12 months in wine lockdown

Melanie Brown talks about how she got through the past year

Mel Andy Barnham Portait
Creds to Andy Barnham 📸

As we are mere moments away from reaching the 12 month milestone since we were first forced into lockdown in London, it felt appropriate to reflect on our experiences over the course of the last year. What on earth just happened? In all honesty there are moments that feel like it is all a dream.

A bit about me and us.

My name is Melanie and I am the founder of Specialist Cellars, a small kickass New World wine offering in the heart of Brixton. We have both a Wine Bar & Shop in Pop Brixton, and thankfully an online shop servicing the whole of the UK.

Our Hospitality Group also has a rather significant big sister, The Laundry Restaurant can host up to 120 guests in an all day dining, café and terrace, this site is also located on Coldharbour Lane, in Brixton. Meaning I’m never far from the pavement of Brixton. 

Specialist Cellars, (formally The New Zealand Cellar, for those in the know) was launched just over 7 years ago. With an incredible amount of support from our industry pals, our intention was always to bring some kickass producers into the limelight – to show the UK what New Zealand wine was really all about. Having connected with stories and vineyards from Martinborough to Marlborough, to Central Otago and North Canterbury, my aspiration was to give these guys the spotlight over generic kiwi supermarket plonk. We’ve worked tirelessly building a business from scratch, with very little help or investment since the get go. I’d be picking and packing from my living room for the first few years, with a toddler squealing through and continually building forts from New Zealand wine boxes.

Fast forward a few years…

In 2018 we grew up. We moved to an office and our bar and shop really started to hum. I was so proud of my New Zealand wine haven and decided that it would be time to bring some other pretty amazing New World Wine Countries to the table, so we subtly started introducing the likes of Australia and South Africa to our offering and never looked back.

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Mel at our Wine Bar and Shop at Pop Brixton

But then, Lockdown arrived.

Having had a much larger team running Specialist Cellars and having not had my finger on the pulse for many months (I was opening The Laundry) I was very soon catapulted from closing the doors at The Laundry Restaurant and Pop Brixton Bar & Store, furloughing all 26 of our team and walking down the road to our online operation at Specialist Cellars… it was quite the life-changing moment.

With such a small team at Specialist – everyone here very quickly aborted London life (fair call) and headed back to the safety of their own home countries – I was now adjusting to my new life embroiled back at the office. I was fortunate to have Simone – our Manager from The Laundry – who jumped at the opportunity to run Specialist Cellars with me, and no sooner had we locked the front door of The Laundry, we were picking and packing online orders at Specialist Cellars. Our Marketing assistant Sarah, worked from home during this time, however the disconnect of not having everyone together in the office had an impact, and soon we realised she needed to be on site to assist with the volume of orders we were processing and continue to bring to life our marketing in so many varying ways.

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Sarah (left), Simone (middle), Mel (right) drinking a glass at our Wine Bar and Shop at Pop Brixton.

So, what now?

Brixton very quickly became deserted, the streets were empty, the sound disappeared, we immediately felt lost – it was like we lost our main artery.

That first lockdown was different to this one in so many ways, there was a stillness that was honoured back here. Now the rat race continues, even under lockdown rules just without the dynamic energy of our hospitality offering in Brixton.

Over the course of the last 12 months we’ve managed to sustain and increase (one would hope!) our online sales, and our predictions for the upcoming year and beyond look incredibly optimistic. Our primary objectives when this began was to turn our attention to our local community and we still stand by this. There is so much #winelove we can offer to the lovely folks on our doorstep and we intend to commit to looking at every avenue we can to expose our glorious New World Wine producers across South London. We deliver any order (no matter how big or small) personally for free throughout South London, this was an offer we launched immediately as lockdown began.

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Slinging wines across South London

It’s hard to convey the extremities that our people and team are under in hospitality – we are people that need the interaction to perform our roles. Feeling a little lost around the continual uncertainty has certainly taken its toll, as a business owner I’ve found it hard understanding the pressures that my team have been under, and knowing what I can do to support them. The impact of mental health and what we are doing to support each other and our crew will always take priority as we reintegrate back into society.

We’ve thankfully been blessed by a group of very supportive investors who have continually offered words of encouragement during this Global Pandemic. We’ve been fortunate to utilise the furlough scheme as well as grants and bounce back loans – however the tough tough journey of damage control is about to begin as we reopen our doors. The brutality had affected not just our bank balance, but equally the livelihoods of our entire team.

We’re pumped for 12th April when we’ll be opening the doors at Specialist Cellars in Pop Brixton with a bang! We’re committed 110% to this industry so whether it is a private wine tasting or popping down to try one of the many wines we serve by the glass – we are looking forward to seeing your faces really soon and encourage you to get out and spend as much as you can (!)

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Wine Tasting at our Wine Bar and Shop at Pop Brixton

What have we learnt? All of this must be a silver lining, right?

I personally have reconnected with many vineyards, enjoyed hosting some amazing producers on our insta live series – understood how incredible our online operation really is, and reconnected with South London on a personal level, how incredible is that? Yes it’s been tough and felt like a decade at points, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Engaging with our community has certainly been an element I had overlooked in our business model initially and it took me a Global Pandemic to figure out what I have on my doorstep: an incredibly diverse, talented and willing community to celebrate.

What does the last year mean to me?

Resilience. The brutality of the last 12 months has imposed an involuntary ‘superhero’ status for those in hospitality – the relentless fight for more money and support whilst navigating lack of revenue and pivoting a million ways, all whilst losing our lifeline, has reinforced resilience, opportunity and the downright love of service in us all. 

Is there something we can do for you?

Please reach out to me or us, we’re here to support Brixton and our extended community/network in any way we can – and ensure our venues create the right spaces for you to reconnect with friends and family far and wide.

See you on the 12th of April everyone.

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1 thought on “12 months in wine lockdown”

  1.  Image Name

    Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is fantastic blog.

    A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

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Closed, for now

Specialist Cellars has paused its virtual doors for now. We’re still open and operating at our Pop Brixton store this Summer. You can also visit us 7 days a week at The Laundry Restaurant for sublime food, wine and coffee @brixtonlaundry.

Any outstanding vouchers can be redeemed at The Laundry or Pop Brixton store. Sadly we can no longer redeem these online.

Any queries contact melanie@heist-group.com

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