The Laughing Heart, Hackney, London
The Laughing Heart, now nearly two years old, is a business comprising different segments that operate successfully together. It aims to appeal to those who enjoy fine wine in a restaurant environment or to take home, supported by various in-store wine and food events. Founder, Charlie Mellor, speaks to DRN:
How did the business get started?
It began with the discovery of quite a cool space.
Finding a space which had these unique licences to sell wine on and off-sales was an opportunity to open two businesses in one, feeding into one another.
I had worked in wine as a sommelier and in wine retail before and this space really interested me because it allowed me to indulge in my passion for opening a restaurant along with my plans to establish a business with a strong focus on wine.
The business has had a retail arm since we opened. Effectively we opened a restaurant and a shop both at once, and then maybe two months after opening we opened a private events space adjacent to the shop.
It is quite a prominent frontage – you can see the restaurant on one level and then you can see into the cellar down to the shop.
Who are your nearest competitors?
We have competition but in a healthy sense. There are some great wine retailers around here, such as Noble Fine Liquor in Broadway Market and Bottle Apostle in Victoria Park village.
I used to work at both of these and we get along really well.
There are some parallels between our businesses as they have some drinking in and they do snacks too. But one thing that really sets us apart is that we open until 2am six days a week and the shop does these hours as well, so we open 72 hours a week in total.
It works because if the building is open it makes sense to keep the shop open and I think there is space to move into that late-night market. Locally people are starting to realise they can get some quality booze after 9pm.
We do now have people phoning us up at 11pm saying their dinner party is going so well that they want more wine and can we help.
How do the restaurant and the shop work together?
A lot of people who enjoy a wine in the restaurant are interested to hear they can buy it downstairs at retail price, and many of them go to buy a bottle on the way out. That represents about 15% of our sales.
The main way the two sides of the business feed into each other is that I keep stocks low and keep on ordering in.
It means I can buy small amounts of niche, natural wines from smaller producers.
Then I can make some savvy orders to accompany the dishes, so it is a constantly changing list that is seasonally dependent to match whatever we have on the restaurant menu.
And I think that really works. Wines in stock reflect what is good with seasonal produce.
We also have a private dining room and to reach that you have to walk through the shop. There is a small kitchen in there.
We just have more infrastructure and a different set of resources than most and we have professional chefs running around, which creates a great atmosphere.
What sorts of wines work well in your shop and restaurant?
Natural wines for me are great, and it is a very broad church, so you could have some funky ones but natural has the potential to be anything and you can cover the classic wines in that.
People come to us not for everyday wines so much, although we do have some under £15 which we have introduced for the shop. Most people come in and spend £20 to £30 per bottle, so it is more on a weekly basis, rather than every day.
People come in looking for interesting wines to accompany a particular meal.
Pet Nat and orange wine are things we get through a lot of. Or funky, light reds.
We champion wine from all around the world. But we focus on value as long as I feel it is worth the money, so that does mean I focus more on European wines, which is just due to the costs of importing in some cases.
Central European wines are working really well, so those from east Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
They are not going to be cheap but they do provide good value for money.
What events to you do in the store?
One of the things that has been interesting for me is that I set this business up while running a restaurant. That has been very successful and it has been very busy.
We have enjoyed some winemaker evenings in there.
Over the past six months I have tried to bring some of those events into the shop as well in an attempt to get more people interested in the duality of the business.
We have done three so far and what we are aiming to do is one every month and we will do a tasting as well for consumers, which will be more informal.