Kill the Cat opened on east London’s famous Brick Lane two years ago, with the aim of encouraging people to explore beer. The store, which caters “for the beer curious”, has a three-tier system for ranging its products to help customers navigate between different styles and eventually move out of their comfort zones. DRN caught up with general manager, Dan Sandy, to find out more:
How has the business evolved since it opened?
I think the main difference is that when we started we were pretty much all bottled beers, maybe 70% to 80% bottles and the rest was growlers where people came in for refills. We thought that would continue but that hasn’t happened; the growler trend has dropped off and we are increasingly switching from bottles to cans.
The other difference is in how we use the space here. We have been able to do a lot with a small space and we run a lot of social events here. There is a real sense of community.
We thought when we started that we would be a shop with a small drink-in offer, but the on-trade side has been really popular, with groups using the venue as a meeting point on certain days. It’s meant that we have had to amend our opening hours a bit, so we open up a bit later in the mornings and stay open longer in the evenings – but it’s working out well. We have also now started opening on Mondays as well.
We have a really strong set of regulars and in some cases we have been responsible for getting these people together. There are lots of WhatsApp groups connecting them and they like to meet here and then often go on to other activities like karaoke.
The store attracts a mixture of beer nerds, tourists and those starting out in beer.
What was the original plan for the business?
This site is very much a proof of concept. We are looking now to open a second store this year, which will be a lot bigger.
The eureka moment for the business was based on the awareness that often in a beer or wine shop the bottle selection can become overwhelmingly large and it can be hard to navigate your way through, especially if no one is available to help. People have to follow a kind of rabbit warren of discovery.
With our business it is all about helping people with their curiosity. We have Cat 1 beers, which is a comfort level, and a selection of beers that offer a good starting point. Cat 2 is more challenging and Cat 3 might question what you think of as beer.
What has been really satisfying is watching the same people coming in and work their way through each category, and they move along the aisles with each purchase. We see them discover new things and become more curious about beer, which shows the concept is working.
They move from pale ales to the funkiest, oddest beers we have and that has been essential to show it is being well received as a concept.
What sorts of beers do you stock?
Seeing people move from Cat 1 through to Cat 3 has meant we have really had to concentrate more on curation. We rotate stock a lot because it is a small store with just 160 or 170 beers on the shelf.
Shelves go from light to dark beers and we try to represent all beer styles. We have lots of IPAs but these include smoked, weiss, and rye IPAs.
We understand the mindset of the different customers so we try to make sure we have local and familiar beers too. We sell a lot of beers from Brew by Numbers, Kernel, Hackney Brewery and Northern Monk. These probably make up the core range, of Cat 1, although we have a mixture of some new and different styles as well.
I do a lot more curation for Cat 2 and 3 and we only get two cases of any beer at any one time as we don1t have much storage and don’t have to worry about things going off.
We started selling wine by the bottle recently, and we have wine from Renegade and Bedales. We really love what those guys are doing.
What sells well?
In terms of volume there are definitely three breweries that have strong appeal: Verdant, Cloudwater and Northern Monk. These have been our biggest sellers by a far distance.
Hackney IPA and Lager are always on shelf too and they do well.
Sour beers continue to be popular and fruit and tropical IPAs have been doing well.
There are two trends we will be tapping into more for the year ahead. One is getting more people tasting lower-abv beers as there are some high quality ones, and we know that younger drinkers want to control their alcohol intake more.
And we have seen an increase in people asking for gluten-free and vegan beers to the point where we are going to start making it clear on shelf, which beers fall into these categories.
How do you keep customers coming back?
The discovery concept really encourages people to come back and try something else, but we also do a lot of tasting events here.
We have a mailing list and we send a newsletter out every Friday, giving details of new beers and a round-up of events. Last year we had eight or nine meet the brewer events, and 20 to 30 other events or product launches.
We have had international brewers who have chosen our store to launch their first UK beers, which is amazing.
How will you extend the business?
The challenge with a second store is how we can keep the feel of the original venue. One of the things people respond to is that the bar is at the front and centre and it is on display. It1s not a big barrier separating the staff and customers.
A focus on customer service and making people feel welcome is a huge part of the Cat experience. So as we scale up how can we keep that feeling of intimacy and that level of service?
We are looking at ways to give a bigger space a more intimate feel.
It will have our own small brewing system so it will be a brew pub, which means we will be able to invite brewers in to do unique brews, and it will have a kitchen as well. It will be site-specific and we are looking at four or five areas at the moment.