Real Ale, Twickenham

Real Ale started out in 2005, years before the UK’s craft beer scene exploded with a raft of microbreweries, bottle shops and tap rooms.

The business now comprises three shops and has evolved to offer much more than beer, as managing director Zeph King explains

How did the business start?

Our founder, Nick Dolan, originally set the business up to offer customers in an urban setting the opportunity to be able to buy real ale from all around the country. So, effectively, bringing the wares of brewers all around the country to Twickenham was where we started.

I think – given the crisis we’re in now – that’s actually really relevant still, because pubs are closed, a nd you can’t buy pints and breweries are struggling.

There’s never been a more important time to support those breweries and small independent producers.

The business has naturally evolved over time and our second and third sites, in Maida Vale and Notting Hill, combine on and off-sales, which adds a whole level of additional interaction with customers. It’s a great way to introduce people to breweries and producers.

Over time we created a kind of community hub. In light of Covid we’ve had to put some elements of the business on hold, but that community hub, I think, has remained.

Each site has its very own personality and different ranges to suit each community.

In Twickenham we are about 65% beer and 35% wine, but in Notting Hill we are the other way around, while in Maida Vale it is 50:50.

How have you operated through the pandemic?

We have had to be really adaptable and ready to change, but because we are small and independent, we have the ability to be able to change things quite quickly.

At the end of March 2020, we closed all our stores and moved online. We were quite lucky because we had a lot of experience of managing online sales, so we knew what we were doing when things needed to scale up. We offered a very personal online service through the website – actually through phone calls and emails as well – and effectively ran everything from Twickenham.

We slowly reopened stores back in May and we have been working really closely with staff to make sure they feel safe and are happy with all the procedures we put in. What we have learned is that there is a really important human element to this because we have a lot of staff on the front line. Obviously, we want to be able to run our business but our staff have to feel safe, and also our customers need to know that we are taking this really seriously.

It felt like people stayed with us in those times because we made an effort to get to customers if they couldn’t come to us.

Did you notice any changes in what people were buying?

In those early days it was people buying in bulk. People just really wanted a quick way to order beer and wine and often it was just about buying whatever they could get their hands on, so that worked really well for us.

We really upped our game online so we had pre-packed boxes all ready to go, for example.

We had four or five delivery methods using our vans but also a couple of us in the business delivered beers around London.

People are a bit more selective now. We still do the pre-selected cases, but we’re very much focused on the quality product that you can’t buy anywhere else. There’s a lot of competition out there but we are trying to ensure we have such a strong unique offer that we can keep our customers happy, and attract new business.

Did you attract new customers in the lockdowns?

We have had a very good year from a financial perspective. Our sales are up 60% across revenue streams and there’s no doubt we have generated many more customers. But it’s also about the way people are now shopping. Online continues to be really important for us and our Deliveroo sales across all three stores are up 100%. We’ve definitely seen huge growth, so that is really important to our business now.

We feel the need to interact with customers more than before because they’re not necessarily getting out, so we’re very active across all sorts of social media platforms. In fact, we actually hired somebody to help me drive growth through those areas.

He’s also a professional photographer, so we have now definitely improved presentation on the website and that’s been really important.

The business has always been about going down the route of talking to people in a friendly, chatty format and wanting to share a really good thing with people. Our social media is just another medium to do this. Breweries are really good at communicating their stories and lifestyle, and we do the same. Collaboration is a big thing in brewing and it is just a natural thing to communicate this.

We’ve introduced a quite chatty weekly newsletter, which I think really shows how much we care about what we sell.

Have you been able to add new things?

We take great care in selecting interesting, unique products and people come to us because we are offering something different.

I think in times when restaurants are shut people want something interesting and, fortunately for us, we can offer things that are a little bit special and a bit different.

The on-trade side of our business helped us drive sales of our other drinks, such as wine. People have seen what else we offer, and they know we take as much care in our wine selection as our beer. We continue to focus on things like natural and orange wines, which have been growing in popularity.

What are your plans for the future?

We very much see ourselves as a total drinks business, so we will be offering more right across all drinks. I think we have really seen the strengths of our online offering, and actually we’ve been able to carve out a space which we think will deliver good growth for us. It is about really specialist niche things that are difficult to get your hands on. You can buy a little bit of everything, from all different breweries in one place.

Our sales did well even though there is a lot of competition, so for us it is about just carving out those little niches in each area.

Editor's note: Real Ale has recently rebranded to Real Drinks to reflect its positioning as a total drinks business and in response to growing consumer demand for a wider repertoire of drinks

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