy their food.
How important are the off-beat tasting notes as a sales tool?
We match up anything you can imagine: things like doner kebabs or celebrities, like the Mr T of wine. We also match with music, like hard rock and heavy metal, and things from everyday life like angling and wines to thanking your neighbour for watering the plants, or shows like Downton Abbey and Midsomer Murders.
We always do a Strictly match. There are people who come in just to read the labels and don’t buy any wine. We keep it fun. There’s one here for Michelle Williams; she was in that dreadful film with Tom Hardy; something to do with giant teeth – Venom!
You go into some wine shops and get told about barrel toast levels and what the winemaker does to the wine, but people don’t care about that. They just want to have a bit of fun looking at the shelves and some of them need a bit of help.
How did it start?
The whole concept was to keep matching wine with everyday life, whereas if you go into the supermarket there are walls and walls of wine and no one has any idea what’s going on.
If they want, customers can take the tasting notes away with them, so we’re constantly printing new ones out. They’re very good for dinner parties; you can line up all the wines with funny tasting notes. It’s a good icebreaker. We used to sell earplugs with a Cheryl Cole wine, but I’m not sure where that’s gone.
You’ve also got one for the best seller.
We just pass that one around different wines in the shop to help them move.
It’s not necessarily the best seller?
Just the one you’d like to be the best seller.
What’s your overall approach to merchandising?
We used to have sections for things like Lovely Jubbly and OMG but now we’ve decided to keep it quite traditional, but we have added in the pictures of famous people drinking. We did have a Donald Trump picture but we took it down because it made people quite angry. He doesn’t drink anyway, so that was probably quite a good move.
I think a lot of people were coming in and couldn’t work out where wines were, so it was easier to keep it simple. When we started in the old shop we merchandised by taste and that really confused people. If they were looking for an Italian white, for example, it took forever to try to find it.
Where do your wines come from, in the main?
Les Caves de Pyrene have been really good. I think their wines fit with our quirky way of buying. Some of the natural wines we show at tastings are so wacky and people love that.
We do quite a lot with Jeroboams Trade. We’ve done bits and pieces with Myliko who are quite good.
We like to have a good cull of suppliers. We like to see how well they’re performing in terms of supporting us and get rid of the ones who come and see us every three years and tell us about wines we could have been selling years ago.
If we don’t get any support and nobody comes to see us there’s no point in buying from them.
Probably our biggest supplier now is UK Wine in Derby, who deal in bankrupt stock, overstocks and bin ends. That’s really how our business has changed since lockdown, which is completely different from how we started.
We also go to auctions and buy some cracking stuff. We picked up a whole lot of spirits from a Chinese restaurant in London that went under. We re-bottled them in 5cl miniatures and made a lucky dip basket. We pick up some really good stuff and the margins are fantastic.
The trouble with auctions is you’ve got to sit there for hours and make sure you don’t get carried away when it comes to bidding.
Tell us more about the beer side of things.
Low-cost craft beer is about 60% of our business now. We started it as an experiment, built a website and it was nicely ticking over – then from March 2020 it went completely bonkers and we haven’t stopped. We were doing a couple of orders a week when we launched it and we’re doing 50 to 100 now.
All this stuff is available because a lot of breweries don’t want to keep beer past its best-before date, so they’re throwing it away. They’ve either made too much or they’re not very good at selling. We thought we could save it and become the beer rescuers and get some good margin, anything up to 100% – and the beer’s perfectly fine to drink.
One of the best deals we had was in February 2021 for kegs from cancelled Oktoberfest parties in 2020. We were pouring it non-stop for orders all over the country.
We’re now dealing directly with breweries who contact us and we get some amazing beers. We’ve got a beer from Brew York which is £5 [at normal retail price] and we do it for £1.50. We’ve become a kind of a Poundshop for beer.
Why did you decide not to return to wholesale after lockdown?
Before lockdown it was probably about 50% of our business. Then all the restaurants closed down and, because we were making so much better margin through the website, we decided to tell everyone that we had been supplying to look for a new supplier when they reopened.
We’ve found we’re making the same amount in sales as were doing in wholesale but with a much bigger margin.
And wine retail … ?
It’s still a big seller but it’s taken more of a back seat. We cut down the size of the shop to make more storage and packing space.
We used to have 700 wines when the shop was much bigger but now we’ve now cut it down to a maximum of 160. It’s much better for cash flow and it means we can swap things in and out more often and always have something new.
I think when you’ve got 600 to 1,000 wines it does get a bit confusing and overwhelming for people. This is nice and compact and means there’s always something new when people come back in.
What earns a place on the shelves?
It’s still always to do with quality. They have to be carefully tasted before we sell anything and if there’s a funny story behind it, that always helps when you’re doing tastings.
Before lockdown, outside tastings were quite a big part of the business. We used to do loads of charity tastings in London. It will come back but we’re doing nothing of that sort at the moment. We can’t fit events in the shop now but we do have plans for tastings in the store room. It’s quite a good space for tastings if we can get the right layout.
I think we’re going to start doing the movies again. We’ll match the wines with the movie and stop the film at a certain point to talk about the wines. That was very successful before. We’ve still got a cinema screen.
Where did the wine travel angle come from?
We came up with the idea for Smiling Grape Adventure Tours in 2018. We wanted to do something a bit different with wine tourism, so the first trip we did was a wine tasting in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
The idea was to take people round Chernobyl – you’re only allowed 10 minutes in front of the reactor before the alarms start going off and you have to get out. In the evening we did a wine tasting with the locals in a hotel – Ukrainian wines and some wacky ones. That was quite interesting. We took eight people on that.
We organise the tours and the accommodation but we can’t organise flights because we don’t have a licence, so they have to organise that themselves. We’ve since done quite a few trips to Moldova, which has amazing ex-Soviet wineries where things haven’t changed much since those times.
We’re taking a group to Moldova again in February and we’re doing a tour to Georgia in April. We’ve got 10 wineries lined up, so it will be quite busy.
Then in 2018 we took people on a world pub crawl: eight countries, four continents and 25,000 miles. We did London, Brussels, Prague, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia, Hawaii, Los Angeles, New York and London.
This was a world record?
No, that’s something different. I hold the [official Guinness world] record for the most pubs visited in 24 hours by an individual, which was last year, starting in Cambridge and finishing in St Neots.
Most of the time it was soft drinks; under Guinness World Records rules you have to be a responsible drinker. I spent a week doing interviews with the press in the US, Australia, India, Turkey.
You advertise your wine club as award-winning.
Well we’re an award-winning company, so I guess as an award-winning company we must have an award-winning wine club. It’s quite popular. We have about 50 people in it. It’s just a conventional club, where we supply wines every month.
Outside of the club, probably our biggest sellers are the online bargain wine cases, which are £60 for 12 bottles.
We picked up a lot of new customers from supermarkets during lockdown and we’ve kept about half of those. They keep coming back for more.
It’s amazing how we’ve gone from selling lots of fine wines to our biggest sales now being bin ends. We always like to say we want to try something new, and cheap wine and cheap beer took off, so while it’s working we might as well stick with it.
Are there any other ideas left up your sleeve?
We do a farmers’ market for the beers. It works really well and was very successful last year. We’re looking possibly to do a franchise to take that up and down the country.
The latest idea is to have like a Wetherspoon’s model for a wine bar, beer bar and beer shop which we’ll call the Best Before Bar. We’ve been offered so many out-of-date kegs from wholesalers, so we could do some cracking deals on pints.
Would that be here in St Neots?
It’s a bit saturated in St Neots; there are 32 pubs, loads of bistros and bars that have kind of overtaken the town. We’re looking for somewhere locally but not in the town. However, it’s the biggest growing town in Cambridgeshire. They’re building something like 3,000 homes up the road. There’s a lot of growth here and opportunities to open new things. St Neots could be a good place to start. It would mean bringing in somebody with bar experience. I’ve no idea what to do.