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Looking Back, Forging Ahead Q&A: Graham Hall, Drake & Morgan

Published:  18 December, 2023

Following another eventful year for the drinks trade, Graham Hall, director at Drake & Morgan reflects on the highs and lows of 2023, plus the hopes and plans for the business in the year ahead.

How has business been for you across 2023 when compared with 2022 (and pre-pandemic)?

We have been in consistent growth since the pandemic. The customer landscape (especially in the city of London where we have the majority of our bars) has changed with working from home certainly altering trade patterns. However, this has just encouraged us to adapt. We have been able to build an agile business with more of a seven-day trade now, seeing many more weekend events and experiences becoming the norm. This is also coupled with the rebound of Tuesday to Thursday office footfall which has been excellent for sales in a normal week.

What, for you, were the specific highs of 2023?

The festive period (so far) has been incredible. We’ve not had an uninterrupted one for four years, so it’s been a real high to see the bars and restaurants full to the rafters again with Christmas parties. A second highlight would also have to be the charity effort from our employees and customers at Drake & Morgan who have raised and donated over £100,000 this year to Maggie’s (our charity partner) to help people affected by cancer. This has been achieved through different initiatives, from micro donations on bills, to teams cycling from London to Manchester and venue managers abseiling down the Leadenhall building in the City. It’s truly amazing to see what a difference this money can make to such a fantastic organisation.

And the lows?

I think everyone in our industry is just a bit fed up with external factors impacting how we can get on with our day-to-day business and would like to be more in charge of our own destiny. Widespread industrial action has had a huge impact on bars and restaurants in the last 18 months. Hospitality, especially in city centres, does seem to disproportionately bear the brunt of strikes without any real acknowledgment of the collateral damage being caused.

More specifically, how has the cost-of-living crisis impacted and what have you done to help mitigate the effects for you and your customers?

So far, we are discovering consumer sentiment is actually pretty resilient. People don’t want to lose those important social connections again, likely due to having spent time without these interactions during the pandemic, so they are still out pretty frequently and enjoying themselves. They’re also continuing to trade up, but we are finding them conscious of value for money. As a result, we’re being sensible with pricing whilst still offering premium products and experiences.

How much of a concern are the duty hikes, will you have to alter the way you do business moving forward?

It’s never helpful, but we don’t foresee needing to change how we work. We will continue to be flexible with our menu pricing and work hard with suppliers to provide customers great value for money.

As a business, what goals have you set for 2024 and how do you expect to achieve them?

We are cautiously optimistic. We have a great team in place, many of whom have been with us for many years, and all our plans revolve around their ambitions to grow the business even more. As such, we hope to start expanding again across the UK very soon.

More generally, how do you predict the drinks landscape will look this time next year?

The drinks industry is hugely resilient, it constantly adapts to challenges in the on and off-trade and I’m sure this will continue to ensure its success next year. Customers are looking for premium experiences, but more so understated ‘little luxuries’, which I think will continue through 2024 across wines and spirits. We will probably see a bit of a decline in the more ostentatious ‘showy’ elements of the drinks industry and as a result a move into ones with genuine quality and a story to tell, either from their heritage or sustainability credentials.

Quick fire questions:

Go-to Christmas tipple?

A negroni or a Guinness.

And New Year?

Probably an English sparkling such as Gusbourne or Harrow & Hope.

Fire-side drinks or out on the town?

Why compromise! Places such as London’s Scarfe’s bar or Noble Rot show there’s some fantastic spots in ‘town’ with a fireplace to get the best of both worlds.

Rioja or Mendoza?

That’s tough! I love Spain, but thoughts of asado, empanadas and Malbec might just nudge Mendoza over the line here.

Orange wine – yay or nay?

Big yay. I like wines with a bit of grip, so enjoy some of these immensely.

Dry January or Try January?

Whilst there are some fantastic zero abv products out there now, I would definitely say Try January should be the call here.