“There are no right or wrong answers for us when it comes to wine.” That’s the refreshing attitude that Mike Boyne has brought to his BinTwo wine bar and merchants business in Padstow, Cornwall that has made it such a success over a small period of time both with his customers and the suppliers who are happy to travel to meet him and show him ever more adventurous wines. Here he talks about what life has been like in lockdown in one of Cornwall’s most famous tourist towns, but most of all he shares his uplifting views on what wine means to him and the kind of service he wants to give his customers.
Mike Boyne on how friendly service and a laid back attitude to wine has helped him transform the BinTwo wine bar in Padstow.
We have all been on a bit of a rollercoaster over the last three months trying to come to terms with Covid-19 and the impact it has had on our business and personal lives. For most it has come down to the simple fact of whether you have been able to trade or not. Are you on the front trying to make the most of all the new sales that are potentially out there? Or are you effectively treading water, trying to do what you can to keep your head above water?
Then there is Mike Boyne, owner of the award-winning BinTwo wine bar and merchants business in Padstow, Cornwall. He has not only got the fortunes of his wine business and staff to worry about, he also has another day job, helping to administer and manage parts of the ambulance service. Which, understandably, has meant for some highly stressful and pressurised days and weeks over the last few months tackling the Covid-19 outbreak.
In a way having parts of his wine and café business shut down over the last three months weeks has actually come at time when he needs to concentrate so much of his efforts on playing his part in helping the NHS tackle the Covid-19 crisis.
That side of his working life will probably come as a surprise to those that have got to know Boyne over recent years – mainly through his regular, lively contributions to the daily wine chat on Twitter (@BinTwoPadstow). Boyne’s profile on Twitter has arguably increased in step with the accolades and good feedback there has been in the trade, from suppliers and producers alike, for the strength of his BinTwo business.
Padstow’s new hero
Up to now the fishing town of Padstow has become famous for the exploits of another local entrepreneur – Rick Stein. But Boyne has quietly been making a name for himself in the local area, – and increasingly around the country – for the quality of his wine offer.
Boyne admits his journey into wine was more fortuitous than a sudden passion to open a wine business.
“I have always been a bit of a nomad, and moved from job to job,” says Boyne looking back on a career that also saw him spend time in the armed forces from 1988 to 2000.
The move to Padstow came when he decided to step back a little from his job as operations director for the London Ambulance Service. The plan was to find a way to keep on working for the service, whilst exploring new opportunities at the same time.
It also coincided in meeting his wife. “I can remember we were on our second or third date and she asked me what I would most like to do in life – and I said move to Cornwall and run a guest house. She said that was her dream too.”
So soon enough they were running a boutique B&B in Padstow and became regular customers of the local wine bar and merchants – Bin Two.
One thing led to another and they ended up selling the B&B, and Boyne liked BinTwo so much he got himself a job there working a couple of days a week. When the chance came up to take on Bin Two full time, Boyne jumped at it. That was six years ago.
Since then he has pushed it even more towards being a hybrid merchants and bar, with around 55% of sales coming from the on-trade side of things, which also includes providing a light food service of tapas dishes, charcuterie, and coffees and teas.
Coping in lockdown
Boyne has been able to keep part of the BinTwo business running during the lockdown, but says it has been hit hard as Padstow relies so much on passing tourist traffic. He says compared to the other independent wine merchants he shares a What’s App group with, he is very much the poor relation when it comes to retail and online sales.
Although he has tried online in the past it was never a core part of the business (“I had tried but it had never really worked”) and whilst he has been able to get some sales, it’s not enough to off set his normal retail business – probably around 20% of his usual turnover.
“We are very dependent on seasonal trade here,” says Boyne, who is hopeful the tourism season can still happen during the summer.
So far his online business during lockdown has been split 50/50 between those ordering locally and then deliveries around the country. “We have seen a lot of new people come on to order,” he adds.
He is hopeful the new found success of his online operation can continue and help the overall business post-lockdown. Particularly if it means people who are used to travelling to the area can still “keep that connection” and feel like they are supporting the local businesses there as well.
Strong wine offer
What Boyne is playing down, however, is the quality of his wine offer, which is what its regulars come back to him or time and again. He may not, by his own admission, have vast wine knowledge, but he knows what he likes, and in the main that means wines from off the beaten track and the lower intervention end of the wine spectrum.
It’s also the reason why so many more smaller, specialist wine importers have a reason to travel down to Cornwall to see him.
(Here is a great video that encapsulates what BinTwo is all about)
It’s interesting to hear Boyne talk about his experience of wine and how bizarre he now finds it to be picking up awards for his supposed wine talents.
“My initial relationship with wine was negative,” he says, stems from his time in the army and being put forward for to be selected for training at Sandhurst. As he explains: “Before being sent for Sandhurst selection I was sent on a Potential Officer Development Course (which we later dubbed Pretentious Officer Development Course). They made us go through bizarre rituals like going to the opera and ballet to ‘knock the rough edges off’ and going through the charade of hosting a wine and cheese party was part of the ‘test’. In reality once I was commissioned most new 24 year old officers knew about as much as wine, ballet and opera as me.”
It was, though, when he started working at BinTwo that he started to “pay attention and find an interest in it”. Even then it was the business side of things he found more interesting.
“I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome, particularly when talking to people in the wine trade – that only makes it worse,” he says.
Confidence in his wine list
It’s only been over the last 18 months that he has started to feel comfortable talking about the wines he likes with any sort of confidence. That’s also been reflected in the wine range he has been able to build up in that time.
But it’s an approach that has arguably helped BinTwo become the success it has. For whilst it might be serving and selling quite adventurous and challenging wines, the atmosphere is deliberately laid back and relaxed.
“It’s the guiding principle of what we do and I hammer it home to all our staff. I will only employ people who enjoy people and talking and selling to them. I want our customers to feel totally comfortable coming here.”
It’s his biggest fear that he recreates for someone that feeling he had in the officer’s mess. “It’s why we work so hard to make it a friendly, safe place to be. There are no right or wrong answers for us when it comes to wine.”
It’s why he has changed the layout in his shop over the last year and moved away from ranging everything by country, and now does it by style and flavour, using the kinds of words his customers use when they order a glass of wine.
“By doing it that way it has also exposed gaps in our range that are not my usual preference,” he explains.
With a limited space to work with, Boyne has now worked out he has 12 spaces available on his list for each particular style of wine.
Focus on suppliers
It has also helped him work with his suppliers as he can be more focused and given them a clearer idea of what he is looking for. “It has allowed us to focus on those suppliers who have strengths in particular areas of styles of wine,” he adds.
“I don’t work with dick heads,” is Boyne’s definitive line on the issue. “I hate it when someone turns up and is just trying to sell me something without any idea of what I do.”
Arriving unannounced is also a “cardinal sin” – and a bit foolish seeing as you don’t exactly just happen to be in Padstow without making a serious effort.
Instead he is very open to receiving samples of wine where the supplier can show he has thought about his range and why this wine might be relevant. “It’s why I stopped working with one big national distributor. Their sales guy just wanted to push us wines that were not suitable for us.”
Other supplier wishes would be to reduce minimum orders and keep the flexible arrangements that they have been so willing to offer during lockdown.
“We also do next to nothing of wholesale so that removes any potential clashes as well.”
During the Covid-19 crisis Boyne is spending a couple of days of the week helping to run Bin Two but the rest of his time is focused on the NHS. “It has been pretty much set up to run itself these days. I am very lucky to be supported to by such a great team,” he explains. “So the show goes on if I can’t be there.”
End of the big tasting
Looking ahead to a life post Covid-19, then he thinks it could be the “death knell” of the large generic wine tasting. “I don’t like going to them anyway, but often do because I feel I ought to, or I need to go and support a particular supplier…I think big tastings are a thing of the past.”
But the lockdown, he hopes, has changed that forever. “Why don’t they cherry pick the wines they think we would be interested in and send them down to us?”
He would also be open to the idea of travelling to a nearby city or central venue where other merchants and buyers in the area can also go. “It would be much more efficient for all of us – and the supplier.”
Or why not just carry on with the Zoom tastings and “talk to us that way”.
He says the crisis will also have an impact on how he works with the ambulance service and it has shown he can be just as effective in his role as he is “travelling up and down to London all the time”. “Yes, I think Zoom is going to the new way for us all to work.”
Life on social
He also has his social media to keep him occupied and connected to the rest of the trade as well. He admits he was initially bullied into doing it and started off doing formulaic, timed tweets following all the standard social media rules.
But he soon got bored of that and quickly found his own voice and has now built up quite a community and is a regular face popping in and out of trade debates on Twitter.
“I have really embraced it now and given myself a free licence to say what I think. It also helps connect with my customers as well. But I want it to be seen as a friendly place to have a chat and I try to have a laugh and don’t take myself at all seriously.”
He says his profile on social media has certainly also helped his own confidence with what he is doing in the business, particularly the positive feedback he gets from peers across the country. “I do get reassurance from people’s responses,” he admits.
Boyne is ready to once again serve those drinks to the locals of Padstow and any tourist able and willing to come. “We have our outside terrace all ready and waiting and we have our own plans to make a real feature of all the social distancing rules and actually make it part of its appeal.”
One things for sure, when he does finally get to re-open, he’ll do so ready to have a lot of fun as well.