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Interview – Match Maker

d=”standfirst”>Eileen Ginger’s great skill is matching specific wine brands with Whitbread’s branded bars and restaurants. It seems Jacobs Creek and Pizza Hut were just made for each other, says Patrick Schmitt

Like Many in the wine trade, Eileen Ginger, Whitbread’s wine buyer, worked her way into the sector by accident – or “fluke” – as she rather more casually puts it. A series of chance events saw her career switch from groceries to grog, all within the same neighbourhood, and with little break in between. This was because her initial employers – for whom she was a food buyer – were bought out, forcing them to move from Welwyn Garden to Bristol, a shift Ginger was unprepared to make. This left her searching for something new, and one day, in Welwyn Garden, Ginger noticed Thresher was advertising for someone. She applied, got the job, and, as she says, “literally walked round the corner and got myself into Thresher and into the wine trade and haven’t looked back since”.

Her initial post was buying executive but, as Ginger recalls, “I worked my way up, took my wine qualifications up to diploma level, and then did an on-trade liaison role with Whitbread [then owners of Thresher] using my wine knowledge.” This involved managing various accounts, or as Ginger puts it, “looking for opportunities for wines and spirits in the on-trade but sitting on the Thresher pay roll”.

Then, as she continues, “Whitbread decided to sell Thresher off and they set up their own buying department and I applied for the wine buying job and got it. All in all I’ve actually been at Whitbread for 16 years, but 12 in the off-trade for Thresher and four for Whitbread in the on-trade.”

But which is better? “The on-trade is where a lot of suppliers see the opportunity because the off-trade is so cut-throat,” she comments from a supply-side perspective. “A lot are very interested in the on-trade now as that’s where they see growth. In the on-trade, for instance, there can be one South African wine exposed to a captive audience whereas in the off-trade the same wine will be one of many on the shelf.”

Ginger’s role is, of course, to select that South African wine, as well as many others from around the world, and ensure they all sell successfully, while making Whitbread a decent margin. Fortified wines are also in Ginger’s remit. “I actually source the wines and negotiate the price, I also get involved in negotiating promotion activity – like buy two 250ml glasses and get the rest of the bottle free. I also get involved in wine training in some of the businesses and I also get involved in merchandising,” she explains.

As for the training side, Ginger has strong feelings. “In our particular business there is a lot of training done on food but wine isn’t part of the induction process – and that’s something I’m trying to change. Although a lot of people are realising the potential of drink, the focus is still on food and we have to keep raising the profile of drink with the businesses because most people who come into our outlets will buy a drink if they are buying food.”

At which point it seems sensible to clarify which companies comprise Whitbread’s business. Currently in the portfolio are Brewers Fayre, Brewsters, Beefeater, TGI Friday’s, Pizza Hut, Out & Out and Costa, as well as Marriott and Travel Inn hotels and David Lloyd Leisure clubs, which is quite a collection, and Ginger buys for the whole lot. Of course, your average Brewsters regular is different from a Marriot guest, and Ginger has arrived at a particular method to please both palates. “To try and understand the different consumers in our outlets,”  she says, “I would normally relate each one to the supermarkets. So I would say for Marriott and our Out & Out chain the typical consumer is probably Waitrose, Harrods etc, then Beefeater’s is probably Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and Brewers Fayre’s is probably Morrisons/Asda.

“What I try and do is understand the off-trade and what’s working well and what’s not and then make sure we’ve got the right mix  in that particular business to reflect the off-trade,” Ginger explains. This approach is partly a hangover from Thresher days and partly because, as she points out, “At the end of the day, it’s the same consumers going into our outlets as the supermarkets.” 

Which rather begs the question, what about Whitbread’s branded offer?

“We are very strong in brands – we’ve got seven out of the top 10,” states Ginger. “Initially, when I started working in the on-trade, people would say where’s all the support money coming from, and I would say predominantly the brands. Then it would be pointed out that there’s so much sensitivity between the onand off-trade in terms of pricing. But we decided to take the risk – and in any case you pay a premium for everything in the on-trade. I mean, we sell lots of steak and you pay a lot less for a piece of steak in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose than you would in one of our outlets.”

And to prove the risk has paid off, Ginger notes that when it comes to red wines, number one is Whitbread’s Australian house wine – Dalwood – but followed by Blossom Hill, Rosemount, Stowells and 35 South; “all high street brands,” Ginger proudly adds. These have been successful because in most of Whitbread’s outlets the consumer is looking for “the comfort factor”, according to Ginger, although in some, like Marriot, “they are looking to be more experimental”. However, “Jacobs Creek really flies out the door at Pizza Hut and it’s the same with Rosemount at Beefeater,” says Ginger. “The consumer recognises them and thinks ‘Well, I’m paying a premium but I might as well have something that I recognise’.”

But what does “flying out the door” add up to? Well, with 2,000 outlets employing some 65,000 people, Whitbread manages to work it’s way through 6m bottles of wine per year. As for the New World/Old World split, Ginger reveals that the businesses mimic trends in the supermarkets. “We reflect, really, the off-trade in New World sales – so looking at the last stats I had from Nielsen the off-trade was about 56% New World, 44% Old World and we are 58:42 [New World to Old World]. And I think that split favouring the New World is driven by an Australian house wine which I’ve put into a lot of our businesses, because I want to be a bit innovative and move away from vin de pays.” 

As for the more traditional Old World must-haves, Whitbread still records a following for Chablis, Sancerre and Rioja while Ginger adds, “We do very well with Châteauneuf-duPape and, despite the fact we do a lot of New World brands, there are still a lot of traditionalists out there.”

It seems changes to the list at Whitbread aren’t easy to instigate – that is for suppliers. This is partly because “we’ve got followings for each of the different brands, so if it’s working and delivers the margin requirement then there’s continuity,” but also because in many of the group’s outlets the range is quite limited. “Consistency, quality and price are important in a supplier,” notes Ginger.  “I have an issue with price fluctuations – they cause me a big problem.” She does add, though, that she respects “somebody who’s done the homework and really understands our businesses and comes to me and says ‘I want to target this product at this business because this is the right fit’, rather than come and say ‘I want a listing in here, here and here’.” 

What about growth? As much as 7% to 8% year on year is recorded by Ginger, which compares favourably with an overall increase of wine sales in the on-trade of 4%. Furthermore, wine is outselling beer “which is flat in our business,” she remarks. And as for the ratio of food to drink sales, it ranges from 70:30 (food:drink) in some business to 60:40 in others according to Ginger. “In general it is a third of turnover,” she says. 

But back to wines, Ginger records that, of the reds, Merlot has overtaken Cabernet Sauvignon as the most popular varietal for Whitbread, and in whites, Pinot Grigio leads the way. However, she does note that Chardonnay is still growing – especially when blended with Semillon, which could have much to do with the demand for Jacobs Creek in Whitbread’s Pizza Hut chain. In fact, Ginger points out that she “never used to look after their [Pizza Hut’s] wine until last year. Then, when I did,” she says, “I nominated Jacobs Creek – I said it would be a perfect fit for the brand – and now it is the best seller in Pizza Hut. Furthermore, we’ve doubled wine sales since we’ve changed the range.” An impressive result certainly, but not one to make Ginger smug. 

As she says as our conversation comes to an end, “The key thing for me and the thing we’ve got to get right is the training because you can have the best wine list in the world but unless the staff have got the confidence to trade people up or recommend wines then we’ll never achieve what we want to achieve. We’ve done well so far by just getting the range and pricing right but the key for me for success is staff training.”

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