George Sandbach of Sandy’s Piano Bar talks to Andrew Catchpole about adapting to lockdown, selling quality booze out the back door, the thorny problem of rent and launching an accessible podcast series.

“We started doing takeaway beers and cocktails and wines, so I'm actually operating. As you know, I've got these two bar venues, in Oxford and in London, but I’m operating out of the back of the Oxford Wine Café (owned by my dad), treating it a bit like an Oxford Wine Company shop, nothing too crazy, just 60 or 70 wines, what the people in the [local] Jericho area want. So if they say ‘I want a Gewürz’, I can say, ‘no problem, I’ll get one for you tomorrow’, or whatever it may been.

“It’s OK, it pays the rent, but we’ve got these big doors at the back, so I opened a bar there, doing pints from the local brewery, wines, spirit mixers and cocktails. We have to seal them all, put a lid on all of them, so we use plastic ware and put a top on them. So it’s retail, in effect. It’s ridiculous, really, people will buy a bottle of rosé, ask for a couple of coffee cups and a corkscrew, open it outside and give me the corkscrew back….

“We’ve been busy - we’ve got a bit of pull in Oxford, with the Wine Company, with my Sandy’s Piano Bar and events company, and we know a lot of people. We’re on Instagram and I do wine podcasts [Chatting Wine, available via Spotify and iTunes], and my brother’s got his new company called @Vind, a wine tourism app launching in August, so we put [the bar idea] on those platforms and people went crazy with tagging and the idea they could get a pint or wine - though it’s a bit trashy as we have to sell it in coffee cups!

“The retail side will probably pay the rent on one venue, though I have two, and with the bar opening hopefully we can start to thrive a little bit. I might have to unfurlough a staff member, which would be great, for many reasons. But I’m not in this to make a profit.

“I’ve a flat with tenants, but I’m not asking them to pay full rent, but just enough to help cover the mortgage, and if everyone did that we’d all be in a better position. We’re having trouble with our commercial landlords, who are refusing to give any rent-free periods, so they are asking for full rent, but we’ve got no income. But if everyone shared the burden here, we’d all be better off, if we could just break even and get people back to work as things return closer to normal.

“The first few weeks [of lockdown] were about crisis management mode, but then it became a waiting game and I got bored - I’m not good at doing nothing. So I thought there’s nothing really out there that offers good, basic knowledge of the wine world. And now that people have got a bit more money, because they are not going out, even of they are furloughed on 80%, and people are cooking a lot more, getting into food more, and wine, and wanting to learn a bit more about wine.

“People kept messaging me asking about what wine they should buy, and also wanting to know more about it, so I started [doing some podcasts], at a basic wine level, like WSET 1, but without any exams, so we’ve done a guide to Champagne, a guide to Germany, a guide to how to buy wine in the UK, one with Jamie Goode on organic wines, that sort of thing, with people who know how to explain things really well. And it’s gone down great so far.

“Sugar levels and pH levels aren’t relevant, and a lot of the blogs out there, they get a bit too complex, and even someone like me that’s interested in wine switches off sometimes. You want to know about some background to the wine, maybe the family, perhaps a little bit on the terroir, but very quickly, then move on, and without delving into the science of it too much.

“Looking ahead, the real challenge is going to be for late night bar venues. We opened a wine and live music venue in Kensington & Chelsea three weeks before [lockdown] happened. I think it’s going to be a long time before people get back to that. With restaurants, wine bars and cafes, trade might be down 40%, you can space out the tables more, but people will probably still be booking, so you’ll have a consistent flow of business, and perhaps fewer quiet periods, with bookings spaced out more.

“But a live music venue or late night bar, often operating in quite a small space, you all want to go out together, at the same time, and chat to other people, to the barman, and it’s going to be very hard to function like that. I think it will be next year until we can get back to that, which is a worry for a lot of operators. So it will be a very interesting time.”

By Andrew Catchpole

11 June 2020

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