Other side of the coin: How on-trade drinks suppliers have gone retail

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

29 April 2020

From kegged cocktail companies to premium cider and wine distributors, we spoke to the on-trade suppliers who have had to pivot to selling direct to consumers

There has been plenty of discussion around how hospitality workers and venues have pivoted to still provide their customers with cocktails, wine, beer, food – all the things that they do best. But what about those suppliers whose primary customer base – the on-trade – has all but ceased to operate during covid-19?

Both those with communication lines straight to consumers and those without have been hit hard. Less than two weeks ago, SIBA released results of a survey that showed that beer deliveries for craft beer breweries is a mere ‘drop in the ocean’ to what they made through selling to pubs.

Whole client bases have simply stopped existing. Overnight, a lot of money (if not all) stopped coming in. And now, they face a new challenge: selling straight to the consumer.

Staying sociable

‘We’ve almost said it’s a completely new business,’ Morgan Parry Ward, brand development manager at Black Lines Drinks tells Imbibe of the shift.

Black Lines Drinks' Paloma
Black Lines Drinks' Paloma

Founded in 2017, the company normally services restaurants, bars and venues such as Box Park and Temper with kegged cocktails. Since the government announced the closure of all hospitality venues in March, all of Black Lines Drinks’ kegging has stopped with production moving over to bottling and selling to consumers direct.

Luckily, the bottling process was already part of the plan. ‘Our bottled cocktails were already due to be released… so for the last seven months we’ve had those trialled at The Standard [hotel].’ Simple yet effective changes to social media messaging (photos taken of the bottle in homeplace settings rather than bars) along with a new marketing strategy saw the team sell out in eight days of launch, shifting 860 bottles of its Elderflower Collins, Pear & White Tea Fizz and Paloma in the process.

I’ve got people ordering wine from me who I’ve known for 15 years and have never ordered from me before

Richard Bouglet

Another company who has used social media to change tack is L’Art du Vin, a Soil Accreditation certified wine importer and distributor based in Fife, Scotland, with a large Edinburgh on-trade client base. When news of the lockdown hit, company director Richard Bouglet knew that the only way to survive was to be ‘omnipresent on social’.

After a post on a local Facebook group advertising they would be selling to consumers, Bouglet was surprised at the uptake. ‘I’ve got people ordering wine from me who I’ve known for 15 years and have never ordered from me before,’ he says, amused. ‘I asked them why now and they said they knew we supplied restaurants, but thought we would be too posh to buy from.’

L'Art du Vin logistics team
L'Art du Vin logistics team

L’Art du Vin has also adapted its way of selling wine to help consumers choose what they like by grape variety and style, something Bouglet and his business partner Philippe Larue think is important in the switch from restaurant to home selling.

‘We designed a case by case selection just under £100 so if you like Savignon Blanc, we’ll put some [wines] in the case that are similar to it so that you can try it… it makes it approachable… it’s not just about shifting bottles.’

Hard graft

Of course, although businesses such as Black Lines Drinks and L’Art du Vin are seeing some welcome success, it has not been an easy road for any of them. Parry Ward cites that despite being thrilled about a sell-out, fulfilment has been particularly hard with the small team hand-packaging orders, while the logistics of getting assets to and from their graphic designer is a logistical, and very real, challenge.

Bouglet may have fresh stock to sell, but there are case orders of wine sitting restless with no signs of shifting.

We’ve almost said it’s a completely new business

Morgan Parry Ward

Felix Nash, founder of the Fine Cider Company, was just seeing momentum of selling his products to the on-trade picking up speed. In a bid to not lose that driving force for his cider-makers out in the countryside, he’s getting in his van and delivering across London and further afield. ‘It’s really about what assets you have – an online shop, van, people on our doorsteps… it’s about flow and volume,’ he says of being able to pivot quickly.

Nash is taking the challenge in his stride. ‘The big fact that we are very small [meant] we were trained up for this… I’m very used to asking what the challenge is.’

For trade companies like ‘batchology’ experts Tails Cocktails, this time of year is usually its busiest. ‘In the last year we have launched in 10 countries across Europe, so coordinating summer activations across all of those kept us very busy,’ lamented Nick Wall, CEO and founder.

Tails Cocktails, Espresso Martini
Tails Cocktails, Espresso Martini

The batched cocktail company’s last big activation was at Cheltenham Racecourse, the start of a series of events for the Jockey Club group across its numerous UK venues. ‘That’s just one example of something that has switched off entirely,’ say Wall, who also references stadiums and outdoor terraces, as now missed opportunities.

Like Black Lines Drinks, Tails Cocktails luckily had a bit of an ace up their sleeves. A dormant e-shop on its website, previously considered a ‘nicety’ due to the company’s reliance on on-trade, was something that could be reactivated within a fortnight of the decision being made to go e-commerce. Large scale changes are slower though – decisions all need to be made alongside Tails Cocktails’ distribution partner in Europe, Bacardi.

When it’s all over

Of course, the big question is: what happens when all of this is over? Will these on-trade suppliers continue their off-trade presence? The lines are, understandably blurred. If it works, why not? As long as it isn’t at the expense of their loyal on-trade customers.

As soon as we can we will prioritise back to the on-trade

Nick Wall

‘Most certainly, why not? We desperately miss our restaurateurs, we would not exist without the on-trade, that is what we are about, but we have always wanted to have a high proportion of private clients as it is a different approach and most definitely that is something we would like to do,’ says Bouglet of L’Art du Vin’s new market.

Nash is also relatively certain Fine Cider Company will continue to offer retail. ‘Given the nature of what we do, we’re going to have to keep doing it… what we are building now is the future of what we do.’

Felix Nash, Fine Cider Company
Felix Nash, Fine Cider Company

For Black Lines Drinks, the bottlings were already something they were planning on releasing, so their current business situation is more of a fast tracked predicament. Parry Ward is quick to point out that they are not here to replace bartenders, but that this is ‘an extension of our brand.... It allows us to democratise cocktails slightly’.

Wall is more steadfast on reverting back to majority on-trade business. ‘As soon as we can we will prioritise back to the on-trade,’ says Wall, while also acknowledging that the nature of bars reopening and social distancing restrictions are still unclear. This summer will mark Tails Cocktails’ 10th anniversary – these certainly would not have been the circumstances in which he thought he’d be celebrating.

And yet, there is an irony in all of this: ‘I started Tails to make quality cocktails more accessible and that’s evolved with time. Nobody planned these circumstances, but delivering quality to consumers at home will [I think] become the necessity.'

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