In the final part of Tom’s story, we discuss how COVID has changed the direction of the business, Corner Fifty Three gin being stocked in the Fortnum and Mason London store, and appreciating your supplier’s social and business values.
This is the final part of a three-part story.
COVID hits, and any thoughts of expansion are put on hold?
Yeah. In 2019 we were planning to make the move out of here in 2020. We had our eye on one of these huge domed concrete buildings in Petersfield that look like missile silos. They seemed like the perfect thing for us. We were going to install larger distilling equipment, ramp up production, start doing tours, get more staff, the whole nine yards. Then COVID hit and it just didn’t make sense to go that route.
Not a good time for anyone, especially small businesses.
The thing is, at that time we didn’t sell online. We sold direct to wholesalers and supplied the events trade. So consequently, the two main areas that we had pumped all our money into for our trade, disappeared almost overnight. But we were thinking, like everyone at the time, ‘oh everything will open up again in three months’. But even now the bar industry is nowhere near back to normal. So we had to pivot completely and, as I said earlier, one of the reasons that Jamie left is because our planned growth got taken away.
With no end in sight, what did you do?
This is when we realised that being ‘craft’, being small, was going to be our best friend. Otherwise there was no way we could go out and get funding. We’d been talking to venture capitalists about large sums of money for our planned growth. Now, I’m grateful that didn’t happen.
So something good came out of COVID after all then?
Well that’s the irony of it all. Pre-COVID we had these grand dreams of expanding, moving into larger premises and becoming a big player. When COVID hit, our takings plummeted, but suddenly we had time to reassess our priorities and work out where we wanted to go with the business. While we were in the thick of it, with everything being full on all the time, we hadn’t really noticed that the larger orders weren’t actually making good business sense for us. It was a huge amount of work for only a marginal increase in profit.
Venture capital would have been one heck of a millstone
Yeah, a real lead weight. But since then, having changed direction, we know that any money that is in the business is ours. It pays us, and we do it because we love it. Being smaller works for us now.
When did your website come about? Was it during COVID?
We had to get a premises license for the house first, to be able to legally sell alcohol, so it wasn’t an immediate switch.
Oh, of course, that’s not required when supplying the trade
So we started selling hand sanitiser instead [laughs]
The booziest hand sanitiser ever [laughs] Orange, Rosemary, Juniper, Vegan glycerine and our organic grain neutral spirit.
That’s what you were selling first of all?
That’s what we were selling during COVID, in our local Budgens [small chain of UK supermarkets] along with home deliveries of it as well. At the time, no-one could get hold of it. There was a microdistillery in Bristol  that made some, so everyone local to us was like, ‘you’re a distillery, you can make us some’.
Errrr, we do now …
We sold it as, ‘not for profit’, because we still had to pay duty on it, but couldn’t claim it back. It was the same price, or slightly cheaper than when everyone started to over inflate the price. We felt that at least we were helping out in some small way. When we got our alcohol license, we launched the website in May 2020.
Any plans to build or move into something more permanent?
I think with the world as it is [June 2022] which is very, very difficult for everyone, we’ll remain as we are for a little while. It helps to keep costs down for our customers. It’s not about growing the business at the moment, it’s more about experimenting, doing some interesting things and hopefully producing some unusual gins that resonate with our customer base. It’s definitely not that rosey at the moment and anyone who tells you different is not telling you the truth.
And of course your mum and dad have been very supportive?
Unbelievably so, considering that they stumbled into it really. We started out in their garden and they ended up helping. They are so amazing at what they do. They go to events on their own now, not something they would ever have thought about doing in the beginning. They’re able to talk with confidence about the products with a huge amount of knowledge that they’ve gained along the way.
During that Christmas, mum and I both caught COVID and had to self isolate. She locked herself away upstairs and my dad ran the distillery on his own.
Wow! Thrown in at the deep end.
We wouldn’t have survived as a business without dad doing that
So Jamie moved on, which left just you.
Me and mum mainly. I spent more time distilling and we reassessed our priorities. We capped out at 3000 bottle sales a year and decided to focus on staying where we are, not aiming to be one of big boys in the industry.
Small but perfectly formed [laughs]
What we hadn’t accounted for, was the way that the people involved in creating the business, are what the brand is all about. If we moved out into somewhere to accommodate huge stills, it would rob the brand of what makes it special, the personal touch. It’s not something we had foreseen when we started out. I was new to being an entrepreneur and, as far as I knew, it was supposed to be about taking an original idea and making it scaleable. With no training, I was learning on the job and was allowed to make a lot of mistakes which, as it turned out, worked in our favour
You’re quite particular about who your suppliers are?
We like to look a few steps down the chain at who we’re buying from; who we’re giving our money to, what are their business ethics. As much as possible we buy from, or use the services of, people that we believe in. We try and get as much as we can through local suppliers.
Like your greengrocer Nigel?
Yes, like Nigel for the fresh fruit. We buy a lot of equipment from a little brewing company in Liverpool, called Love Brewing , and they’re fantastic. A lot of our dry botanicals come from there. They’re passionate about what they do, and I know where they buy from, a British based company called Beacon Commodities . Beacon is run by a guy call Tom [laughs] who is the son of the original owner. I want to know who I’m dealing with, and what they stand for.
Dealing with businesses that have a similar mindset …
Yes, if there was a business in Germany that had the same attitude, I wouldn’t hesitate to work with them, so it’s not just about ‘Buying British’, although I do think it’s important to try and reduce the distance that the items come from. Looking several steps down the line is something that I’ve picked up, that will never go away. Our Southsea Spirit bottles are sprayed in Yorkshire, which in turn are distributed by a pallet company in Lavant, they’re not coming in on shipping containers across the sea. They come quicker and it’s lower carbon footprint.
You have six consistent, different flavoured gins at the moment, along with the specials, is that right?
The specials are the seasonal variations like the Cello’s as we’ve mentioned.
You sell them in various sizes?
We try to get something at every price point. 500, 200 and 50 ml. There’s also miniatures and gift sets. We don’t want to be an unapproachable brand. There’s a lot of industry discussion around this, but our thoughts are that If you only sell large bottles, anyone who is tempted to try us would be put off. By selling smaller sizes and keeping our prices down, there’s also a greater chance of longer term brand loyalty.
Someone is more likely to take a chance on a smaller bottle I would have thought.
If you’re not a gin drinker and you purchase a large bottle, but happen to pick one that you don’t like, the chances are that you are not going to give others a try. I’ve done it myself; I’ve bought drinks that I quite frankly just don’t like, and they’ve been thrown away or never finished.
There’s no point in creating a product that won’t sell because people are nervous about trying it.
My worst nightmare is bottles sat on the shelf not being drunk. It’s the main reason for us pulling out of selling to the trade. When we were one of 70 gins on the back bar, what’s the incentive to sell ours?
Well, you’re stocked in Fortnum & Mason
Which is completely mad for the size that we are, it’s nuts [laughs]. But It’s the best validation of what we have produced. They’re a recognised authority on spirits. They stocked us over Christmas and we remain stocked in their bar, which is fantastic.
What’s the most popular of your gins?
Sales wise it’s usually Pomelo. It’s fruity and nice and fresh. The Rum is really popular as well. They all sell pretty well across the board. Umami is a bit more polarising, but we still sell quite a lot of it. It’s one of the problems that we have, there isn’t one that we can drop due to it being unpopular.
Isn’t that a good problem to have though?
I would rather not have to make six products permanently, it’s a bit of a nightmare. But they all sell well, all year round, so I can’t just discontinue one on a whim. [Laughs]
If you weren’t involved in their production, and your six bottles were placed on the table, which one would you choose?
Probably a pint of Guiness [laughs]. No, I drink the Rum and also the Pomelo. The Pomelo as a Gin and Tonic. It’s the only time that I drink G&T, sat in the garden on a day like today [hot, bright sunshine]. I don’t drink them in pubs because they are too expensive, and when I drink the others here, it tends to be when I’m showing them to people. However if they were all lined up on a table I would jump straight to the Rum flavour. Have it neat, and I’d be happy.
Has Gin always been your preferred drink?
I do love Gin. I love its versatility, it’s a fun spirit, it’s great for cocktails. However, it’s not my favourite spirit. When we first started making gin, it was intended to be a gateway into other things, but it ended up being our full time job. Originally we thought about running a function bar and to make our own products to sell. Back in 2017 we thought about buying a horse box or food truck to do that. Then gin became so popular that it became the direction we went in.
Have you heard of The Wild Tea Bar?
Yeah, they’re great
I interviewed, and featured Diane Amey, the owner, as part of this Business Passions project.
They’re fun, the stuff they make is amazing, they’ve put the horse box idea to good use.
Would you like to have your own shop or outlet to sell from?
No. It comes down to staffing. With only the two of us now, and trying to keep the costs to a bare minimum, it doesn’t make financial sense. I think we’ve explored every possible iteration of what we could do for now. From expanding to larger premises, a pop-up shop, bricks and mortar etc. We’re at the point where any of those ideas would probably mean losing money.
You still go to festivals and craft fairs though?
That’s what I do now. I’m at a gin festival or market every weekend for the next three months.
We know what you DON’T want to do with the business, what WOULD you like to do?
In all honesty, there isn’t a plan beyond this year. We’re producing our seasonals, enjoying the events that we’re doing and pushing forward. As I’ve said, my mindset has changed since I started this. I don’t want to be a small business owner, I want to be an entrepreneur. I’d like to do something that makes a difference. I’d love to have a positive impact on the world. Maybe running a pub with an environmentally friendly or charitable slant to it [laughs].
It’s so it’s difficult to make big decisions at the moment. Not many people commit to something that they are going to do for the rest of their life when they are twenty-one. I like what we have built, it’s fun, it’s interesting, and we make people smile wherever we can. So I suppose the future really depends on if Corner Fifty Three continues to fit with my priorities and where the world is.