The overriding question on my lips as I meet Blackrock Cellar’s proprietor genial Joel Durand and his helpful staff to discuss their second win in the National Off-Licence of the Year competition is, what has put them in the Winners Enclosure again this year? What’s changed from the last time?
Joel thinks for a moment.
“Well, for a start” he hesitates, “the wine bar – ‘Wine with a view’ – is no more!”
“It was disrupting the main business which was off-sales,” he continues, clearly focused on what’s important to the outlet now.
The little counter for tasting a glass of wine while admiring a sea view at the back of the shop was closed around Christmas-time two years ago when space requirements dictated that a different approach to the selling of fine wines be taken.
It now forms a little office space for Joel to handle invoices etc.
He started a wine and a beer club in the room downstairs in March last year, beginning with 25 people which has now expanded out to 40 in the downstairs space.
“We do two meetings a month, one for beer and one for wine,” he explains.
It is, perhaps, this emphasis on what’s important to driving off-sales of beer, wine and spirits – and purely off-sales of these commodities – in his outlet that’s helped fuel this year’s win for Joel.
For the range of wine, beer and spirits continues to delight and surprise the casual browser such as myself.
Apart from that, he’s replaced a lot of his standard wines with fine quality ones and keeps abreast of the inevitable annual wear-and-tear on the award-winning retail outlet.
He thinks again.
“My staff are more confident at selling more expensive wines,” he ventures, “We’ve changed the wines we had for something better and upgraded our best sellers to better quality wines up a bracket in price.”
This focus on having staff confident in their ability has paid dividends.
“The average spend per customer has gone up by around €4 because we’re more confident at selling better quality wine,” he continues, “The €10 wine has all but disappeared. We’ve perhaps eight wines priced at between €8 and €10 and selling” he reassures me, “but not selling as much as they used to. They’re OK wines, but it’s now much more €12.95 to €16.95 – more in keeping with the area around here.
“The general customer spend has gone up here as well. The tendency seems to be ‘if you want cheap wine go to the supermarket and if you want quality come to us’, to quote Jimmy Redmond,” he says, adding, “And he’s right!”
The outlet on Blackrock’s main street now employs 10 people where it used to employ eight, but four full-time staff still remain Blackrock Cellar’s backbone.
The number of wines too has risen to 500 from the last time we spoke two years ago when it was 450.
“We managed to squeeze more sections into the shop from the non-profitable areas,” explains Joel, again with an eye to just what’ll increase his off-sales, “We now have a Magnum section, a World Wines section and a specialist shelf for Beaujolais where it had formerly been grouped with Burgundy.”
He’s also a big believer in organic wine and since January, a new neck collar on some of the wines gives the customers tick-boxes to peruse in relation to:
- No added sulphites
New beers continue to pour into the Blackrock Cellar at a rate of 30 a month, depending on the time of year.
And as for spirits, the outlet now has its own Sake shelf.
“Irish whiskey is going strong still as is gin, but I’m wary about the future as there’s too much gin around in this boom,” he confides.
Spirits continue to be responsible for just under 17% of turnover at the outlet, with wine being responsible for half the income and beer for over 30%.
Beer consumers are moving away from IPAs and Pale Ales and moving more into barrel-finished beers, he believes.
“German and Belgium beers are making a big comeback in my own shop at least,” says Joel, “And as for wine, you can stand the Country of Origin table on its head here. Our best-sellers are French wines followed by Spain/Italy, Portugal and Argentina/New Zealand.”
But food remains important to the shop too, “Because you have to make yourself more attractive through diversifying into products such as sourdough bread, for example. Anyway, food acts as a complimentary product to wine sales. We also do hampers at Christmas ranging from €50 to ‘the sky’s the limit’.”
Layout changes have taken place at the outlet since my last visit.
“We’ve expanded our Wine of the Month range to six red and four whites,” he explains, “So our stand now has two tiers with 12 to 16 labels on the bottom shelf and up to 25 on the top shelf (the more expensive selection).”
At the end of the day, Joel happily acknowledges his NOffLA win this year but as for being able to see just why exactly, he throws his hands up (in the general direction of his staff).
“I can’t do anything without my staff. As we get busier I have to become more involved in managing the shop and planning ahead…. such as planning how to win the Off-Licence of the Year again next year, of course!” he says, Gallic-tongue-firmly-in-Gallic-cheek.