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Retail: Jeroboams – Cheesy does it

Spreading its simple message of cheese and typicity, Jeroboams is now the largest independent retail wine merchant in London. Patrick Schmitt reports

It’s as much a sign of business success as it is an indication of the fragmented nature of the UK specialist off-trade that Jeroboams, with 13 shops, is the largest independent retail wine merchant in London. Acquisitions, gradual expansion and a focus on fine wine and food in upmarket areas of the capital have ensured this company has survived in a sector better known for shop closures than increasing retail returns.

Founder and owner of the group, Peter Rich, offers a clue to the group’s core proposition and achievements – he combines a career in property development with a passion for wine and cheese. He started the company in 1985 with a Jeroboams in South Kensington, specialising in cheese, but also selling wine and Champagne. This was later joined by more shops in Holland Park and Belgravia, before Rich acquired wine retailer Stones of Belgravia, rebranding the shop as Jeroboams. This was followed by another acquisition, in March 1999, when Jeroboams bought Laytons, gaining three shops (which it rebranded) and a wholesale business. The Laytons name has been kept for the wholesale side of the operation and trade sales now account for as much as 55% of the Jeroboams Group’s turnover.

More recently, in April 2003, Jeroboams purchased a majority share in Mr Christian’s delicatessen in Notting Hill, and over a year later opened a wine merchant next door under the Mr Christian’s name. Then, at the end of 2004, Jeroboams acquired La Réserve, which included two wine shops (which were also rebranded) and Milroy’s whisky specialist in Soho.

Finally, in late 2005, two new shops were opened, one is a Jeroboams wine merchants in St John’s Wood and the other a Mr Christian’s, this time in Soho. The original South Kensington-based Jeroboams no longer exists. During this period of expansion Jeroboams has built up a respected wholesale cheese business, maturing the cheeses and selling them in optimum condition. It also has a mail-order service and a website for on-line ordering.

On the list
So what’s the essence of the Jeroboams’ drinks offer? For Neil Sommerfelt MW, buying director, it’s simple: “Every single wine we offer must be a true expression of where it comes from.” This means typicity is “right at the front of the queue”, which marks out Jeroboams’ wines because “many times real typicity is too much for the mainstream”.

Sommerfelt is also keen for the group to be known for more than just the classics – quality Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne – despite the company’s “traditional customer base”. He has expanded the range to incorporate more from France, Italy and Spain, as well as the New World – not that Sommerfelt would use the latter expression. “I hate the term New World and it has been used for too long. Many of the producers are anything but new. In fact, some in Europe are far newer,” he says.

Looking ahead
As for the future of Jeroboams, Sommerfelt believes there is “a positive mood out there and we want to tap into it. The rewards are potentially there but we need the resources to do it.” In other words, expect gradual expansion from the group, presumably at a similar rate to what has already taken place.

Although a spokesman for the company, from its newly expanded marketing team, says, “We are not expanding at the moment as we have just completed the total reburbishment of all the old La Réserve shops,” it was also noted that some plans are underway. “We are currently working on some new projects but I can’t divulge any info at this stage.”

After all, Jeroboams has some fairly powerful competitors, which Sommerfelt sees as ranging from the supermarkets to nearby independents as well as on-line businesses. “The real heart of the competition,” Sommerfelt points out, “comes from the likes of Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks, and on the wholesale side, Farrs, Bibendum and Fine & Rare.”

But Jeroboam’s resolve seems to have strengthened. “We now definitely have a clearer idea of where we want to be or aspire to be than in the past. We also have more self determination, and you need that in a market as competitive as this.” 

© db August 2006

Neil Sommerfelt MW
Sommerfelt has been buying director at Jeroboams since July 2001 after a distinguished career in the wine trade. He spent five years at Berry Bros & Rudd, five years at Waitrose, and five at Safeway (and now five at Jeroboams). He views his switch to Waitrose “as a more gentle passage from the traditional side of the trade into the multiple sector, but it was still a huge change”. As for Safeway, this he says “was very different again, more dynamic, urgent and vibrant”. However, his move to Jeroboams arose from a type of internal calling “to come back to my roots, the traditional, hand-sell side of the trade.” And talking of roots, Sommerfelt’s grandfather is Charles Walter Berry of Berry Bros.

Jeroboams Group
• Jeroboams shops:
Elizabeth Street, London SW1 (x2)
Walton Street, London SW3
Pont Street, London SW1
Chancery Lane, London WC2
Davies Street, London W1
Heath Street, London NW3
St John’s Wood High Street, London NW8
Holland Park Avenue, London W11
• Other stores:
Milroy’s of Soho, Greek Street, London W1
Mr Christian’s, Camden Passage, London N1
Mr Christian’s, Elgin Crescent,
London W11 (x2)
Wholesale business:

Bottle sizes
And just to make it absolutely clear where Jeroboams fits in the format-size hierarchy…
Magnum: equivalent to two bottles.  
Double magnum: equivalent to four bottles.
Jeroboam: for still wine equivalent to six standard bottles.
Rheoboam: for sparkling wine is equivalent to four standard bottles.
Imperial: equivalent to eight bottles.
Methuselah: for sparkling wine in Burgundy-shaped bottles, equivalent to eight bottles.
Salmanazar: equivalent to 12 bottles. 
Balthazar: equivalent to 15 bottles.
Nebuchadnezzar: Equivalent to 20 bottles.

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