Iwant to turn Barnsley into the world centre for brewing excellence,” says Martin Swaine, owner of the now 76-strong Rhythm & Booze chain.
Not content with nearly doubling his estate when he took on 34 ex-First Quench shops last year, rolling out fresh beer and trying a new style of convenience retailing, Swaine is looking for premises to expand the chain and even preparing to build his own brewery.
The plan came about because the current offices of parent company R&M Swaine, in a former Methodist chapel Swaine converted himself, are becoming too small.
Instead of simply moving to bigger premises, he earmarked a site on the edge of the moors outside Barnsley, currently home to a derelict Outward Bound centre, and has drawn up plans for a 16,000sq ft brewery, a beer shop that will stock every bottled beer brewed in Britain, a subterranean classic car showroom and a nature reserve as well as an expanded office.
“I’m hoping it will become a visitors’ centre,” says Swaine. “People do like brewery tours, so they can have a look round the brewery, have a cup of tea, sample the products, browse through the beer shop and have a guided tour round the cars and nature reserve, so it’s turning into a bit of a man’s paradise.”?The venture seems typical of Swaine’s creative and innovative approach to the business, and was inspired by a love of beer as well as sound business sense.
Swaine has been brewing beers under the Barnsley Beer Company label for two years now, since his father Ronnie – the R in R&M Swaine – died of bowel cancer. He approached the local Wentworth Brewery to create a brew to celebrate Ronnie, and it sold 6,000 bottles in two weeks.
Thanks to that success, the company continued brewing Ronnie’s Owd Cock – named because he called everyone “owd cock” – and donated 10p from every bottle to Bowel Cancer UK, for which it has raised nearly £25,000 so far.
Other beers and different styles followed, with the best-selling being Barnsley Blonde ale, which features a pair of lips on the front label and a recommendation to pair it with pork scratchings on the back. Swaine says it is perfect for a romantic evening.
Next he thought it would be good to sell cask versions of his brews in Rhythm & Booze shops. Before making any significant investment he fixed a beer pump to the counter in one of his shops to gauge customer reaction.
“You could say it was a bit of a tease really,” he says. “There was a phenomenal level of interest. Everybody was saying, when are you getting it??“It is like going round full-circle because a lot of off-licences used to do this 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Also, pubs are struggling. Fewer people are drinking out and more and more want to drink at home. So why not offer real ale to drink at home? You don’t get the experience of a drink with mates in front of a roaring log fire, it’s less sociable, but it’s more affordable and the beer is good.”?Also, margins are good on fresh beer, which Swaine is selling at £4 for three pints in re-used plastic milk bottles. “It’s not as much as a pub but quite a lot more than what I’m making on cans and bottles. Obviously it is more labour-intensive and time-consuming and you do get wastage.
“It took me a long time to figure out how to do it but now that I have done it I just keep replicating it. Every customer that walks in there and sees it says it is fantastic and so different.”??
“I think the thing with this is to stick with it, because a lot of people try it and it takes a while to build up,” Swaine says. “Fortunately for me it’s just taken off straight away, but I think that’s because the price is right, and I’m able to get it right because I’m intimately involved with making beer. The more control I have got over the brewing process, the faster and better I can develop this concept.”?Beer was a big focus when Swaine took over 34 First Quench shops when the company went into administration a year ago. “I thought the beer offer was really under-developed,” he says. “To be honest, I think I have improved everything, but I have improved the beer offer the most.”?In the first week of December 2009, when he took over the shops, he had to throw out the EPOS system – because it couldn’t be reconfigured to go with new software – as well as install new tills, give the managers training and send them two deliveries.
By the end of January all the fascias were changed and, since then, there has been a rolling programme of refits to convert the shops into fully functioning Rhythm & Booze outlets.
The stores are also getting extra refrigeration, new shelving, new counters, and some new CCTV systems and air-conditioning.
“We are steadily taking a top-to-bottom approach with every store and fitting it out to look like a brand new, top-standard Rhythm & Booze. We started that process in February 2010 and I’m about 40% of the way through it – each store has had a little bit of titivation.
“It takes customers a lot of time to come back – six of the 34 stores had closed down and the other 28 were at a very low ebb, with not much stock and next to no staff morale. A lot of the customers had been gone for a long time and it does take a lot of time to get them back.”?Like-for-like sales are 50%-60% up on last year, but Swaine wants to see a 100%-150% improvement within two years.
The incorporation of the First Quench shops, which included 12 Wine Racks, has accelerated – a trend Swaine was already seeing towards increased wine sales.
“The leading category for me always used to be lager and now it is becoming wine,” he says. “First Quench was much more geared towards wine and spirits, but in terms of sales it varies an awful lot from store to store.”?Rhythm & Booze has made several forays into selling more than just beers, wines and spirits. Some years ago it started selling fresh ready meals, but there was a lot of wastage and the concept never took off.
More recently, Swaine opened an outlet with frozen food retailer Fultons, but that didn’t work either and the shop was sold on. The two companies are set to make a second attempt at working together in Dewsbury, where they will have neighbouring shops with a communal entrance.
But Swaine is not interested in turning Rhythm & Booze into a convenience chain. He and his father started out in supermarkets, as early Costcutter members, and he says he does not want to go back, even though it works well for other retailers.
“It is important to remain focused, just be good at what you do and don’t try to be all things to all people. This is where some of the other chains have kicked up really, they have tried to do too many different things when really what you need is to be good at what you do and keep improving it. There is always going to be room for a good specialist.”?But he has ventured beyond BWS in his new shop in Holmfirth. The store features a big pick and mix selection, greetings cards and a trial of Swaine’s
atest concept, A Night In. The idea is that for £10 customers can choose any three from a selection of beers, wines, soft drinks, frozen ready meals, snacks, ice creams and DVDs.
Swaine says: “It is a different kind of convenience. Every aspect of it is selling – the best element is the wine, but everything is worth having and they are all doing quite well.”??
Three new shops are set to open soon, and while Swaine hasn’t set himself a target for new openings, he could envisage Rhythm & Booze growing to some 200 shops in the next five to 10 years. Or, as he puts it, “when I’m about 140”.
“Generally speaking, I’m looking for sites that are marginally out of town – usually on main roads coming out of town on the left-hand side, so that if you are on your way home you can stop.
“Car parking is absolutely vital, as is strong frontage, with corner units if I can get them – but we will look at anything. We would never consider estate stores, it’s got to be secondary shopping centres on main roads.”