The shop with a bar behind
Combining a bar with an off-licence, this unique business has proved a winner and it's all about word of mouth - as Nigel Huddleston finds out
Ian Loftus isn't your typical jeans and T-shirt off-licence worker, or even a slacks-and-braces posh wine merchant.
The former fashion designer dresses like a rock star and has a confident and cool, almost casual, air about him.
Inspired by his travels in the Far East, Loftus turned his clothes boutique in York's touristy Shambles district into a backpackers' bar called the Evil Eye Lounge. That was seven years ago, and involved the clothing empire moving two doors down.
Unusually, the bar had a shop out front where customers could buy the premium spirits they'd just been sipping in a cocktail, to take home.
Now, the second clothes store - housed in what is said to be one of the oldest medieval buildings in the
country - has been turned into a stunning, modern off-licence called The Bottle.
It features more than 1,600 bottled beers on the ground floor and 1,000 spirits in glass cases in the basement, where they share space with the building's historical laundry and cooking facilities.
The Bottle has retained the clothes store's shop fittings - based on Japanese retail designs - with a watch display case redeployed as an absinthe stand
and a changing room
now a walk-in humidor.
But Loftus isn't finished yet, with plans for a home -delivery food and drink service, combining the best of both businesses, and to build an on-trade beer wholesaling operation.
Why did you make the big switch from fashion to alcohol?
The market for giftware and fashion just declined around here. The chain stores moved in and it was a lot harder work. I opened what started as a café , got it licensed and it just seemed to work . So I expanded it to do Asian food and provide the internet and moved away from the other business.
How did you end up with an off-licence tacked on to the front of the Evil Eye Lounge?
York City Council wouldn't allow us to use the front as a bar because the street is historically known for shops and they wanted to keep it as retail. I managed to talk them into allowing me to keep the front part of the business as a shop with the bar behind. It works really well because when they come in for a drink a lot of people buy beer
cigarettes to take home with them.
Having done that, why did you decide you needed a separate off-licence?
I've got permission now to remove the other shop as long as I turn the front into an internet area. That will make this the only shop.
The benefit of a shop is that it's very easy to run. You've got the profit margin in a bar but you've also got the overheads in terms of staffing. Retail has very low staff costs by comparison. You can run a shop like this with two people, so your profits are actually very similar to a bar. If you can do something that's genuinely different and have a lot of different products then you can make money in this trade.
The range is enormous. Is there any method to it?
We try to have the widest range possible and target people who like quality spirits and
beers. We don't stock Teacher's or Bell's or any discount brands at all. Our main market is students because they still spend a lot of money on drink.
They're a little bit more educated in York, so they do tend to know that Mount Gay is better than Bacardi, for example.
Having a cocktail bar next door, we can educate customers in the ingredients we use and also tell them where they can buy things like cachaça.
How important is the tourist trade?
In York, it's essential. The tourists are all looking to buy traditional Yorkshire ales and we sell thousands of bottles and cases of them, particularly at Christmas. Absinthe is also a very big seller with American tourists because they can't get it at home very easily.
How do you market the business?
I don't. I'm totally against advertising.
When you sit down and watch TV every 15 minutes an advert comes on. You open a magazine and it's full of ads. I'm really not into advertising at all. I believe if you have a good enough business then word of mouth will do it for you.
We don't price promote either. We have a fixed mark-up which we stick to and it generally undercuts most other independents and is competitive with the supermarkets
- which I know because I run a lot of price checks against Sainsbury's and Tesco. We let the products speak for themselves.
So what comes next?
This building is one of the oldest medieval halls in the country - one of three - and the idea is to eventually convert the upstairs and make it like a traditional old alehouse, with cask ales on tap. People will be able to sip beers up there and decide what they want to buy in the shop. We're going to work with a few local breweries
and have our own beers as well.
We're also going to build up the internet site and mail order which has been quite a big job. There
will be over 8,000 products listed and we'll be able to compete with the likes of thedrinkshop.com. I'm looking for a warehouse on the outskirts of the town for that,
that will also allow members of the public to drive in and buy in bulk as well.
The spirits range will increase because there'll be special -order products, like £6,000 -bottles of brandy, so hopefully we'll be able to target the footballers and musicians.
We'll also be making an effort in
emailing and targeting people. My
girlfriend's in a band, so she knows a lot of people.