It’s a very nice compliment to be known as the London’s “best kept secret” by some of your customers, but it also suggests you might be missing out on more business from restaurants and bars if more knew what you can do. Here Christopher and Jon Carson open up on just what it is about Carson & Carnevale that some in the trade don’t want you to know about. It could, for example, be the fact it can offer minimum six bottle orders, six days a week in London. Richard Siddle finds out the full behind the scenes story…
Chris Carson will be well known to so many for his long track record managing major brand business such as Hardy’s and Constellation. Since 2016 he has been working with his son, Jon, on building up first Carson Wines and now the merged Carson & Carnevale business.
When Carson Wines and C Carnevale Ltd came together in 2017 it was more than just two similar companies joining forces. It was two like-minded family-owned businesses, with the same trading ethics and principles, that realised they could be far more effective and successful if they pooled their considerable resources.
Carson Wines, headed up by father and son, Chris and Jon Carson, had been gaining respect and listings for their strong, mainly Italian portfolio, in the premium on-trade. Carnevale, had become arguably one of the country’s most successful and important Italian food and wine wholesalers, supplying most restaurants, mostly Italian, and delis in the country.
Carnevale, by its own admission, was far stronger on the food side of the business than wine. Carson Wines had the 100% wine focus it needed. Put them together and you have a far more effective import and distribution business than if they were apart.
You are only truly effective, however, if more potential customers know what are doing. Particularly a business that can offer next day delivery across London six days a week for a minimum six bottle order, if ordered online, and in some cases can do same day as well for orders placed before 3am.
In fact there were a number of times during our chat that I had to go back and ask Jon or Chris to clarify another different service they offer, which I was not aware of. Like the fact Carnevale operates four large warehouses across London, giving C&C the chance to run its next day delivery service in London. C&C Wines has set up office in one of the warehouses in Kings Cross, that is big enough to host tastings when it can.
2020 was no less a rollercoaster year for the Carsons and C&C Wines, but they believe they are in a much stronger position now than when Covid-19 first struck in March 2020. It has, for one, been able to use the extended periods of lockdown to upgrade its back office, management and e-commerce systems, giving it the analytical tools to track sales better, assess trading patterns and improve its forecasting and ordering models.
Jon says it was a time to look at each of the “pillars of the business” and work out what they needed to be doing better. One of which was to recruit a dedicated marketing person, he says.
“One of the benefits of lockdown was that it gave us some time to re-build our website. We had previously just been 100% focused on sales so had not had the time to do so,” says Jon. “It’s also given us the time to review our business model and where we can make a real difference to our customers, and where we can see the opportunities. We have, for example, got our own warehouses and fleet of vans in London and know we can build on that. We believe service is going to be critical for the London restaurants, bars and hotels.”
What it did not do in lockdown was upgrade its website to go direct to consumer. It knew it was not the right thing to do for its on-trade customers and its business model, says Jon.
Adapting the business model
Before the pandemic around 85% of C&C’s was in the premium on-trade, in and around London. When the hospitality shut down came it was time to change tack and concentrate on what was already a growing independent and specialist merchant customer base. Which has also brought it a lot closer to regional wholesalers and brokers, says Jon.
“We used the time to look at our risk management. Suddenly all our cards had been thrown up in the air when hospitality closed,” adds Chris. “We had to look at different sectors and markets and ways of doing business, like sourcing and selling direct from Italy.”
“It has allowed us to have a more structured business. Whilst we might look like serene swans gliding on the Thames, our legs are going like crazy under neath,” he adds. “But we knew we had to seize our chance.”
That meant having more than just a relevant and effective wine range, but a highly efficient and flexible logistics model that can offer duty and bonded warehousing – through bonded warehouse Belvedere Warehousing & Distribution – as well as partnerships with freight forwarders that could act quickly and ensure it had the right stocks levels at all times.
“Warehousing and logistics are integral to our business,” says Jon. “Having those partnerships in place means we can be nimble in what we do.”
Chris Carson is arguably as better placed as anyone in the wine industry to have responded to all that has been thrown at the sector in the last year. He was certainly able to draw on all those years of experience heading up international wine giants such as Constellation Europe.
Ultimately, he says, the wine sector is an industry built on the trust of the companies and people you do business with. The last year has shown where people’s loyalties lie.
“Over the next 18 months we will reach out to those we trust, and who we know how we can help each other and don’t just see us another wine company. Who you can trust is going to become even more important in the coming months,” he says.
It’s why it has done what it possibly can to help its on-trade customers during all the months of lockdown. “Its been all hand to the pump and we’ve looked to support and give help where we could add value. We’ve kept as close to them as we could do, which they have really appreciated, but it’s been really difficult.”
One of the biggest challenges has been dealing with the stop, start measures that has seen the on-trade go through as series of staged lockdowns and the tier system. All of which has put pressure on cash flow and managing stock levels through the supply chain.
C&C Wines is confident the on-trade is set for a solid few months of trading, particularly if the upswing in trade prior to the lockdown in December is anything to go by.
Jon says he had expected around 5% of its customers to be able to re-open on April 12, but it was actually nearer 20%. “Sales have already been really positive and we are seeing re-orders of house wines all the way up to the higher price points,” he adds.
Chris hopes it will continue: “Consumers have become used to buying lower priced wines from the supermarkets and are now willing to spend £2, £3 or £5 more now they are going out. My expectation is that will grow even more in the weeks to come.”
Which is good and much needed news for the on-trade sector as a whole, he adds. “The industry could not continue as it was. There were too many people just running around trying to sell boxes and not making enough money. We have got to give businesses a better cash margin and give them a chance to breathe and grow.”
Jon is hopeful the upswing in prices in specialist retailers and independent wine merchants during 2020 will now continue and be sustained in the on-trade. “People are looking for experiences and different wines from different regions and the more experiential side of the wine list,” he says.
“We have been prisoners in our own homes for too long and we just want to get out and find a nice place for food and be happy spending an extra £5 or £10 on a bottle of wine to do,” adds Jon. “It’s what people are looking for. We want to live our lives again.”
That said we should be careful not to run before we can walk, cautions Chris. “We shall have to wait and see. We have no idea what might happen in the long term. There could also be another surge and, god forbid, a further lockdown. I don’t know how hospitality could cope with that, let alone the economy at large.”
“The next eight to 12 weeks will be telling to see how it really picks up across the trade. At Carson & Carnevale we have been working hard this year to make sure we were ready to go from when the on-trade could re-open. We believe we have done that and got our back office systems, sales and marketing in place. We are significantly in a better place than we were.”
He adds: “May 17 onwards will be key. We can only hope the British public’s enthusiasm for a drink will be fully embraced in May, June and July. It could be the saving of so many parts of our trade.”
Dealing with Brexit
Then there is just the small issue of Brexit to be dealing with as well. As so much of C&C Wines comes from Europe, noticeably Italy, it has feeling the full force of the new trading rules.
“The issue of Brexit is getting worse and worse,” says Jon. Before it was getting deliveries in from France, Italy or Spain within two weeks of ordering. Now it is closer to four or six weeks.
“If the supply chain takes six weeks to work then that is really serious. It puts colossal pressure on the trade. But there are simply not enough lorries and containers coming through the system and in the UK, he adds.” Then if a lorry just happens to be 1kg overweight it is sent back, or one item on all the forms is wrong, it gets sent back,” adds Chris. “It’s another cloud over the industry.”
The basic cost of delivery will just have to go up, adds Jon. Even the cost of a pallet is now more expensive. “We are having to order in larger quantities and rely on the supply chain to work. But you are constantly tying money up in stock. It is a real balancing act to provide the service you want but to also keep things as tight as possible. Communication with our customers – and regional wholesalers – is also going to be key in winning this battle.”
The fact it has its own warehousing and vans means it can control to some extent its cost of distribution, but it can’t control how long it takes wine to get from A to B. It is bound to have an impact on distributors and what services, what minimum service drops they can manage, says Chris. “Service is going to be an even more critical part of our business. You simply have to over deliver on service. Restaurants want their wines delivered at the right time and in the right way, so they are well out of the way before customers arrive. We can effectively become their cellar that they can call on.”
The C&C range
C&C Wines is as equally clear and focused on its portfolio of wines as it is route to market. It focuses on four key areas: Italy, Spain, the United States and Australia. With Italy being its “strongest suit”.
The reason it has focused so much on Italy is two fold: first it says there is an endless supply of great quality, good value on-trade and speciality retail relevant wines to buy; and the competition amongst importers is not as fierce as it is important say from France. Then there is also the Carnevale factor and how it is so respected and ingrained in what Italy can offer.
Outside of direct sourcing wines from those four countries it also works with third party suppliers and importers to offer a wider range of wines to a wider target customer base.
For example, it works with Kingsland Drinks on bulk wine bottling projects, and also supplies wines from Dreyfus Ashby and Pol Roger to access their respected producer base. It also now has a partnership with Accolade Wines premium and fine wines team to act as a route to market for its range of premium and respected wineries such as House of Arras, Petaluma and Grant Burge. The super premium DAOU range of wines from Paso Robles is also now distributed through C&C Wines.
Jon says it has widened its agency model to work in partnership with other suppliers, partly to compensate for Brexit but to also make the most of opportunities as and when they come along and in response to what their customers might want.
“These are all new relationships, but as they are all specialists in their own right, in the regions they are, we hope we can grow with them quite quickly,” adds Jon. “We want to work with people we enjoy working with as well. Hopefully for these suppliers we can be an extension to their businesses where we can all share the load.”
Chris says it is about having the right people working with these wines and producers. The Accolade stable of producers includes top quality producers, but it knows it will have difficulties going direct to independents and restaurants. C&C Wines can act as their feet on the ground.
C&C Wines has now grown to a team of nine over lockdown, over double where it was two years ago and has a clear strategy to grow and build the business from here.
It is also in a good place not to have to chase business if it does not have to, stresses Chris Carson. “We will look at everything that comes in, but we are very clear we will only work with people we want to, who are appreciative of the challenges of this market and are not just going to give us a product and expect us to sell it. A producer has to give up more of their time to help us build up the relationships with customers who are going to sell their wine. These are the kinds of people we want to work with.”
He says that whilst the wine industry as a whole “has changed so much in my career” the enthusiasm and the passion of the people that work in it, is what drives him – and now C&C Wines – on.