An Interview with Steve Davies, Founder and Owner of The Beer Emporium in Sandbach, Cheshire
I am pleased to be able to present the following article to you, which sets out the transcripts of an interview I carried out with Steve Davies, Founder and Owner of The Beer Emporium, Sandbach, Cheshire. I had the privilege of meeting Steve on a number of occasions whilst dropping cases and casks of Black Tap beer at his shop.
He is a great guy, and the advice and experience he gives in the interview below is valuable for anyone planning on setting up their own breweries, providing an important viewpoint from the perspective of a potential customer.
In this interview we cover:
- The critical importance of ‘location’ when setting up your brewing business.
- The need to be fluid and able to adapt quickly to obstacles in your way, and not let them beat you down.
- The reality of being a business owner.
- What relationships between brewers and bottle shops are like and how to go about starting these relationships.
- Pricing of your products for retailers and not just for end users.
- The importance of giving the customer what they want (not just what YOU want) and going out of your way to find out what that is.
I really think that getting this viewpoint in the early stages is critical and I recommend reading this article and paying close attention to the advice Steve gives.
Here’s the interview …
How did you get started? What has the journey so far been like for The Beer Emporium?
I come from an engineering background having worked at Rolls Royce, Crewe, in their foundry. I then moved into social housing as a sheltered housing scheme manager, along with my wife Yvonne. There followed a succession of short term jobs until one day in late 2007 we decided the time was right to take on a pub or open a bottle shop. The time was right for ‘us’ but not maybe the right time to open a new innovative business, as the banking crisis was just about to hit.
We decided to fund the project ourselves, and so avoid borrowing from the banks, as it was very unlikely in the financial climate they would have lent to us anyway. We used savings and cashed in several pension pots to fund the start-up costs.
We both finished at our respective jobs and threw ourselves into establishing The Beer Emporium. This was in 2008 in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. It soon became clear that the majority just didn’t get what we were about, it’s been said by many in hindsight that we were ahead of our time in North Staffordshire. We found it to be more of great shop, wrong location.
After 12 months we decided to either close or relocate. Through sheer stubbornness I decided to relocate the business to Sandbach, South Cheshire. At this point we had used all our funds and were forced to borrow money to open the new shop in what was an old empty butcher’s shop. Thank god for credit cards! This was the turning point for the business though and we’re still here in 2016.
It sounds cheesy, but the saying “location, location, location” really can make or break a business can’t it? We had to learn similar lessons with Black Tap Brewing Company. What advice would you give my subscribers in respect to choosing their location?
Choosing the right location involves many aspects i.e. rent, business rates, local footfall, access from other areas, even down to the availability of parking the car! Never go for the cheaper option, as you may regret it long term. Check out the local businesses, or lack of. The Beer Emporium for example, in Sandbach, is in a good catchment area locally and excellent trade from the motorway, you’d be surprised how many customers we get just dropping off the M6 to visit us.
What has been the biggest challenge for you in setting up The Beer Emporium? How did you overcome it?
Today there are micro bars and bottle shops all over the country, and the growth is phenomenal. But back then, and especially in the area we were located, this was not the case.
Our biggest challenge in the early years was to offer our customers a completely new range of beers that had previously not been seen in the area and to establish a new and user friendly way to purchase the weekend or midweek tipple. No more being dragged around the supermarket having only national brands or the cheap and cheerful brands often associated with off-licences.
We managed to overcome this by offering wider choice initially. The Beer Emporium stocked some major brewer’s brands, but not those so readily available elsewhere. These would be offered alongside smaller brewer’s beers and of course we would be there to offer advice on the new beers and suggest alternatives.
You seem to have been very flexible and fluid in your business model and offering. How important is it to be able to “adapt” and roll with the punches when obstacles stand our way?
There’s nothing so sure in any new business than that you’ll hit problems eventually, whether it be lack of trade, lack of cash flow, wrong bottles on the shelves etc. the important aspect is to identify the problem before it becomes a major issue. Don’t be afraid to change things e.g. the layout of the premises, the premises itself as a last resort.
The Beer Emporium morphed from an off-sales bottle shop to a bottle shop with a tasting area that has got us into the Good Beer Guide.
React to customer requests if feasible, if several regular customers ask for certain brands or styles then get them in and give them a go. Stay positive in adversity, if you start to doubt yourself then you’ll probably fail. Obviously, the types of requests would be different for brewers, but the principles remain the same.
What advice would you give my subscribers in general on what it is like to run your own business?
You must enjoy working hard long hours, be prepared to sacrifice free time, holidays and most importantly be prepared to pay yourself less than the living wage initially. You must know your products, you must be confident talking, chatting to Joe & Mary Blogs about your products.
A good accountant is a must, take advice and ask around. Saving money by doing your own books may be an option, but it takes time and time is precious. Most important from my point of view is to have confidence in your own judgement, know your product, know your budget limits, we all make errors of judgement sometimes when buying products in, so learn from them, make notes and get to know what your customers want. Get to know what individual customers are looking for and make sure you always carry their lines with a few new ones thrown in periodically.
How do you go about learning what your customers want? Is it just a matter of getting out there and engaging with them?
Yes, engaging with your customers builds up relationships. Remember that without your customers you’ve got nothing. You must be able to not only chat about beer, beer and more beer, but if appropriate lend an ear and become a good listener.
Tell me a bit about what the relationship with suppliers (i.e. breweries) is like. Are there any frustrations or problems that someone setting up a brewery could take note of in order to ensure ‘better’ relationships are built and maintained with their customers?
Nothing annoys me more than when a supplier, brewer or distributor fails to turn up on a given date. It gets worse when no explanation or apology is forthcoming. On the whole the industry is a great environment to work in. You’ll meet all sorts of characters, some slightly unhinged fruitcakes; and I’ve probably fallen into this description over the years at times myself.
Currently there are more and more brewers delivering further afield than ever before. The competition out there is immense. Mondays, the phone never stops with brewers ringing to see if the cellar or shelves need restocking, so there’s never an excuse for empty shelves or cellars.
How would a fledgling brewery go about starting a productive business relationship with The Beer Emporium?
First and foremost the product must be consistently good. A good range of products helps, i.e. from pale across to dark stouts and from low to high abv. Some brewers only use 33cl bottles, but these don’t always work for us. There are still many people out there that resist the purchase of a small bottle especially when they now are charged at the same price as a 50cl. It has to be a really good beer or a higher abv to tempt a lot of people. Flexibility with order volumes is important, it’s no good asking for a 12 case minimum and then ringing weekly for follow up orders. Again, with cans, the product must be to a high standard as this is still a new phenomenon to many folk and dare I say the older customer.
What sort of price range should my subscribers pitch their products at when selling to distributors like yourself? Do brewers vary wildly in their wholesale prices?
I’m no brewer and prices I assume should reflect the cost of production with all overheads built in. Some brewers we just won’t touch because of prices. We know our core customers will not pay over the odds for standard, low abv beers served up in 330ml bottles. I assume the costs will vary from area to area, we note that London beers especially attract a “London Premium” by the time they reach up here. Brewers must be aware that if they’re using wholesalers to shift their products then the end cost can be pretty steep to us.
What sorts of beer styles are most popular based on your sales data?
Like it or not, boring brown beers do not sell like they used to. The new wave of exciting hop varieties has seen to that, with pale and hoppy at the forefront of sales. Higher ABVs sell well as long as they are in the style of Stouts or IPAs. Speaking for myself, we struggle with strong barley wine ales and this is reflected in the lack of availability in the market.
What do you look for in a product? I.e. how do you assess whether a beer will do well (or fit) with your shop?
A style to suit my customers and not myself particularly. It’s easy to purchase beers you like yourself when at the end of the day you’re running a business and your customers will decide what to buy.
Variety of products with plenty of choice will win the day, you don’t want anyone leaving without a purchase because you have nothing on the shelves for them.
Branding is a key player in selling, we have some brilliant beers from one particular microbrewery but because they hang around on the shelf with a rather standard uninviting label with a poor colour design we rarely take their beers, it’s a business and you have to make hard decisions at times.
Consistency, as mentioned previously, is a major factor with any product and once a product has lost the confidence of the vendor and or purchaser it’s extremely hard to re-establish it.
I like what you say about buying/selling products that the “customer” likes and not necessarily what you yourself like. The same should apply to brewers who should do their research and brew beers that customers are going to want to buy … that is if they want a successful business. What would you say to convince a brewer who only seemed to brew what they liked at the expense of customer demand?
We’ve noticed the fad of “sour” beers, this might work in some areas but not in ours. As a result certain brewers who specialise in these beers get no trade from us. I personally think this style in particular will slowly die a death in the near future as it appears to only be a niche market, I may be wrong though.
What makes a good beer?
Balance, flavour and nose. I’m no expert on the brewing process but I know what I like when sampling a beer. To me it’s simply down to balance, flavour and nose.
What sort of quantities does a bottle shop of your size tend to purchase in and how frequently?
Every business is different. At The Beer Emporium, we currently run 4 hand pumps for beer, 1 craft keg font (soon to be expanded) 1 cider hand pump and 2 cider boxes served on gravity.
Our bottle and can stock covers over 600 different beers and so we are receiving deliveries every day, be it bottles, cask or keg.
The shelves are always full, it never looks good to see part empty shelves with obvious low stock. Likewise it really annoys me when you walk into a bar and see half the pumps empty, what’s the point? I know lines have to be cleaned at some point but it is disappointing when they advertise a certain range of beers.
Further reads, links and other awesome shit:
Check out The Beer Emporium’s website here.
You can also find them on Facebook here.
Here are some relevant reads that I would recommend around the topics covered in this article. These are good sources of information should you wish to expand on any particular area.
The following book is an excellent book that I would recommend, which uses ancient stoic philosophies to tackle difficult problems and blockers. Park your judgement for a moment and give it a chance, I really think it will change the way you think about problems in both your business and personal life.
Here is another excellent book on setting pricing levels for your products and the things that you need to take into consideration when entering the market. Highly recommended!
Lastly, here is an excellent book about how to use data and customer research to ensure that you are giving customers exactly what they want. In a market like ours where our customers are flooded with variety it is critical that we stand out and also don’t disappoint.
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