Ben Franks is “a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit, which defines those who subscribe to the motto ‘Follow your dreams’.” That’s how Angela Mount describes the steps that Ben Franks, chief executive and founder of multi-award winning Novel Wines, and specialist importer of south and East European wines, has already achieved in such a short period of time. As he announces he is to step away from Novel Wines in the new year to concentrate full time on the Canned Wine Co, which he also co-founded, as chief commercial officer, Mount catches up with him to see where his wine dreams are going to take him next.
Ben Franks does not like to stand still for very long and as well as throwing his business weight behind Canned Wine Co he still plans to make time to help other food and drink starts up and embark on trying to become a Master of Wine.
Ben Franks is a man on a mission; in a mere eight years, he has become an important presence on the UK wine scene, primarily for championing the relatively unknown in the world; lesser known countries, in particular central and eastern Europe, little-known grape varieties; his company is also winner of countless industry awards. And all of this by the tender age of just 29.
Now at the helm of a proven and successful business, Franks founded Novel Wines, in 2016 at the age of 22. Novel Wines has been acclaimed as a champion of specialist wine retailing, winning the Decanter ‘Best Specialist of the Year, southern and Eastern Europe’ for four consecutive years so far (shortlisted so far for 2023, with results not released yet), and IWC ‘specialist merchant for Southern and Eastern Europe’ in 2021, together with ‘Unsung specialist retailer of the year’ in 2023.
Novel Wines is based in Bath, my hometown, and I have got to know Ben over recent years – the food and wine community being particularly vibrant in the West Country. He has become a regular presence at local shows and events, supplies a number of top Bath restaurants, and is well known in the city.
He is a young man full of drive, ambition, determination, together with real zeal and passion for his subject. Humble, quietly-spoken, and modest in the light of his achievements to date, he is clearly a man of vision, self-belief and a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit, which defines those who subscribe to the motto ‘Follow your dreams’. I spoke to him recently about his journey…
“I wanted to be a writer from the time I studied English Literature at Bath Spa University,” he says. “I worked part time in the local Waitrose, in the wine department, and asked the manager to let me write reviews on some of the wines.”
That’s how the wine journey started. He began pitching for various writing jobs; In Bath, there are two glossy monthly mags, available free in various businesses around the city, and distributed free to households over a certain average value. I was writing for The Bath Magazine at the time, and saw this young unknown was putting a few pieces in the arch competitor Bath Life.
His first paid interview in January 2015 was with Sam Lindo, of Camel Valley. “I walked in and told him that I didn’t know anything about wine, but wanted to learn. Sam had a big influence on how my career evolved,” he admits.
He passed his WSET level 2 at the age of 21, whilst still at university, and then started to hold small events, including wine tastings for hen parties (Bath is apparently the number one venue for hen do’s in the UK), helped with wine lists and did some bits and pieces of writing.
“I was wondering what to do next; at that time there was a Bulgarian wine at Waitrose, which I liked, and I wrote down on a pad ‘Why is no one else doing anything interesting?’. That was the beginning for me.”
He had recently met his future business and co-founder Gyorgy Zsiga, an importer specialising in Hungarian wines; together they founded Novel Wines. For the first year, their office was The Chequers pubs, one of the well- known and popular Bath establishments;
Gyorky did the importing, Ben the tasting, writing and the website. They secured a government grant of £20k, and managed to raise £5k through a crowdfunder. They stored all the wine in a local safe store. “We spent all the money in just two weeks. It was scary.”
Their first event, featuring wines from Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria and India, in Bath was a sell out with tickets at £15. However in 2018, they ran out of money; fortunately for their fledgling business, Franks had met an investor Mark Roberts, through his consultancy work; an accountant and property developer, Roberts was also owner of Croatian Fine Wines, and helped them save the business.
“We had a new, more focussed mandate; retail-centric, online, importing 500 lines into the safe store. We did all the logistics ourselves and were packing boxes for four hours a day,” he says.
The game changer came in 2019, when they won Decanter’s Specialist Retailer of the Year for Central and Eastern Europe; they realised that they needed retail space, as well as an HQ. Towards the end of 2019, they opened their shop Novel Wines, a small space, on the west side of Bath, in a very much community- driven area, as so much of Bath is, outside the immediate centre.
The pandemic hit early the following year, but they had already managed to build a name and a reputation locally. The shop opening transformed the business, with the help of local support, and online sales. Until that point only 5– 10% of the turnover came from Bath business, with the majority online in Bristol, Birmingham and Brighton. The shop, and free local home delivery, together with local and neighbourhood encouragement, carried them through the pandemic, building the local online following to 40%.
“The physical shop seemed to help inspire locals to trust us and buy,” he says. Novel Wines had built a reputation, and become exclusive within their range and focus areas.
Move to wholesale
However, the real catalyst for growth was the expansion into wholesale; they developed relationships with restaurants in Bath, and increasingly in Bristol, the Cotswolds and now Dorset. They supply Bath Michelin starred restaurant, the Olive Tree, as well as other well-established favourites such as The Circus, Henrys, and the Architect, to name but a few. Pre 2020, the company imported 25% of their wines direct; today that stands at over 65%, with a target of 90%, covering almost 400 wines. Wholesale now accounts for 60% of the business, online 30%, with the shop and events making up the rest.
The small, friendly shop, with its well-stocked shelves, garden area, window counter seats, and tables and chairs is their local flagship, sitting on the edge of Bath’s famous and popular Victoria Park, alongside a café, and various other small local businesses, including hairdressers, barbers, and a tattoo artist. On Fridays and Saturdays, the shop is open till 9pm, offering cheese platters, sourced from Nibbles, the local Bath cheesemonger; they also work with Somerset charcuterie, and other local producers.
The shop is bright and vibrant with support from regulars from the local Bath community; I’ve been a frequent visitor there, alongside local food writers and chefs, and have enjoyed a glass or two of Georgian, Greek, Hungarian and many others, with several wine industry friends, who live locally, including well-known brand and packaging designer Neil Tully, owner of Amphora wines.
Tully designed the packaging for the Canned Wine company when that business started in 2019, with Franks buying the wine, once again focussing on new styles and varietals – Gruner Veltliner, Laurent, Old Vines Garnacha to name but some – all in cans, selling into independents, cafes, beach bars and festivals, as well as theatre groups, a couple of football clubs,and even Wimbledon.
So why change, why move on at a time when the core business is booming? ‘I’ve learnt a lot in eight years and Novel Wines is in a really good place now,” he explains. “Every entrepreneur wants to leave a business when it’s in a good position. I said I’d do it for eight years, and I’m proud of what we have achieved. I’m most proud of the team and the staff – we do have a high turnover, but we give people opportunities to learn and develop. Now Novel needs a new MD to take it on a commercial journey.”
That new MD is Gary Shaw, previously sales and marketing manager at Novel, who joined the company in December 2022, with a retail and commercial background. Gyorky Zsiga will also leave the business and resign as director at the end of September, with Franks stepping away from the CEO position at the end of 2023, but remain as a board director, shareholder, advisor and brand ambassador.
“I like to have lots on my plate, I love a challenge. I’m naturally impatient, and what drives me is my enthusiasm to learn. The best time is when I have nowhere to go, and I have time to think; if doors are closed, how do I open them? This stems from early rejections in student days. You have to try everything,” he says.
So as well as taking on the The Canned Wine Co full time he is also starting the challenge of studying for the Master of Wine qualification. “In five years time, I will be 34 and would love to have passed the exam, but that would mean, very ambitiously getting through the most challenging qualification in wine with first time passes… but we will have to wait and see on that.”
He wants to see Novel Wines continue to thrive, and for Canned Wine Co. to be the go-to brand as the next canned wine on a global level, which they are already near achieving in the UK, with sales of around £1million. He wants to travel, but above all, in his words: “I want to stay curious with a desire to learn.”
My final question pushes him to stare into the hypothetical crystal ball and look beyond the next five years: “I’d love to invest and help grow other young people’s businesses in food and drink. I’m really lucky to be involved in two start- ups from October as an advisor and shareholder; Mogul drinks, which is creating a series of premium spritz liqueurs, and Mouse & Grape with Jessica Summer, a wine and cheese specialist retailer and events business. I hope, by then, to have a few of these emerging businesses, and that we would celebrate milestones together.”
Ben Franks is an inspiring, and highly motivated entrepreneur; he is also an extremely likeable and modest person, with no detectable ego in the light of his success to date. Personally, I’ll keep meeting my friends at the small, but perfectly formed Novel Wines shop, and hope to bump into him frequently. He is a shining light for positivity and success in our frequently beleaguered industry, never afraid to take risks, and always championing enthusiasm and self-belief. I wish him every success, and will watch with interest.