22 May 2020 Courier Weekly

On the rise of dark stores and ‘multifunctional retail’

With more than 2,000 unique customers in two months, this wine and small plates bistro has discovered a new scalable business model.

Brodie Meah, the owner of north London wine and small plates bistro Top Cuvée, is already planning his next space. And this time it won’t be a neighbourhood restaurant. ‘We’re hoping to find a multifunctional warehouse space, where we can prepare food, bottle cocktails and process deliveries, but also hold events and have a beautiful shop.’

Top Cuvée – a collaboration between Brodie and Max Venning, the owner of east London cocktail bar Three Sheets – had been a hit since opening in February 2019. But after lockdown struck, the team of five transformed the business in less than a day, relaunching as Shop Cuvée, delivering restaurant-quality ready meals, biodynamic wines and ready-mixed cocktails, from Three Sheets but also bar brands like Mr Lyan and Tayēr + Elementary.

With more than 2,000 unique customers in less than two months, Brodie has discovered a whole new scalable business model. ‘It’s been a crash course in retail,’ he says. ‘We’ve had to perfect a completely new kind of service, using bike couriers to get great products to customers at Amazon speeds. But we’ve also learned it can be a viable business, which will be part of our long-term plans, even when we reopen Top Cuvée.’

In the short-term, Top Cuvée has gone from being a bistro to a packing station, shop and kitchen preparing ham hock terrines, pork and fennel tagliatelle and more for delivery. The bar has become a production station for mixing and bottling cocktails; tables have been moved to the back of the bistro and become packing stations; and the shelves at the front have become a fancy bottle shop for socially-distanced shoppers.

In some ways, Top Cuvée is a case study into some of the biggest global trends in retail at the moment, including the shift online and the increased use of spaces as fulfilment centres for click-and-collect and deliveries – or dark stores, as they are starting to be called.

‘Before lockdown, there was already a big focus on e-commerce supply chains, with companies everywhere looking at the most efficient ways to get products to consumers,’ says Victoria Buchanan, a senior analyst at the The Future Laboratory. ‘This has just accelerated the process, as people get used to doing even more shopping online.’

Ever since Amazon showed consumers that one-hour delivery times are possible, companies across sectors have been racing to get products closer to buyers, from Walmart’s mega-stores for online customers to Deliveroo ghost kitchens in inner-city car parks. Companies have sprung up to feed a growing obsession with hyper-localised supply chains: like San Francisco-based Darkstore and New York-based Ohi, whose business models are based on finding unused spaces in offices, malls and storage facilities, and turning them into data-driven delivery centres.

The Covid-19 lockdown has accelerated this trend by effectively turning many consumer-facing venues into dark stores. Levi’s and Whole Foods are just two of the many brands that have turned stores into fulfilment centres. But it is trickling down to smaller, independent businesses too.

Canlis, the iconic fine-dining, family-run restaurant in Seattle, has successfully shifted to selling burgers and bagels to drive-through customers, as well as sending out grocery boxes and delivering everything from Wagyu meatloaf to Manhattan cocktails. Industry Of All Nations, the sustainable clothing brand based out of Los Angeles, is also rethinking its strategy. According to co-founder Juan Diego Gerscovich, the company is looking at shifting more closely towards a fulfilment centre model in Europe, at least, rather than opening a bunch of expensive stores solely for customers to shop in.

Whenever lockdown ends, the big question is how many of these venues will return to the way they worked before. Canlis, like Top Cuvée, plans to reopen the restaurant but keep working on online deliveries to satisfy a newfound demand for quality dining at home. But other companies will change more significantly.

‘Whatever happens, this has forced brands to be more agile,’ says Victoria. ‘They will be thinking even harder about their physical spaces, and what they’re for, and I think we’ll be seeing more and more nicely designed hybrid spaces. Some stores might become more like warehouses, designed for local needs and with more of an emphasis on collecting than browsing.’

Illustration: Danae Diaz

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