Wine and dine

Wine and dine

As it nears its 150th anniversary, Davy’s Wine Bars can look back through the decades to see how the company changed the face of the London drinking scene. One of the first – if not the first – wine merchants to open a wine bar in the capital back in the 60s, Davy’s is now the last of the wine bar groups that still operates a wine merchant business.

While evolution might have been slow-going during the rest of the 20th century, the last few decades have seen fifth generation chairman James Davy react to an industry that is changing at a far greater pace. The challenge for him has been to modernise the brand without losing its heritage.

Old fashioned, but not old

Davy joined the business in 1992 and in his time, the company has undergone various stages of change. That evolution has only sped up in recent years and the challenge was how to move with the times while maintaining the style and space for which it had been known for decades. In the 90s, the company tried a few things to keep up with the growing cosmopolitan tastes of the capital, but they felt forced – a step away from what had made Davy’s successful in the first place.

In subsequent years, the company took a more detailed approach, refurbishing sites to the standards and expectations demanded by the modern customer, but maintaining the look, feel and menu in a way that was sympathetic to the company’s heritage. Things have changed of course – in the mid 90s, 80% of Davy’s trade came at lunchtime, now 60% is in the evening. However, the brand’s core ethos remains.

“It’s about looking at what you’re doing and how you do it, and then enhancing it,” says Davy. “It’s basic things. We have cushions on seats; glassware needs to be more attractive, cutlery and crockery need to keep moving forward. If you fall behind you get perceived as being old rather than old fashioned. You can still be within a style, but you must be at that quality level that the customer is used to. You’ve got to be very aware of what the competition is doing and just try to reflect the change within your own brand.”

It has been in completely separate concepts where the company has flexed its creative muscles, whether it’s a venue dedicated to burgers, chicken wings and pulled pork at Lazybones in Farringdon, or opening Factory House at Leadenhall – a barbecue restaurant with a cocktail bar element. Davy is keen to expand these concepts, building a presence in burgeoning markets within the on-trade, but again there is a drive to make sure that it is done well.

“Even if it’s a new brand, people want to see some substance behind it and they want to see some proper depth to the offer,” says Davy. “If we start a diner, it’s really good from the bottom up. If we start a barbecue restaurant, it’s really thought through and it resonates. You walk in and it feels right.”

The company also recently opened its first hybrid wine bar and wine shop for years at High Holborn, another concept that Davy is keen to grow. In addition, the acquisition of El Vino – another venerable wine merchant and bar group founded in 1879 – has effectively given Davy’s another brand. There are currently four El Vino sites and all have seen significant investment. Their focus is separate to Davy’s, looking at Iberian, Spanish and South American touches to match the name.

“We invested a lot in El Vino,” says Davy. “It’s taken a little bit longer than we’d hoped to really change the perception of the brand. That’s turned round now and it has positive energy and feedback, and is growing very nicely.”

A major factor in this progress of the Davy’s brand and the revolution of new sites has been the increased willingness to look outside the company. Internal promotion has long been a policy at Davy’s, but without fresh blood and fresh ideas, new approaches were more limited. Over the last 10 years, the company has been hiring people with different skillsets and different experience. The operations director, for example, was previously at Giraffe and Wagamama.

“If you’re just relying on your own thoughts then there’s only so much there,” reasons Davy. “You’ve got to increase the bandwidth. In all our departments we have a blend of old and new. That means that when you sit round the table, you don’t just all agree it’s a bad idea because you don’t get it. Someone can say ‘that actually works’. I think we’re quite open-minded now. You’ve got to be.”

Winning with wine

Wine is the bedrock of Davy’s business, accounting for more than 60% of sales. As well as its bars and shops, there is also the wine merchant business, importing wines exclusive to the brand. This is a massive point of difference for the company – the last of the old guard of wine merchants that once included Corney and Barrow, Balls Brothers and El Vino – bringing substance and dedication to the product, which Davy believes customers care about.

The bars offer 25 wines by the glass, including champagnes and ports. Davy’s is able to do this because of the enormous turnover of the products. The company has experimented with technology like enomatics – there is an enomatic in the hybrid shop and bar which sells 40 wines by the glass – and Coravin, which is used for tastings. But for Davy, nothing beats having a customer base regularly buying wine and keeping the throughput moving.
The company is interested, however, in another trend – wine on tap. Davy highlights the increased shelf life, the visual boost from being displayed at the front of the bar and the environmental benefits that kegged wines enjoy. While Davy’s hasn’t officially started down this road yet, perceptions are changing and the first tentative steps are being considered.

“We’re not there yet, but I think in a decade or two’s time, people will look back and say ‘can you believe we used to ship wine in bottles?’” he says. “Some wines will always be in the bottle, but when you’re talking about fast throughput, what you might call quaffing wines, they don’t need to be in glass. That’s a really interesting area that I think we need to be embracing.”

Davy joins me having come from a filling ceremony at The Boot and Flogger where a 16l Oloroso barrel has been filled. Some of the venues have always offered port from the barrel and madeira barrels will be returning in some as well. This approach was universal decades ago, but now Davy challenges me to find someone else in Europe, let alone the UK, currently offering Oloroso from the barrel. In an interesting twist, Davy’s has found that the approach it had always had, and had distanced itself from in the 90s in a bid to modernise, has actually become remarkably in vogue.

“It’s a perfect storm for us,” Davy says. “Everything comes back to where we were. That’s now what everyone aspires to and now everyone thinks we’re leading the pack. We’re keen to work with these people because they’re keen to work with us. It’s novel for them, but everyone used to ship in barrels and pour. Now it’s only artisan people doing that. It’s really cool what we did, so we want to reintroduce it.”

Events are also an important driver of footfall and attention, from Father’s Day to the Glorious Twelfth, while Davy’s hosts plenty of wine tastings and wine dinners, which serve to fill and showcase their venues, reminding people who they are and what they do. It’s an opportunity to market the brand and make statements about what it stands for.

Davy’s is fast approaching its 150th birthday and the company is keen to celebrate it in style, as its marketing strategies modernise in line with its offer. Over the last few years, there have been Davy’s pop-up bars – at the Broadgate ice rink and at the Wimbledon warm-up tournament at the Queen’s Club. These seek to bring the brand not only to new audiences, but also to reintroduce it to customers who might have abandoned the brand back in the distant past. Davy’s has a strong brand and it wants more people to know about it.

“You’ve got to be doing something or saying something or else people will find it a bit boring,” says Davy. “If you’re not shouting then someone else will be and you’ll be empty that day.”

London and beyond

Davy’s current estate stands at 30 sites, but the last decade has seen significant changes in the make-up of the portfolio. The recession – where the corporate credit cards that had fed the business dried up – and the growth of Crossrail had seen the estate previously drop from 48 businesses to 25 in a five-year period. As well as some underperforming sites, the shrinking of the estate saw five of the company’s top 10 businesses disappear. Consolidation and changes followed.

The acquisition of El Vino saw five sites join the company, while Davy’s venues, which traditionally closed on the weekends in line with other City operators, have started extending their opening hours. With the recent opening of The Ned hotel on Poultry – a £350m project from Soho House – a change in demographic is also to be expected, as tourists with disposable incomes flood the area.

With 30 sites now running nicely, thoughts are turning to acquiring another five operations, with the hybrid businesses of particular interest. However, when it comes to extending the estate, Davy’s eyes are also stretching beyond central London.

“Everything is right in the recipe to move out of central London, but I don’t think we need to rush to Leeds or Manchester,” he says. “If we go to village sites in Greater London, we’ll see how we go, and go beyond that if it works. If you’re further out you can get sites which are quite well-rented and then it’s up to you to create a brand that gets people to come to them.”

As the company moves forward, Davy is aware of the myriad challenges that affect the industry, from Brexit and the election result to rates and minimum wage. He is determined to retain and protect the core values of the company, but where there are opportunities for innovation he has taken them and where improvements need to be made, they will be.

“The reality is there are many more good operators now than there ever were, all the more reason we need to be on top of our game,” he concludes. “There’s an appetite for change, but there’s an understanding of what we need to protect.”