“We were as shocked as anyone,” confides Garret Connelly, proprietor of this year’s NOffLA Off-Licence of the Year, at winning the title, “When we joined NOffLA in 2011, we looked at Deveney’s, Sweeney’s, McHugh’s and Redmond’s and thought it would be brilliant even to be mentioned in same category as theses guys so to be winning awards alongside them is great.”
As to why the outlet won, he scratches his head, thinks for a moment, then responds, “Based on feedback and our own beliefs about the business, we’ve a massive range of high quality products in stock. Our range is as good as anyone in Ireland. When combined with the level of customer service which we demand of ourselves, our key performance indicator in an independent off-licence is that of returning customers.”
And of this there’s no shortage.
Garret set up Baggot Street Wines with his father Shay Connolly, co-director of the venture and owner of Shay’s Lounge in Brooklyn. Shay ran a wholesale catering company here for over 30 years before selling to BWG Spar and moving to The Big Apple.
For his part Garret spent 12 years in Oddbins here and in the UK managing a variety of stores in the chain from Dublin to London to Leeds and back to Dublin. When Oddbins went into liquidation he was Head of Operations for Ireland. So he set up Baggot Street Wines in one of Oddbins’ original five outlets here with Catherine Noakes, Alison Noone, Frank Flynn and Aga Neimec – all former Oddbins staff members.
Opening on July 11th 2011 it approaches its Fifth Anniversary and together with the newly-opened Cavern wine bar downstairs, employs 18 staff today.
The category breakdown by value at the outlet runs as follows: 65% wine, 20% beer and 15% spirits (with a focus on Irish whiskies).
Like many-an-independent off-licence, Garret sees no point in going up against the multiples and discounters on price so while some mainstreams are available, Irish craft beers form the shop’s core offering of 300 Irish beers alongside 200 international beers.
However one of the most striking items in the shop is the Craft Beer Growlers Filling Station.
This comprises four different draught craft beer offerings for customers wishing to take home (in one litre or two litre growlers) craft beer not normally available in anything but keg.
Injected CO2 replaces ullage in the growler, enabling it’s contents to remain fresh for up to 60 days.
“In effect we’re a mini-bottling plant,” says Garret of the Growler Station which usually offers three Irish craft and one international guest beer.
The concept became very popular in New York State, he says, eventually spreading to the entire East Coast. And what’s popular in New York eventually crosses the Atlantic to London and Dublin.
The idea came from NOffLA Council member Kevin O’Brien who operates Carry-Out outlets in Mulhuddart and Tyrrelstown.
With this Garret can offer customers seasonal craft beers and on a good week it can be responsible for 20% of beer sales – on an average week 15%.
Only four stores in Dublin have a Craft Beer Growler Station at present but the potential for spread is huge – some 50% of all craft beers are available only in kegs.
Wines & Champagnes
For the first time since 2007 Champagne sales at the outlet are booming with Champagne outselling sparkling wines. Garret sees this as a significant indicator of how the economy is doing. As well as the biggies such as Moet & Chandon, the shop also offers Champagnes from smaller producers. Lately, it became the Brand Ambassador outlet in Ireland for Gosset, the oldest Champagne House in the world dating back to 1584.
Back in the Oddbins days the chain used sell a lot of Australian wines. Indeed when he began Baggot Street Wines he still sold a good deal of Australian but due to a number of factors including pricing, the amount stocked today has been considerably reduced to less than 1% of stock.
“80% of Australian wines are owned by just four multinationals and the price just keeps going up and up,” he explains.
So the re-focused wine offering emphasises Old World – Spain, France, Italy and Portugal, which together comprise around 70% of wine sales here.
Spanish wine accounts for 25% or more of the shop’s total wine sales, representing a boom time for Spanish wines, with average sale prices of around €15 a bottle, he says.
Portuguese wines, meanwhile, have come from a low base to around 10% of the outlet’s wine sales while wines from Argentina are outselling Chilean wines.
Irish whiskies comprise a large selection of the spirits on offer at Baggot Street Wines where Teeling outsells Jameson. Knappogue Castle’s a huge seller too while Irish gin sales have been witness to growth of 50-60% over the previous year, says Garret.
But Baggot Street Wines’ hidden gem can be found in its beautifully serene, secluded Fine Wine & Rare Whiskey Room.
Fine Wine & Rare Whiskey Room
Here, connoisseurs may purchase wines ranging from €50 to €500 or rare whiskies from €200 to…. well you can pick up the last bottle of Teeling 30 year-old Single Malt for €2,150 or a bottle of 1951 Knappogue Castle for €899.
More likely though you’ll go for the last bottle of Celtic Nations, a Celtic blended Malt (now unavailable anywhere) at €195 or – for the more everyday purchase – a bottle of Slane Castle 2011 for just €200…
Cavern Wine Bar
For a shop full of surprises, the latest one comes with the opening of the Cavern Wine Bar downstairs in the basement of the 1780s terraced manor house, one of the oldest buildings in Upper Baggot Street (itself one of the oldest streets in Dublin).
This serves food Tuesday to Saturday, lunchtime to 11pm.
Opened just six months ago, the menu boasts a range of offerings from mixed meats and cheese plates to seafood platters, prosciuttos and terrines.
Apart from being able to offer 50 different wines by the bottle or glass, any of the 700 wines or 500 beers upstairs can be sent for to accompany the repast, all for a small corkage fee.
And he’s not stopping there. Garret has massive plans to expand online sales.
“We want to bring online sales and social media activity to a whole new level,” he tells me.
NOffLA’s winning comments
This year’s comments from the judges were pored over by the staff at the outlet.
“There were lots of positives and also negatives,” says Garret, “When getting a negative insight from customer comments or judges’ feedback, it’s important to turn this negative into a positive by fixing the problem.
“Some feedback from the 2015 awards was over the cluttered shopfront so we tried to remove as much of this as possible and cleaned up the shopfront itself. So again, we turned a negative into a positive.”
Indeed, the shopfront has changed dramatically, with the signage being removed and the whole front being repainted while some of the Georgian trellises have been restored, making it so much more of a classic-looking shop.
“This year we received positive feedback from the judges about the growler system and the fine wine room – both areas that weren’t there this time last year.”
And the negatives?
“… The lack of natural light was one. But the building dates from 1780 and we’re working within the confines of a very old structure on the side of the street that doesn’t necessarily get any sunlight.”
In all the activity, what noticeable difference has winning the Off-Licence of the Year made to the shop’s business?
“It’s made a big difference,” says Garret without pausing, “Firstly many of our core customers feel that they’re sharing in the award with us.
“Secondly we’re receiving a whole new level of customer who didn’t know of us before. Hopefully they’ll become regular customers going forward, so there’s a boost right there.”
The shop also benefited from the PR boost it received for the award in the media.
But perhaps the most important boost it gave was to the staff themselves.
“From a personal point-of-view it gave us a big morale boost as working in the independent off-trade can be a long, tough day and winning this re-affirms what you believe in and that what you and your staff are working towards is in the right direction.”