Having a good relationship with your suppliers can make a huge difference to your business. Andrew Catchpole finds out what it takes to keep the magic alive
I remember my first encounter with life on the other side of the bar all too well. It was a popular boozer in Bristol, the landlord a 22-stone Cockney ducker and diver, whose way of running his gaff was slightly at odds with the professionalism you might expect today.
‘The training manual is bollocks, girls drink wine and boys drink beer, and if you lose count when totting up a big round, then count a quid for each drink and add a few pence so it don’t look odd and no one will be any the wiser,’ was his only advice as I learnt to pull my first pint under his frankly terrifying gaze.
Somewhere between the cheap hooch refills from the cash and carry and the drip-trays of lager that went back into the (ever popular) cider, it’s fair to say that this establishment wasn’t at the forefront of quality-driven retailing. It was, however, a massively popular hangout in a smart part of town, heaving with customers every weekend.
Roll on a good few years to an age where punters will happily tosh out over a tenner for a well-mixed cocktail, expect a varied selection of good wines, plus an enticing selection of independently-crafted beers, all served in a hospitable and informed way, and it’s clear that any pub, bar or restaurant needs an offering somewhat superior to the above.
This is where decent suppliers can be of real value, armed with a wealth of experience and advice that, at its best, can help pep up a business and ensure it stays ahead of the game. Moreover, a good supplier’s services often range far beyond the basic supply of booze. The point is to think of suppliers as a resource that can enhance your business.
THE PERFECT SERVICE
Many suppliers offer benefits such as advice tailored to your outlet, training, promotional support, fast, conveniently-timed delivery and good credit terms. But when it comes to the test, some can easily fall short.
DO’S AND DON’TS WHEN CHOOSING A SUPPLIER
DO look for suppliers that are prepared to take the time to understand your business.
DON’T be tempted by price and discounts alone.
DO take advantage of free advice and staff training.
DON’T limit yourself to one or two suppliers for ‘convenience’.
DO shop around and be prepared to change suppliers.
DON’T accept bad service.
DO look closely at credit terms offered.
DON’T be put off haggling for a better deal.
DO consider the individual offerings of smaller suppliers.
DON’T ignore the considerable resources of the big players.
As Ronan Sayburn MS, buyer at Hotel du Vin suggests, if you are unhappy with any aspects of the service you are receiving then ‘shop around’. This rings as true for an outlet with a couple of suppliers as a smart hotel group or Michelin gastro-temple serviced by 50-odd merchants.
‘The most important thing to look for in a supplier is one that will take the time to understand your business,’ says Sayburn. ‘It’s all about building a good personal relationship, about understanding what you list and what you sell, so no one’s time is wasted with samples or sales pitches, whether they’re located in Newcastle, Brighton or London.’
At the wine-savvy, sommelier-dominated level, this means fine-tuning for the supplier. ‘Sending appropriate samples, updates on vintages and informal training through tastings with staff are all helpful if done right,’ continues Sayburn. ‘Get it wrong and it will simply waste everybody’s time.’
Bar consultant Nick Wykes agrees that the personal touch is the first and most important indicator of a good supplier, but says that follow-up service is equally important. ‘There are a million and one brands fighting for shelf space, and someone who rocks up and says “here’s new product X, it’s the best”, is rarely going to be invited back again,’ he says.
‘Suppliers who do well make it personal, understand what your business is all about, support what you are doing, follow up with anything you need and listen to your feedback,’ he continues. ‘They should keep up with what is going on and understand why a listing might work in a particular outlet.’
Head sommelier at Andaz, Joris Beijn, recounts a few exceptional, almost comical moments, which incredibly he isn’t alone in experiencing. ‘I want people who understand my business, so don’t turn up with samples of Lambrusco!’ he says with incredulity. ‘And don’t turn up at 1pm on a Friday, in the middle of service, without knowing the sommelier’s name.’
For a newcomer or new business, the simplest way to find out who is good and who to avoid, is simply to ask around, says Beijn. The network buzzes with like-minded people ready to help with recommendations – or condemnations.
AT WHAT COST?
Trust and understanding are easily the most popular answers to the question ‘what makes a good supplier’, which is perhaps why many in the restaurant, bar and pub world most enjoy dealing with companies that have taken on (or are run by) ex-bar staff and sommeliers.
Those offering true value and individual beers, spirits and wines also score higher than those brandishing price or discount deals alone. Finally, honesty and transparency are highly valued.
‘I am more likely to buy from a supplier who offers a reliable service and can help me out when I’m in a fix by telling me honestly what they can and can’t do,’ says Alan Holmes at Chewton Glen. ‘And while it’s easy to be swayed by price or discounts, which are useful when doing promotions or wines by-the-glass, it’s equally important to work with suppliers that offer support on the wines you want to work with, whether seasonal or to support certain foods.’
It’s a theme picked up by Paulo Brammer, beverage operations manager at the ETM pub and restaurant group. ‘I’m not particularly interested in discounts or buying on price alone,’ he says. ‘I’m more interested in balancing value against exclusivity and individuality.’
On the staff training front, options range from an informal drop-in with a bottle or two from someone like Lance Foyster MW of specialist importer Clarke Foyster Wines, to more formal sessions with large wholesalers such as Matthew Clark – backed by in-depth research and teams of wine development specialists, and offering services including assistance in list development, training, POS and food matching advice.
To a degree, there’s an element of horses for courses in terms of what best suits any given business, but intelligent assistance with staff training and constructing the drinks offering can bring benefits.
Doug Wregg, of specialist wine supplier Les Caves de Pyrène, gives the following advice. ‘If 35% of your sales are wine, then spend 35% of your time ensuring that the offering is right,’ he says, adding that even the most basic improvements to the wine list can boost wine revenues by 5-10%.
TAILORED TO YOU
The thing is that any worthwhile supplier should be able to help enhance your business rather than just view it as a means to a pay cheque. They should also tick a few key boxes on the nuts and bolts side of doing a deal. Brammer mentions invoicing, saying it can be hugely helpful, for example, if a supplier can produce one monthly invoice per business rather than invoicing multiple orders or venues.
Delivery is also a key issue to consider, in terms of when and how often. Nobody wants a delivery at Friday lunchtime, given the lack of storage in most bars and restaurants, and JIT (just in time) or next-day delivery is widely viewed as essential. Another factor that dissuades businesses from dealing with certain suppliers is minimum size of order.
‘People think we [at Hotel du Vin]are a big business but we are really a collection of individual businesses, especially when it comes to selling wine, so I’m not going to deal with someone who will only sell me 100 cases when I just want to buy six bottles,’ says Sayburn.
For many smaller operators this certainly holds true: a small quantity of fine wine may still represent a big (and expensive) order. Returns of faulty wine should be hassle-free.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Finally, credit terms vary not only between suppliers, but also in the terms a given supplier offers from establishment to establishment. ‘Some companies are very good with their credit terms and some will take back an overstock of unsold bottles,’ says Sayburn, admitting that over-ordering is a common buyer’s sin.
Over at Andaz, Beijn, though, says that he’d rather negotiate a good upfront bottle price over generous credit terms. He also flags up the variable pricing that suppliers can offer to different establishments for the same wine as an issue.
‘It’s hard to explain to a customer why something is on the list at a different price to someone down the road with a bigger turnover,’ he says, singling out Fields, Morris & Verdin as a good example of a merchant whose ‘list price is for everyone’.
At the end of the day, however, it’s personal relationships, taking the time to understand a business, openness, willingness to help out at short notice and the ability to fix mistakes quickly that our experts mention time and again as the hallmarks of a good supplier.
And shopping around, balancing your supply between several companies, is clearly the best way to tailor their expertise and portfolios to your business. It may take a little more time, but the effort is worth it in the long run.
THE DOUGHTY DOZEN
It’s unscientific, yes, but here are the 12 merchants who are most frequently praised in our straw poll…
- John Armit Wines: Top service and top wines.
- Boutinot: Good entry-level and top-end wines, friendly service. Sommelier Wine Awards Merchant of the Year for the past three years.
- Clark Foyster Wines: Individual, exclusive and informative.
- Les Caves de Pyrenes: Quirky portfolio, good pricing, fine delivery service.
- Fields, Morris & Verdin: Good wines, personal service, honest prices.
- H&H Bancroft Wines: Good service, good portfolio.
- Hallgarten Druitt: For commercial and top end, great service. Sommelier Wine Awards New World Merchant of the Year 2011.
- Laytons Wine Merchant: Excellent services, pricing and organisation.
- Liberty Wines: Great selection, competent with ‘can do’ attitude. Sommelier Wine Awards European Merchant of the Year 2011.
- Mentzendorff: Professional and personable.
- Novum Wines: Owned by Hallgarten Druitt, but still a boutique supplier with a very personal service.
- The WineBarn: Simply outstanding wines.