Close Menu

London restaurants: Top 10 changes in 25 years

What are the 10 biggest changes to London’s restaurant wine business over the past 25 years? One seasoned salesman shares his views with db.

If there is one London-based brand manager and sales director who knows the capital’s restaurant sector brilliantly, then it’s Alan Montague-Dennis (pictured below).

The endlessly cheery head of prestige sales at Mentzendorff, the UK distributor of famous brands from Bollinger to Taylor’s, is this month celebrating 25 years at the company, and 32 years in the wine trade – and, to mark the occasion, he tells db about some of the most notable developments in London’s on-trade wine sector during his career.

This is certainly someone who knows the city’s on-trade intimately, having eschewed the temptation to conduct business remotely using technology, and continued to set up and finalise deals face-to-face, whether it’s with London’s most influential restaurateurs, or the little-known brains behind the capital’s many new openings.

As a result, he’s one of the first through the doors of the city’s latest on-premise initiatives, or number one when it comes to spotting changes among London’s long-established outlets.

In essence, Alan has seen the changing face of dining in this culinary capital first-hand over the past 25 years, and that’s because he always visits his clients.

As he tells db, “In the early days, business would be conducted over lunch, which could last a long time, and deals would be done on a handshake.”

In contrast, today, he says, “It’s easy to spend a lot of time caught up in email chains.” Nevertheless, due to disciplined time management and long working hours, Alan ensures he still does his business in person, because it’s the best approach.

“There’s still a lot to be said for actually seeing someone… wine brings people together, and then you can understand more about where their business wants to be, and how you, as a supplier, can fit – the days of wearing out shoe leather are far from over,” he states.

And, one suspects that Alan’s successful and lengthy career in the wine trade owes as much to his sales ability as it does his attachment to the sector.

Admitting his fondness for the trade and its personalities, he says, “The wine trade is a profession that enriches your life on every level, and in a way that I don’t think any other profession can compare: it enables you to travel and meet such a wide variety of people, so you can experience a Champagne lifestyle on beer money.”

Continuing, he states, “Others may have Champagne money, but they have a beer lifestyle, because they are chained to a desk.”

However, despite the fine wine and food enjoyed by Alan on an almost daily basis, he remains physically fit due to regular running and cycling challenges, and this summer will take part in the first stage of Lawrence Dallaglio Cycle Slam in Spain, the latest in a long tine of annual sporting events undertaken by Alan – for example, he has taken part in every Benevolent Bike Ride since this fundraising ordeal was started in 2003 by Mentzendorff MD Andrew Hawes.

Over the following pages we have picked out the 10 most significant changes to the on-trade wine business over the past 25 years, according to Alan, while below is a snapshot of Alan’s career in the wine trade:

Alan joined Mentzendorff in January 1991 and celebrates 25 years at the company this month. His roles at this company are as follows:

Director of Prestige Sales
Mentzendorff & Co Ltd
May 2012 – Present (3 years 9 months)

Prestige Business Manager
Mentzendorff & Co Ltd
January 2000 – May 2012 (12 years 5 months)

Regional Sales Manager
Mentzendorff & Co Ltd
1995 – 1999 (4 years) South of England, Midlands and The North of England

National Account Manager
Mentzendorff & Co Ltd
January 1991 – 1995 (4 years)

Before Alan worked at Mentzendorff he held roles at a range of drinks companies, from Allied Domecq to Majestic Wine.

Prestige Trade Manager
Allied Domecq
January 1988 – December 1990 (3 years)

Sales Manager
Hatch Mansfield
1986 – 1988 (2 years)

Retail Sales Manager
Majestic Wine
1985 – 1986 (1 year)

Buying Assistant
Saccone and Speed Ltd ( Courage Group )
1984 – 1985 (1 year)

Alan pursued his passion for wine by going into the wine trade immediately after university, having abandoned the idea of following a career in law.

10. The rise of the somm

The sommelier has become increasingly powerful, with the very best, such as Gerard Basset MS MW, now among the most influential people in the wine trade

The power of the sommelier has risen immeasurably over the past 25 years, according to Alan Montague-Dennis, and consequently, these people must be supported by their employers and suppliers.

“The sommelier is now incredibly important, they are no longer a wine waiter, but a business manager, and can increase a restaurant’s profitability two fold or more by understanding their customers and structuring their list accordingly, particularly by presenting exciting wines by the glass,” says Alan.

Nevertheless, Alan believes that the sommelier’s role as a salesman is still underrated by the trade, who often fail to provide them with the necessary support.

“The trade needs to wake up and provide sommeliers with the tools they need to sell wines to their customers: you need to give sommeliers in-house training, or send them on courses, so they know how to present wine and manage their stock.”

9. Wine lists have become shorter, and better

The average London restaurant wine list is shorter than it was 25 years ago, but provides a better selection of ready-to-drink wines in good condition, believes Alan.

“Wine lists are shorter, but they take more time to produce, because each wine requires careful consideration and the list should provide a flavour of different countries, relevant styles and up to date commercial vintages – an older vintage is not now considered always better,” he says.

Significantly, Alan also observes lower margins on fine wines in restaurants.

“People are prepared to pay a high margin on an entry-level wine, so around £25 for a £5 wine, but not £400 for a wine that costs £100… the consumer is far more knowledgeable about the true value of a wine, and the only way restaurants will move fine wines off a page is to be far more realistic about the prices they can ask.”

8. The eccentric is disappearing

There are fewer larger-than-life characters in the London wine trade, such as Bill Baker, who sadly died in 2008, aged 53

According to Alan, there are fewer outrageous characters in the wine trade in London today.

“The great personalities who originally attracted so many to the wine trade sadly seem to be diminishing,” he records.

“For example, the likes of Bill Baker and other larger-than-life characters are rapidly disappearing, and they are not being replaced, so there is a danger we are becoming too much like clones.”

Concluding, he opines, “A degree of eccentricity ought to be encouraged in the wine trade.”

7. Professionalism has increased

The wine trade is becoming increasingly professional and attracting talent

“Many more high quality professionals are entering the trade,” recalls Alan, adding, “So the level of expertise is far better than it has ever been.”

Essentially, Alan observes that the wine trade is “attracting talent” and benefitting more than ever before from “bright, hungry people”.

This extends to the production of wine too. Alan explains, “The quality of wine is getter better and better, vinification techniques are improving, consistency is better, and we are seeing fewer examples of corked bottles… overall, the level of knowledge has improved considerably.”

6. Wine suppliers are polarising

Larger businesses like Enotria are buying up competitors such as Coe

Britain’s importers and distributors are becoming bigger, swallowing up mid-sized players, but leaving room for niche operators to establish, says Alan.

“You are seeing the larger businesses buying up smaller competitors and trying to find a solution for each trade sector, for example, Bibendum and PLB, or Enotria and Coe,” he records.

On the other hand, he also observes that “there are a lot more smaller players, who are turning over a few million [pounds], sometimes headed by former sommeliers.

Continuing, he says that while such businesses may have a small portfolio, “it is very smart, and they can fill in the cracks that the big boys can’t.” He cites some examples, such as Clark Foyster Wines, H2Vin, Genesis and Flint Wines.

5. Technology has changed the way of doing business

Technology means there are no longer set hours, with emails and text messages 24-7

The advent of email, WiFi and now MiFi has dramatically altered the way in which wine is sold to restaurants – and other businesses, according to Alan.

“There was a time when your working day was 9.30 to 5.30, but now, with technology, there are no set hours, with emails and text messages from people in the on-trade 24-7,” says Alan, before stating, “Technology has had a huge impact on the way we work in the on-trade.”

Indeed, Alan believes that the likes of email has “killed some of the face-to-face interaction,” although he stresses that meetings in person are “still very important for long-term business relationships; there is still a role for pressing the flesh,” he says.

Nevertheless, he also comments, “But you have to keep abreast of the latest technology, you have to fitter, and more accountable, and the advance of technology means that we are far more efficient.”

4. London restaurateurs are moving east

High quality restaurants are increasingly opening up in East London, like Verden in Clapton, E5

While London’s west-end has developed enormously during Alan’s 25 years selling wine to restaurants for Mentzendorff, it is the upmarket on-trade’s move east in the last 10 years that he believes is more significant.

“Areas such as Bermondsey and Shoreditch were a culinary desert when I started, but now they are some of the most exciting places to eat out in London,” he records.

“We’ve had to react to that,” he adds, pointing out that his role was historically focused on the West End.

He also says that he has noticed more “smaller players” open up in London as a result of the move East, where commercial rents are generally lower. In turn, this has required wine suppliers to offer “more educational support and vineyard visits.”

Overall, he says that the London on-trade is “more competitive than it has ever been”.

3. The rise of the celebrity chef

The celebrity chef is all-powerful today, with the leading names like Gordon Ramsay running a range of restaurants across London

The likes of great restaurant brands or wine bar chains have given way to famous chefs, who have opened up mini empires in their own names.

“We have seen the rise of the celebrity chef, for example Jason Atherton, Tom Aikens, Michel Roux, Marcus Wareing, Angela Hartnett and Gordon Ramsay, who are all trying to make a name for themselves.”

Continuing, he notes that they have moved into the informal dining sector, opening new outlets that aren’t designed to earn Michelin stars, but reflect different cuisines in an authentic fashion.

In contrast, 20 years ago, Alan says that London was dominated by “great institutions, such as Sweetings, The Savoy Grill, or Simpsons, as well as hugely successful wine bar chains.”

In summary, he believes that both the move east and the rise of the celebrity chef have made London “the most exciting capital in the world to dine out – not necessarily the best, but the most eclectic.”

2. The French monopoly is dead

London’s sommeliers are no longer all French males. Pictured is Sunaina Sethi, wine buyer for JKS Restaurants, which run Bubbledogs and Gymkhana, among successful outlets in the capital

When Alan first started promoting wine to London’s leading sommeliers, he could be assured he would be dealing with a smartly-dressed Frenchman – but today, it could be someone from anywhere in the world, and, wearing pretty much anything.

“When I first started in the trade it was acceptable to think that all sommeliers were French, and that’s because they were, and it stayed that way for a long time. But that started to change around 10-15 years ago when a lot more sommeliers started to come to London from Italy, and then, in the last five years, they have become such an eclectic mix – for example, there is a Nepalese sommelier at Bread Street Kitchen.”

Consequently, Alan says, “There is a greater wealth of experience and even more dynamism”, but also a need for more “cultural awareness”.

Today, Alan estimates that just 20% of London’s sommeliers are from France.

1. London loves wine by the glass

It’s now common to find a broad range of wines by the glass in restaurants, but 25 years ago, it was probably just the ‘house’ red and white that came in this measure

The greatest single change to the wine restaurant business over the past 25 years is probably the most beneficial for wine loving diners – and that’s the dramatic rise in by-the-glass selections, helped by wine preservation technology, from the Enomatic to Coravin.

Alan recalls, “When I started, you would only ever see one Champagne by the glass, which would be the house Champagne, but today, it is accepted that you will see the house Champagne, a rosé, and a prestige cuvée by the glass, and possibly a blanc de blancs as well.”

Similarly, he says that Port “was only ever served by the bottle,” but now you will see at least two different styles by the glass, as well as the “marrying of fortified wines with food – not just Port and cheese.”

The change has been immense, not only giving wine suppliers more opportunities to put a wider range of wines in front of consumers, but also encouraging diners to be “more adventurous” says Alan.

In short, he concludes, “because of by the glass listings people are now far more knowledgeable, more savvy and more prepared to experiment.”

It’s another reason why Alan believes that right now, London “is the most exciting capital for dining out.”

Indeed, he states, “The city is a showcase.”

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No