Top Cuvée's Little Packages of Joy
Brodie Meah describes Top Cuvée as a "neighbourhood restaurant and bottle shop with a great bar". Based in North London it's a partnership between Brodie and Max Venning, co-owner of famed London bar Three Sheets. It had been open for just over a year before Covid-19 forced its temporary closure.
Not ones to stand still in a crisis, Brodie and Max quickly reinvented their business to take account of the rapidly changing situation. Within a day it re-opened as a shop and delivery service, providing top quality restaurant food, wine, cocktails and pantry essentials.
Here, Brodie discusses the impact of the pandemic on his business, and how he's found a silver lining.
"Max and I opened Top Cuvée together a year ago, in Feb 2019, and things were going really really well, far better than we ever expected. The restaurant was really smashing it and then this happened. It was funny as it was at a time when the business had clicked over to a sort of maturity. We were doing decent money and good consistent covers. And then we had to change it up really quick.
For weeks the virus was just rumbling but the moment it clicked for me was on St Patrick's Day. Myself and my wife Erin went to meet Max who was doing a guest shift at the Sun Tavern. We went there to have a crisis meeting in the middle of this bloody busy guest shift in a pub in Bethnal Green when we said "ok cool, we're sure this is going to close down businesses, we're pretty confident this is going to happen so let's act now". That was Tuesday night. By Wednesday 5pm we were selling ready meals and wine around London via courier. So we turned it round in less than 24 hours from making that decision.
There was talk about Top Cuvée and Three Sheets joining forces, and working out how we could partner up. We talked a lot about general financial bits, how we'd look after staff, are we going to pay rent, are we going to pay VAT, PAYE, all of that sort of stuff. We were in the dark at that time.
We very quickly made the decision that we were going to make deliveries from both venues. That continued the next day when we met up again in the morning. We started thinking we could turn both Three Sheets and Top Cuvée into a shop. We were planning on having two physical shops and then as the coronavirus worsened and worsened and it became more clear we were going to have a lockdown we said 'ok cool let's centralise everything' and decided to build a brand all on one website.
From the Top Cuvée side it's a bit different from Three Sheets where you tend to be working with big global companies who probably aren't going to go bust over this. However, our suppliers at Top Cuvée tend to be top independent wine merchants who in turn link with independent wine makers who it's very realistic to imagine could go out of business throughout all this. It's the same thing with our food suppliers like our butchers and veg suppliers. We were really conscious that we wanted to support them. At the heart of it we were looking to support ourselves and our business, our staff, our suppliers and then the industry as a whole.
How has this evolved?
It's two-fold. We're just trying to keep it going, not trying to make money at the moment, just trying to break-even. But at the same time, we're trying to make this a really positive thing for everyone. And just because it's a crisis doesn't mean that PR and Marketing need to stop. We want to collaborate with people to help them but also to help spread our message. It's a message of being stronger together.
We've partnered up with Tayēr & Elementary to help them and that in turn helped us to get new customers. Scout is also now onboard. The more people we can partner up with, the bigger the audience and the stronger the shop is going to get. Therefore, everyone will benefit more.
Working with the bars is Max's focus. We're going to build the best outlet for bottled cocktails in the world. That's one of our strengths. We're going to enable people to get cocktails from the best bars in the world, delivered to their doors in London within the hour. And we plan to continue this after the crisis is over as well.
We buy our supplies at wholesale cost and then put a retail mark-up on it. We're currently taking delivery of bottled cocktails but also want people to send recipes to us from around the world.
We want to give you the experience of a night out in your own home, rolling out across London first, but also nationwide and internationally.
How have you dealt with your staff?
Our attitude towards our staff has been you're gonna have a job, we're going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. That was definitely the main factor to us going so quickly into the delivery model. We're entrepreneurs, we opened this restaurant to make money and we're not looking to survive off Government handouts if possible. We're happy to put in the work to make the money and pay our staff. And so far, we're doing that.
What's been the reaction of your suppliers?
It's an utter tailspin mode at the moment with our suppliers, because they're all transitioning to a home delivery model. However, the people I have spoken to are super grateful. People are really shocked when I'm ordering, especially the kind of volumes we're doing, so they are just super grateful and super surprised. For example, we're now selling fish boxes from our fish supplier. We take pre-orders from our local community; he drops them off to us and we'll distribute them today.
What's been the reaction from customers?
It's been overwhelmingly positive. I'm not a very emotional person but the amount of support we've had from our loyal regulars has almost brought me to tears. People are just coming in and buying stuff, for no reason! We've had someone come in and buy 12 bottles of wine, I know this person, they live alone and they've been back since for more. It's really heartwarming. People have been supporting us with their wallets which is amazing. But we don't just want to get charity off it, we want to provide people with a service as well.
What's also been really heartwarming are things like an email I had yesterday saying 'hi Brodie, love what you're doing, love the restaurant, we have a 2 year old with terminal lung disease and we're shielding her. We really appreciate what you're doing, please keep it up' and another one from a lady who said 'my husband is a doctor and it's his birthday on Sunday, can you please sort us out with some dinner'. So, we put together a birthday package for him.
At this time everyone's in crisis so some of these things are genuinely helping people. The way we think about it is that these parcels are just like little packages of joy. They turn up to your door and just make you smile in a time which is pretty shit.
What are you looking forward to when lockdown is lifted?
Hosting people again. It's what I'm built to do. Not looking at a laptop 19 hours a day. Actually talking to people and dealing with people and making people happy. Seeing immediate reactions, being with people and hanging out with large groups of people. I guess being the centre of attention in the restaurant is what I really want.
What closing words of advice do you have?
Go with your gut instinct. What you think is going to work for your business probably is. You know your area, you know your client base, you know probably what's going to work. Just try it and then if it doesn't work be prepared to adapt your offering really quickly.
Get creative with cashflow. If you want to list something new speak to the person selling it and agree some emergency terms. We're doing sale and return which works for everyone.
Be organised with your online presence. This is not like a restaurant or bar where we can deal with issues immediately. If someone has an issue with a drink in a bar, that's cool, we smile, we tell a joke, we swap it out straightaway and problem solved. Being online, we get an email which could be three hours after the fact saying 'hey, I'm not happy with this' and it's really hard to deal with. It's different. Come up with solutions for how you're going to deal with missed deliveries and things like that. Use Ts and Cs to say all the important stuff. People ordering through a website don't have that one-to-one interaction with you. We're used to bending over backwards for people in the restaurant, but you can't do that online.
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.