What began as Nick Baker selling bottles from his private collection has morphed into The Finest Bubble, a delivery service that promises to get Champagne to locations in London within two hours, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
Few sounds scream “celebration” like the pop of a cork leaving the neck of a Champagne bottle. For hundreds of years, France’s flagship sparkling wine has been associated with hedonism, excess and the marking of special occasions, whether they be birthdays or weddings, exam results or promotions at work.
Now, Nick Baker is bringing the humble Champagne bottle bang up to date. His business, The Finest Bubble, can deliver fizz to locations in London within two hours.
It sounds like a tough ask. With its reputation for congestion, London seems like the last place a wine merchant would want to offer such a precise service.
“The secret is to keep it simple,” explains Baker. “We handle each order individually – so when an order comes in, we pick the bottles from our stock and then arrange for a courier to deliver them.
“When we started the business in 2014, lots of companies offered next day delivery, so our point-of-difference was that we could offer same-day delivery. Last year, we upgraded that service to same-day delivery in London within two hours.
“It’s the couriers that make it possible. We work with some great companies and we use bike couriers whenever we can, especially for orders of three bottles or fewer.
“It’s a simple model. If you had a big lumbering delivery system of your own then I don’t think you could make it work.
“The cost depends on how far the customer is from our base in Islington. We classify ‘London’ as being within the M25 motorway but, in reality, most of our clients are within the north and south circular roads.
“For places like the City, Mayfair, Westminster or the West End the cost is £8.50, while other areas such as Canary Wharf, Kensington and Maida Vale are all £9.95. Areas further from Central London such as Barnet, Chigwell, Croydon, Heathrow and Twickenham will cost around £30 to £35.”
Baker’s system is underpinned by a website, with his company employing a technical consultant rather than outsourcing its online operations to a third party. He says the advantage is that he can make tweaks to the design, layout and search parameters on the website much more quickly, helping him to respond to the search terms that customers use and adjusting his listings and content accordingly to help stimulate sales.
Having all the data at his finger tips also allows Baker to get to know his customers: he’s found the most-popular occasions for which clients buy Champagne are birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, engagements, and moving into new homes. He can also wheel out some fun facts too, like his quickest delivery being made in just 28 minutes or 2002 sitting currently as the most-popular vintage.
“When I was looking to set up the business, I wanted to do something different,” he explains. “There were wine merchants who had been around for decades or even centuries doing the same old things, but no one seemed to have focused on the service side of things.
“A lot of the big companies began as wholesalers, so they have big and heavy infrastructure. Retailing had already changed quite significantly by 2014 and people were very happy shopping online.
“I quickly ruled out the need to have a shop. No one was offering same-day delivery except the florists – who would only offer a couple of bottles – and no one was focusing on Champagne.
“At the time, we didn’t know how big the market was, although we guessed there would be a buoyant gifting market. A lot of retailers will have the current vintage of a Champagne or its premier cuvee, but not many people have previous vintages on sale and so that’s another service that sets us apart.”
After a busy Christmas, turnover broke through the £1m mark for the first time. The company now stocks more than 350 Champagnes – a far cry from its early days. “We started off with a range of just eight Champagnes,” Baker says. “These were Champagnes that I’d bought as an investor.
“The company came about because I had more than I needed and so it made sense to try and sell them rather than have them just sitting in bond. I’m much better at not drinking them these days – when I started I wasn’t so good at it,” he laughs.
As well as holding stock at its office in Islington, the company works with London City Bond to hold the bulk of its fizz. Orders will sometimes arrive for 60-odd bottles, especially from corporate customers at Christmas.
“We do a lot of work with investment funds and law firms,” says Baker. “There are lots of reasons for gifting Champagne – sometimes it’s to say congratulations on a deal being completed, but for others it’s to say congratulations on the birth of a baby.”
Baker also points to the popularity of larger sizes of bottles – such as magnums – and of older vintages, not just among customers who want to give gifts related to a specific year, but also among Champagne enthusiasts.
“There are people out there who really love Champagne,” he explains. “We’ve had people fly in from New York and Hong Kong for the day to take part in our tastings.”
Those tastings are hosted by some of the best-known names in the wine trade, including masters of wine Richard Bampfield and Jancis Robinson, the wine columnist for the Financial Times newspaper and one of the new presenters to join Amelia Singer and Joe Fattorini on Channel 5’s The Wine Show.
Baker is quick to rule out franchising or expansion into other cities as ways of growing the business. “I don’t think the model would work in other cities because you just wouldn’t have the scale – maybe in New York or Hong Kong, but even then I’m not sure, because Champagne is just so popular in London.”
Another route down which Baker doesn’t plan to go is stocking other sparkling wines, such as Franciacorta from Italy or Cava from Spain. Instead, he believes there’s still huge potential for growth within the Champagne category. However, one alternative that has caught his attention is English sparkling wine. “People started asking us if we stocked any – and we didn’t – so we held a big blind tasting with Jancis and Richard and others and identified ones that we wanted to stock.
“At the moment, the acidity in many English sparkling wines stands out because of our cool climate. But as the average temperature rises, they’ll become slightly fruitier to help balance that acidity – it’ll be fascinating to see how they change.”
Baker has opted for English brands Hambledon, Nyetimber and Wiston. He salutes them for the balance between their fruit and acidity, as well as being left for a longer time to age on their lees, the dead yeasts cells from the second fermentation – the one that takes place inside the bottle to add the bubbles – which helps to build up a rounded texture or mouthfeel.
Growth is coming from repeat business from satisfied customers and Baker is keen to hold further tasting events to help promote his brand. But he doesn’t want to grow too fast.
“If we get too big then we’ll have to move premises – and that presents its own challenges,” he laughs. “I don’t want to extend my range if it means losing the focus that we have.”
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