Something's cooking

16 May, 2008

Wine lovers are heading to cookery school via their local wine shop. Nigel Huddleston investigates an award-winning initiative

Food and wine matching has become a mission for Barrels & Bottles, the specialist wine merchant and wholesaler which moved out of central Sheffield two years ago to a new-build site in a business park outside Chesterfield, some 10 miles down the road.

Having sold a successful local hotel business and the freehold of their Sheffield shop, Andrew and Janet Coghlan reinvested a huge chunk of the money in developing a site that comprises a cookery school - equipped with TV cameras and top-quality chef stations - for private clients and corporate team-building events, a move that secured it the award for innovation at this year's OLN Drinks Retailing Awards.

The site also houses a tasting room to seat 60 people, a private dining room , and a warehouse that services an extensive on-trade wholesale wine business.

Oh yes, and there's a wine shop too, with an annex selling chocolates made on the premises and a range of


The business has come a long way since Andrew's mother began importing cases of wine from Germany on the back of lorries serving the local steel industry 30 years ago.

What's the idea behind the cookery school?

Because we had a hotel we've always been involved in different aspects of wine and food and tried to be innovative in finding new ways to promote what we're doing.

We started our first school of wine, food and dining, which ran for three years, in a small premises in Sheffield. When we moved into this two years ago we brought everything together in

one building, so we can really focus on developing the idea

of food and wine harmony.

We've started to roll out a food and wine matching course and written a book around the subject called Perfect Balance. We do lots of events for corporate groups teaching people around the idea of a wine triangle, which looks at wine as if it was an ingredient in a dish. You have a triangle with three points - tannin, acidity and fruit - and then you think of the dish with the same points, and try to balance the dish with the wine. It just shows the characteristics of the wine in a visual format. The cookery school is a way of blending everything together so we don't think of everything as just food or just wine .

How does it work in commercial terms?

The wine business has the vast majority of the turnover but the cookery school contributes an equal amount of profit because it's a relatively high margin part of the business. It's got quite a high cost of wages because you're employing chefs but the materials costs are quite low. Our total turnover is about £2 million, of which about £350,000 comes from the

school. If you can make the

school busy it's good for business because they become your retail customers as well.

The cookery demonstrations probably attract a higher proportion of female visitors than

a conventional wine shop . If you've got 40 people who come for a cookery demonstration, maybe 75% are women and most will go into the wine shop. It makes them more confident of asking questions about wine. With men, they're much more at home in a wine shop .

Were the start-up costs high?

We have chosen partners who we work with on equipment: Rangemaster ≠provides us with the ovens, Le Creuset with crockery

and Richardsons of Sheffield are our chosen partners on knives. We promote them through our shop and the website, and they promote us, and we reduce the prices

down to cost. If you're buying eight ovens at £350,000 it's a big investment, so it saves a bit of money. It also means Le Creuset or Rangemaster might invite their own clients

to use our kitchens for a demonstration of their products. It's good publicity for us and gets people through the door.

Why did you move out of Sheffield?

Space and traffic. We were finding it was taking customers 45 minutes to an hour to get into the city centre and if there was a match at Sheffield United on a Saturday the shop was a desert because people didn't want to queue to get to us. There's also a temperance society in Sheffield and there are restrictions on a lot of the land which means you can't build businesses connected with alcohol. We wanted to build something of this nature but there were three new business parks and we weren't allowed on any of them because of the covenants. Most of our customers were from the south side anyway, so although this was out of town it was more accessible as a destination.

Does the location mean you're a cases-only warehouse style operation?

We get as many people who come in for one or two bottles as we do for cases. The average bottle price is about £8, which is quite high. It gives the impression we only sell expensive wine, which is not what we're about because we have good wines at lower prices. Even better is people going out with a couple of bottles, a box of loose chocolates and maybe a couple of pieces of cookware.

But we don't want people to think they come in just to buy a bottle of wine. We've got a library of

cookbooks and wine books which they can just come in and use. I've always encouraged that. Obviously it's driven by sales but they are solid from our wholesale base which allows us to do other things with the retail side. Retailing's got to be a lot more than just about naming a price.

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