Inspiring Indies: Borough Wines

Borough Wines started out as a tiny stall in London’s  trendy Borough Market, set up by owner Muriel Chatel to sell wines from her family’s Bergerac estate. 

In the past four years she has transformed the business, opening shops in Dalston, Hackney and Stoke Newington as well as two restaurants.

The company is rolling out its innovative barrel-refill concept, Straight from the Barrel, to independents around the country and is planning to open two more shops in London this summer.

Its shops are community hubs with regular customers buying bottled wines and filling up reusable 75cl swing-top glass with a range of different wines on tap for £5.50 a go.

Sum up your shop in one sentence: The people’s wine and beer shop.

What sets you apart from other drinks retailers? Our Straight from the Barrel refill system. We are selling a concept, not just wine on tap. The quality of the product, the branded bottle and the quirky marketing all contribute to make it an experience shared by the community.

Who is your fiercest competitor? The craft beer shop.

And how do you maintain an edge over them? By taking a specialist approach to our beer department. We now have over 150 beers at any one time and our staff are all very knowledgeable. Anyway, at the risk of sounding arrogant, it’s easier for a wine merchant to learn about beers than for a beer merchant to learn about wine. Joking aside, for a wine merchant what’s happening with beers at the moment is fascinating.

I like the idea of being able to try out a recipe until you get it right. With wine, it takes a minimum of a year before you can assess whether the “recipe” is working or not. I might stop short of changing the company name to Borough Wines & Beers. But beer now represents 30% of our turnover.

How do you keep customers coming back? Thanks to our refill system we made it to their daily shopping list: milk, bread, Borough Wines, eggs ...

What area of the business is performing best at the moment? Our Straight from the Barrel refill system. In all our shops we sell over 500 litres a week from the barrels.

What’s your biggest challenge as a retailer? Aiming to be a convenient store while maintaining the niche and quality status of the independent. Ten years ago it wouldn’t have been possible because of a lack of suppliers, but now it seems that producers and indies have matured together to build an interesting business model.

Give us your top retailing tip: Ask yourself what’s going to create footfall for you?

What has been your biggest business mistake? Selling a low-alcohol drink as a soft drink. I thought that I had discovered the ultimate sophisticated soft drink for adults. In France, since it is less than 1.2% abv, it is considered non-alcoholic. In the UK it would need to be less than 0.5% to be considered non- alcoholic. I had an embarrassing moment but thankfully it was not followed by legal action. The law needs to change in the UK.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? Don’t ask permission, ask forgiveness.

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