Not just a draughts man

07 March, 2008

The Harveys brewery is viewed with great affection by the people of Lewes and its popular shop

stocks a surprising range of goods. Graham Holter talk s to managing director Hamish Elde


Harveys of Lewes, the East Sussex brewer with a 50-strong pub estate and an army of occasionally fanatical devotees, is virtually absent from the off-trade. But its brewery shop is one of the most popular stores in the county town. Cask and bottled beer is the major draw, but the shop also boasts the widest wine range for miles around.

Managing director Hamish Elder says the store benefits from the love of Lewes ­people

for all things independent - a ­factor he believes will always provide something of a stumbling block locally for supermarkets.

What is the beer to wine ratio

It is trading currently at 1,200 barrels a year; it's our biggest single outlet for beer. Turnover is something like 60 per cent on draught, about 20 per cent on bottled beer

and the rest is wine.

The shop is

packed with


It's one of those things we seem to have a little bit of a Midas touch about. We put our name on it and it seems to work. It's not just what you'd expect, the

cups and

sweatshirts and things - there are some very peculiar gift items, stocking fillers, everything from keyrings

to some decent porcelain. We're not looking to dress up the world in our T-shirts so they're

walking around with Harveys adverts.

Are beer sales

going up year



Arguably it has plateaued off in the last couple of years. If our beer is in growth it's probably the bottled beer range, which we are looking at all the time for new and commemorative possibilities, and different styles of beer that might be in vogue .

We're installing our own microbrewing plant, which should enable new ranges, and shorter lengths of commemorative beer production.

This must be one of the few off-licences that has people queuing

at Christmas.

I have seen people waiting for over half an hour quite regularly in that Christmas lead-up time. If anything surprises me it's the good humour that people generally have in those queues. There really seems to be nothing we can do ; we can't put on more tills all of a sudden, it's a confined space. We

have to expect people to live with it because they haven't got their orders in any earlier. It becomes part of the ritual of Christmas - at least I like to think that - but clearly time is precious for people and I don't want

them to be waiting

unnecessarily, even if it does give them the opportunity to pick up a bottle of wine or a Christmas pudding as well.

You've had a fire, two floods - perhaps an earthquake is next. How do you bounce back from those setbacks?

Remarkably well, and the staff have been a tremendous asset in all of those recovery plans, which take a horrendous time. When you do get hit by a flood it takes two years before you've cleared up. The fire was in

1996. That was an 18-month recovery plan. We were operating from a shop over the road, half the size, half the amount of produce on offer, and yet we still did extremely well and were loyally supported by locals.

Has the shop got bigger?

It's grown dramatically. I remember when I joined the firm in

1982 it was a third of the area it is today , all boarded up


no sign outside. People came into this rather dark area that resembled a hardware merchant's counter and picked up their beer - if they were in the know about how to get in and what our

hours were. We didn't have a till, there was a drawer

and a ledger. And this was the

80s! It required modernising dramatically

and has since expanded in at least four phases .

The wine range is remarkably good for what is essentially a brewery shop.

It is a spin-off from the pub trade. The

wholesale quantities that we purchase by direct import are available in the shop, at very reasonable prices. There is a completely different section of wine

as well, which is very upmarket. Aspirational Bordeaux. We even have an allocation of things like Romanée-Conti, which doesn't tend to last

long on the shelves

because certain collectors have become aware of that now.

We're trying not to

go head to head with the supermarkets , so you won't generally find the big brands.

The hundreds of wines in the shop come from really quite small producers,

who fall below the radar of the buyers of the big multiple s - by virtue of the fact they simply don't produce enough wine.

The amount coming from UK agents is very small now. I'd say less than 10 per cent. The vast majority is shipped in.

I went to Italy last year, found some small producers. You then try and

build a relationship between the producer - that chap picking the grapes - right through to the customer who's going to drink the wine. And it's good to be the only intermediary in that process.

You recently opened a second ­Harveys shop, in Midhurst. Does that signal a wider expansion plan?

Midhurst is our satellite shop. It's now in its third year and it's been growing ever since its inception, and it's a tiny, tiny little place. Its biggest handicap is its floor area - it is barely more than a kiosk. It doesn't carry anything like the range that we have in Lewes. It does, though, have exactly the same feel and

level of service to it.

It's very much a toe in the water to see if we can replicate the ethos of the Lewes shop. With a slightly bigger site I feel it's got a lot of potential, but it does take time. You have to build up that customer base. Three years is not a long time with Harveys. Three years out of 200-odd is an investment time we can afford to take. We've learned a lot of lessons from Midhurst.

The headache for us is location. If we make it too close to our existing shop, it just robs Peter to pay Paul. I'd imagine places like Tunbridge Wells, Guildford, possibly Hastings, might fit into that hinterland area. But it's not something we're going to look to take over the whole country with. If there's an opportunity for three or four satellite shops then we will consider it on the basis of what we've understood in Midhurst.

It could take five years, it could take 25 years, to establish satellite shops and that assumes that the ground doesn't move from under us in the meantime.

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