James Hird: “It’s exciting to be selling a lot of wine”

28 May, 2020 by
Madeline Woolway

Surry Hills pub The Dolphin launched its Wine + Food Store on Wednesday 20 May.

The new retail offering includes 200 to 300 local and imported and natural wines, bottled spirits and cocktails. Alongside the liquor are hot takeaway meals from The Dolphin’s restaurant and a selection of ‘finish at home meals’ designed by its chefs as well as retail products including fresh focaccia and pastas, charcuterie and fresh produce.

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Sommelier James Hird told Hospitality the concept was in the works long before the current crisis. In fact, it was on the cards when the venue launched in 2016. Back then, the team found they had enough on their hands opening a large pub with a unique wine list, so the plans were put aside. 

“Pubs traditionally have a bottle shop,” says Hird. “And I guess normally that would be a sale of a bottle of wine going to a Thai restaurant or a local restaurant that’s around [the neighbourhood], which didn’t necessarily link into what we offer.” 

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Instead, the last four years have been spent consolidating existing elements (a restaurant, wine bar and public bar) and staff knowledge. 

“There was a lot of information to sort of get across,” says Hird. “And a lot of different wines to train people about because every channel has different groups of people working in it.” 

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The bottle shop would need to reflect the wine culture that flows through the rest of the venue, which meant training was crucial. 

“The challenge was to get to a point where the whole building had a reasonable understanding of wine,” says Hird. “So, if you go in there on a Wednesday, you can probably navigate through some of the wines. Pubs are quite different to restaurants where you have small teams of people; we have quite large teams working.” 

The bottle shop is one more concept for staff to wrap their heads around and with long opening hours, they’ll be required to jump in and out of the retail space. 

Consumers also needed ‘training’ of sorts. The Dolphin champions small producers and natural wines, many of which aren’t a regular feature on pub lists. It takes time to build that trust, says Hird. With a few awards now under its belt, the venue has earned a stellar reputation. 

To make the purchasing process seamless for all, the team has put a lot of time into creating notes for the collection. 

While New South Wales venues can begin welcoming up to 50 guests to dine-in at a time from Monday 1 June, The Dolphin Wine + Food Store is no stop-gap measure designed purely to ease cash flow demand. 

“We’ll probably evolve the style of it,” says Hird.”At the moment it’s taking up a larger space than possibly it will, but it will always be part of the program now. Generally bottle shops in pubs do really well.”

For now, guests can grab a bottle and pay 20 percent more to dine-in at the restaurant, but as restrictions are lifted further that will change and the two streams will become separate. Eventually there will be wines for restaurant clients based around the food menu, wines to suit the public bar and wine to suit retail. 

The bottle shop needs to provide convenience, depth and breadth for those who want to explore and simplicity for accessibility. Whether customers are after a sauvignon blanc or something more esoteric, there’s limited capacity for a lecture. 

The beauty of such a complex set up means there’s more opportunity to showcase producers. The bottle shop format offers lower prices than restaurants can, making a wider range of wines affordable. 

“It’s exciting to be selling a lot of wine,” says Hird. “It’s great that people get to try these things and hopefully then they discover a producer or discover a region. And I think the great thing about bottle shops to me — what’s great about places like DRNKS and P&V — is that they enable people to access these really interesting producers and places and grapes without the investment you have to make when in a restaurant.” 

A week in, the response from consumers is promising. With 400 wines on the shelves to start, another 20 producers will be added this week. Just as the hospitality industry has done it tough, so to have its suppliers. So, Hird is especially excited to be buying consistently again.

“People had containers on the water, local producers had geared up for sales to release and clear their cellar,” says Hird. “Obviously there have been purchases through bottle shops, but restaurants and pubs are really key, they’re a huge percentage of the market. It’s exciting to be talking to [wholesalers] like Andrew Guard and Giorgio de Maria.”  

The great paradox of the pandemic has been its ability to give breathing space while applying more pressure to businesses than ever. Rather than rush to launch a new product, The Dolphin went into safety mode when lockdowns started rolling out, before thinking about what they could offer that would benefit the community. 

“Everyone’s moving pretty quickly, but the idea was not to sell wine to make money and liquidate,” says Hird. “The Dolphin’s wine program was at the forefront for a lot of pubs around the country, and the idea was to adapt that to circumstance, and it will evolve again.” 

In the past, pushing out a new concept in a matter of weeks would have been a miracle — now it’s the norm. “From a logistical and business point of view, it’s the most fluid you’ve ever had to be in terms of thinking because every two or three days things change.” 

That doesn’t have to be cause for concern. 

“It’s pretty much four years to the day since we were sitting around getting ready to open,” says Hird. “It’s kind of nice that we’ve finally gotten to this place. And to see how pubs have changed and evolved a lot and people have changed. 

Read more about restaurant wine stores in Hospitality’s May issue.