Roath Indie Business Q&A:
Dan Williams from The Bottle Shop.
Interview by Lisa Derrick.
Could you tell us about The Bottle Shop story – what inspired you to start it up?
Well, at 18 I was running a pub in Wiltshire, a real ale and food pub which they probably now refer to as gastro. I was there for about 3 ½ years and really got into the real ale. I found the variety and difference of tastes and flavours interesting, and I liked how beer was personal to each person.
When I decided to leave to broaden my horizons I was told by other pub companies I was “too young” to run one of theirs, so I instead I decided to go to Uni. This led me to UWIC, Cardiff, where my tutor Caroline who taught the WSET (wines and spirits education trust) basically got me a job working for an independent wine merchant throughout my studies. I really enjoyed it and saw the stuff I liked about beer such as region, breadth of flavours, provenance etc were all magnified in the wine world.
However even as the Saturday boy I could see ways I thought the guys I worked for could be better. When the company I was working for took a direction and ethos I wasn’t comfortable with, I left and started supplying my original contacts in Wiltshire with wines using the contacts I’d gained in Cardiff. From then on I was determined to open a wine shop with my ideals, when I had the money.
I did other jobs between then and now, most of which I hated especially those that put profit before any kind of service or integrity and after being made redundant from one such job (which was a blessing) I decided to make a go of the “wine thing” instead of doing it alongside another job. I started working at Oddbins on Wellfield Road and the same old feelings came back. What if I could just stock great wines? No ifs, no buts, no forcing mediocre wines on people because they made more profit?
Determined that it could be done better I started doing sums and looking at places to open my own shop. I was confident I could put real wines in front of people, and that the good would out. I just needed premises. I was looking at options around Cardiff when we got 4 hours notice before losing our jobs at Oddbins. They were closing the Cardiff store!
I knew if I didn’t open my own shop at that point, I probably never would. I looked at taking over the original Oddbins site but the company would not allow me and the other staff to do so. Then the landlord hiked the rent up when he found out we wanted it. I put several offers in on other properties on Wellfield Road – all of which we rebuffed by landlords either wanting more money or not wanting start ups / independents … one even said they would only consider a national brand!
I was starting to think I had missed the chance when I made a final offer on the current shop only to receive objection from beer bargains. This meant spending two months waiting for a legal hearing to which they didn’t even attend. Despite all that, and a few months later than planned, I opened and I am still here!
What’s your ethos behind The Bottle Shop? Is there a particular service you aim to offer, and what makes your business unique?
For me wine, like food is all about taste, which in turn is a personal thing. My ethos, if you will, is this. What the bottle looks like, where it’s from, whether you’ve heard of the grape, how much it costs is all pretty much irrelevant if the wine doesn’t taste how you want it to.
Like most things nowadays several very large companies control most people’s access to wine and inherently they also control the available quality and people’s perception of value and value for money. Now while said companies could give you all kinds of wine based joy, they tend to focus on profit, which means the wines on offer are driven by fashion trends and branding. Then they chuck in a bonkers offer system to hoodwink you into thinking they are doing you some kind of favour along the way.
You will notice I didn’t mention taste once in describing them. My aim is to source from small producers because the little guys make the good stuff. I want to stock all manner of different wines from regions we all have heard of, to those to which even wine geeks respond … “Where?!” The same with the grape varieties on offer. Then a customer can choose a wine (or be assisted in choosing a wine) based on what they actually want it to taste like rather than be shoved in a direction by a false offer. I hope this will provide an interesting enough proposition so that it also becomes commercially viable.
I think supermarkets have done a great job of opening people up to wine but I can think of nothing worse than people picking wine almost at random from a sterile aisle with maybe only the odd pretty label to go on. If you ordered your food off a restaurant menu in the same way, chances are you might not like your dinner. Wine is no different.
Also because the world of wine is so diverse and the occasions / situations we drink wine in are just as diverse too, I think a ‘proper’ wine shop should always represent this. As such I currently have over 460 different wines in stock which I intend to keep here! I appreciate that not every occasion calls for Clairette from Lebanon or Pinot Noir from Niagara Falls but should you want it we will always have it.
I was also adamant that the shop would demystify the ‘value’ of wine – I hate all the crazy alcohol deals / offers that exist. I think a fair price for a good product leaves nobody feeling short changed. As such all the wines are priced on the same margin. You pay more, you get more in your glass. Simple. Although you’d be shocked at how much the big players distort this.
The shop also has me – and Marcelo who also works here and shares my views – or at least he says he does! I think customer service is paramount to getting people to buy into what you’re doing and supporting us as a business. The more I can talk to and interact with our customers the better – visiting the bottle shop is as much a learning curve for me as possibly the customer. The more I know about your likes / dislikes the better I can assist you in finding something you will enjoy, and in turn the better the rapport, the better the feedback, which in turn helps me help the next customer that little bit more.
I’m NOT a wine snob and I think that lots of people are put off by pretentious buffoons swirling glasses at them. If I can help you pick a wine you will like and answer any questions along the way – that for me is job done.
Why did you choose to open your business in Roath?
I moved full time to Cardiff about nine years ago, since then I have lived in and around Roath on two occasions and also found myself passing through, shopping, visiting friends and generally bimbling about regularly since.
I’ve always liked the area and when I started working at Oddbins on Wellfield Road I found myself back in Roath on a daily basis and I was reminded of how nice, diverse and quirky the people are, in addition to how many other great independent businesses there are in the area.
I thought it would be great if I could open my shop here, but with Oddbins still active at the time, I had ruled it out. During my time at Oddbins I strongly believed the shop was under supported by head office and not reactive enough to its customers, and therefore missing out on so much potential.
When Oddbins went bust I thought it was a brilliant opportunity to open my idea of a wine shop in an area I loved. Oddbins left that hole and my time there showed me the type of business I could have, if I worked at it and I was able to operate without compromise. I also wanted to set up and integrate as much as possible with the local community, I think this is important and I am glad I have the chance to hopefully become part of the map in Roath.
What sort of response have you had from customers so far?
So far the response has been amazing. Whilst I was always sure people would buy into the ‘taste’ of fairly priced, interestingly sourced wines, to see them actually do so has been both flattering and made me feel most grateful for such an open minded and receptive customer base.
I never opened the shop to get rich or make a quick buck, I did however put pretty much everything on the line hoping that people would ‘get’ what I was trying to do. It’s still early days but I am encouraged and humbled by the support this far.
A lot of people like the fact I’m independent and I hope to be able to prove an independent can work and not have to compromise on quality or service.
What has been really nice is the amount of customers we have picked up through recommendations – this I think is the biggest compliment.
When someone comes in the shop I always strive to give them as much of a reason to come back as possible and it’s a great feeling when they do. Ultimately I don’t make any of the wines I stock, I just choose them and the only way I can add value is by product knowledge and quality of customer service, so it is this I think people are buying into, which as I said, is very flattering.
How is Watson settling in?
Ha! Watson loves Roath, he’s turned into a little local celebrity/socialite. I get lots of visitors just for him (which is fine!) He’s great company at work and it’s nice to be able to have him there with me. One of Roath’s charms is its little tucked away parks, which he is benefiting from – there is also a really nice local dog community so he has loads of mates. Dogs (and owners) will always be welcome at the shop!
Do you have any 2012 plans you can share with us?
Loads planned! Blimey where to start…
- Lots of new beer, both local and from all over the world (got my eye on some from Hawaii) I have figured out how I can fit 140 different beers into the shop and I aim to do that asap.
- There’ll be more cider too.
- Loads more spirits, liqueurs and drinks bits and bobs.
- I’ll be launching a Case Club (bit like Sunday times one but with more artisan wines/more shop interaction, special members tasting events and offers)
- Hopefully a beer festival
- Lots of tastings!!!! Gotta love a tasting. It’s the best way for people to experience for themselves – plus wine and cheese parties. Winning!
- Beer and wine trips
- Cellar building
- En primeur deals
- Possibly starting up a Roath based distillery (though I might already have my hands full!)
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Well I think I’ve waffled about it all, but just a big thank you to all those who have been in and supported me in opening the shop. It means a hell of a lot to feel supported in something you believe in. For those who haven’t been in to see us – come give us a nose, you might just like it! And anyone who has questions or wants The Bottle Shop involved in something local, please get in touch.
The Bottle Shop is situated on: 4 Pen y Lan Road, Roath, CF24 3PF.
Contact details are: [email protected] / 02920 490096.