Nigel Huddleston talks to Gerry’s manager Allen Daly about what makes this year’s Drinks Retailing Awards indie spirits winner so special
With its slightly shabby, almost Dickensian ambience, and an insistence on old-fashioned counter service, London indie Gerry’s feels like something from the old Soho – the one of black-and-white photos of smog-strewn streets, of peep shows and illicit drinking dens, of the rag trade and street markets, of red lights and dodgy landlords, now largely swept away by a tsunami of lovely, but a bit dull, street-food restaurants and coffee roasters.
Stepping into Gerry’s feels in some ways like taking a trip back to the 1950s. Which is slightly odd, because it was only founded by Michael Kyprianou in 1985. Kyprianou’s modesty meant the shop took its name from his then sidekick Gerry Cohen, and the name has stuck ever since.
Cohen was only connected to the business for a year or so, what turned out to be a very untypical tenure for the shop: two current members of the team are into their fourth decade and another in their second.
The lynchpin is manager Allen Daly, who started a year or so after Gerry’s opened and who has become so synonymous with the shop that sometimes people assume he is actually the Gerry of the name.
“Soho has changed completely,” says Daly.
“Maybe for someone coming down to London for the first time it would be quite scary, but for those of us who were in the community it was really cool and fun.
“We’d go to the pub and there’d be Ruby Venezuela, who was the main drag queen at Madame Jojo’s (or Brian as we called him), a guy called Ash who was the Iranian tennis champion, John who was an Australian thespian who managed the Windmill Theatre, and his boyfriend Claude who was a French air steward. It was a complete melting pot.”
Gerry’s location meant the shop was in close contact with hundreds of bartenders who became personal customers, while restaurants, clubs and sex industry establishments of note became early wholesale accounts. It’s difficult to imagine a business like Gerry’s surviving intact for so long anywhere other than Soho.
Even today, the customer area of the shop is a social meeting space as much as a place to buy alcohol. Gerry’s adoption of counter-only service was anachronistic even when it first opened. Most wine shops had already happily embraced open-plan retailing long before.
The format has survived a takeover by north London wholesaler Venus Wine & Spirits “about 15 years go”, though Daly can’t be more precise than that.
“Even when it was new it looked like it was ancient,” says Daly. “The counter was exactly the same as it is today. The only difference was we’d have an ashtray on each end.
“[Venus] wanted to change it at first but I said: ‘You’ve bought Gerry’s because it’s Gerry’s’. Eventually they agreed. If we’d have changed, we’d be like everybody else.
“Some people are confused when they come in – ‘what do we do?’ – but we can put them at their ease with our service and our knowledge. “We are still independent,” he adds.
“If you come in to see me today and you’ve got a good product I like, I’ll buy it from you. I don’t have to go to the guvnor and get the OK.”
Daly got into the drinks industry working as an assistant manager at a Victoria Wine branch in central London where the customers included Dirk Bogarde and Michael Caine.
He took the offer of a job at Gerry’s, initially “pushing the trolley”, effectively taking a step down to take himself out of a lunchtime drinking culture at Victoria Wine that often stretched into the evenings.
Eventually he became Gerry’s general manager. “Every time I tried to leave, Michael would sweeten the deal a bit to keep me here,” he says.
At first Gerry’s was wine-led, but over time the package evolved towards specialism in spirits to create a point of difference in the marketplace.
Today, its range, service and annual own-cask specials of bourbon and rum all have legendary status in the spirits world.
“When we changed over our computer system, just over two years ago, we had 7,000 or 8,000 lines recorded,” Daly adds.
“It’s not about having everything though. We did that with rum 10 or 12 years ago; we were up to about 300 at one time.”
What really works, he says, is when you sell products that you really love and can enthuse customers about.
“Even when I tell the team we’ve got a lot of something hanging round that we need to get rid of, they’ll carry on recommending the things they love instead,” he says.
“Brand owners try to seduce you by saying they’re going to be on Sunday Bunch but it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference,” he says.
“You might sell a couple of extra bottles. But when you really like a product … I’m massively into soul music and had a DJ sound system when I was 14. I’d spend every weekend in record shops. When I got something I really liked I’d track you down and get you in my room and play it until you liked it as much as me. I think I’ve carried that through into the drink as well: ‘That’s so good you need to know about it’.”