As a captain in the Army, Angus Ferguson was used to making decisions and taking control of challenging situations often in perilous circumstances. So it should come as no surprise to find him in yet another precarious state – at the top of a long ladder changing a difficult-to-reach light tube in his unusual shop in Glasgow’s Byres Road.
Still fit despite retiring from the Black Watch almost 15 years ago, Ferguson shimmies back down the ladder at lightning speed, his maintenance work complete and the store looking shiny and smart like a soldier on parade.
This is Demijohn, a ‘liquid deli’ based on the concept of a traditional Italian cantina where the customer takes their own receptacle and fills up with the wine of their choice. Demijohn is somewhat more sophisticated and here there is no wine. Instead, there’s an amazing collection of unusual artisan spirits, liqueurs, oils and vinegars sourced predominantly from around the UK.
Byres Road is one of four stores owned by Ferguson and his wife, Frances – they opened their first in Victoria Street in Edinburgh’s New Town 10 years ago and the others are in York and Oxford. The logistical end of the business operates from the family’s farm and home in Galloway.
With a £1m turnover and ambitious plans to expand over the next decade, Ferguson takes time to reflect on his journey so far. “I loved the Army and grew up in a military family so I’ve always been used to travelling and living in different, exciting places,” he says. “But one of the best times of my life was living in Naples as a student in the early 1990s – I loved the culture and the way life revolved around food and drink, and I think that was the catalyst for Demijohn.”
So why did he leave the Army? “I’d had a great career and it wasn’t over yet – I could have progressed even further and was actually lined up for promotion,” he explains. “But you can’t go on forever and you have to consider your family and your future beyond the Forces. That was always very much in mind.”
Although the idea for Demijohn was “floating about”, Ferguson was determined not to rush into anything without doing his homework. “We were back in Scotland in 2002 and based around Edinburgh – that’s when I really thought about doing something a little bit different from the Army,” he says.
“Our daughter, Flora, was also born that year and she changed everything, and I kept thinking about my time in Italy and how the cantina concept might just work here if I found the right location,“ Ferguson goes on. “Then we had our eureka moment. We were at a dinner party and a bottle of homemade bramble whisky liqueur was brought out. It tasted absolutely amazing.
“But it also got me thinking that there’s a whole army of enthusiasts out there producing amazing stuff, all these small micro-businesses all over the country – an underworld of small businesses making unbelievable things that people would love if only there was an outlet to sell them; products made by teachers, bankers and people who have changed direction in life, on their kitchen table or in their shed.”
Not long afterwards, the couple took the plunge although it all happened “at quite a slow pace”. Ferguson admits to being “utterly terrified” at giving up a career with such great prospects and leaping into a world he knew nothing about, armed only with his passion and determination to succeed.
Finding premises for the first shop was indeed a challenge and Scotland wasn’t necessarily the first choice. “We did a UK-wide study and even thought about London at one stage,” he explains. “But we were living in Kinross at the time so it wouldn’t have worked as a first outlet. We looked at places like Perth and St Andrews because we were keen to tap into the tourism market but they were both really expensive and quite prohibitive, really, to any SME or business start-up.”
Edinburgh, however, was perfect. “As our business model was more slanted towards catering for the gift market, Edinburgh meant we could capture the tourist market but also push that further into the business tourism market which is a great thing,” says Ferguson. “For example, there’s a major surgeons’ conference in the city every year and when the keynote speaker jumps up on stage and mentions an amazing shop he’s discovered called Demijohn, the value of that can have a massive impact on your business.
“Likewise, Glasgow is getting so many more conferences and big events now and although Byres Road isn’t in the city centre, the west end gets loads of visitors so people tend to stumble upon us then come back again, they tell their friends and so the cycle begins.
We’ve also got the Hilton Grosvenor Hotel across the road, Waitrose which attracts a lot of the type of customers we’re targeting, the Botanic Gardens nearby and also Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum so it’s a great location.”
Byres Road opened in 2006, the year before the world changed. “The economic crash in 2007 was a real wake-up call for us but we survived,” says Ferguson. “How did we survive? Well, things had been going so very well for us that perhaps we were almost coasting along thinking everything was great and how clever we were. So suddenly seeing footfall drop really made us sit up and take a long, hard look at the business.
“In fact, it was a brilliant lesson because it made us much sharper from a customer service perspective; we looked carefully at our pricing, our marketing and at the finer details of the business. We understood that we could never, ever afford to become complacent and take things for granted – you have to look at each new day as a challenge and be prepared for the unexpected.”
By 2009, Demijohn was ready to expand again with York offering a similar clientele to Edinburgh with that crucial business tourism footfall. Oxford followed in 2013. “We’re obviously looking to expand but we’re not interested in playing the numbers game,” says Ferguson. “First and foremost the location has to be right and we’re at the stage now that distance isn’t so much of an issue because we’ve got people we can put into new stores to open them and get them up and running. Places like Cambridge and Bath could be an option.”
Meanwhile, Demijohn’s online business is robust and very much a key component of its success. “When a visitor comes into one of the shops the staff will always engage with them,” says Ferguson. “One of the benefits of personal engagement is that we can gently offer other information such as the benefits of online ordering or staying in contact with us via our regular email newsletter, The Demijohn News. “We also collect customer data when at events such as the Scottish Game Fair at Scone Palace.”
Forthcoming events in the diary include the Huddersfield Food & Drink Festival in August, Burghley Horse Trials in Lincolnshire in September and, in November, the BBC Good Food Show Scotland and Country Living Christmas Fair, both at the Glasgow SECC, CLIC Sargent Christmas Fair in Dumfries and BBC Good Food Show Winter at the Birmingham NEC.
“There’s a huge revolution in the food and drink world just now and people just love going to events where there’s a big foodie element,” Ferguson points out. “We’re a small team so can’t go to as many as we’d like but where we do go it’s amazing to spend time talking to people who are so interested in our products and our back story – it’s all about provenance and each product has its own story to tell.”
For Ferguson, it’s also about staying ahead of the game. “We still offer something fairly unique but there are other businesses snapping at our heels now,” he points out. “So I’m glad I took the advice of a great chap, Jim Lang, at Business Gateway whose words will always stay with me. When we were setting up, he told me that it pays to be the first to do something because someone else will come along and do it if you don’t.
“So I suppose, in a way, it’s flattering that someone else is trying to emulate what we’re doing in business. Business evolves, especially retail. I mentioned Waitrose earlier but isn’t it fascinating to watch what retailers like Aldi and Lidl are doing just now? They’re really giving the mainstream supermarkets a hard time and why shouldn’t they? It’s good to mix things up and competition makes us all that bit sharper.”
Offering such a niche product means that Demijohn has had to up its game when it comes to marketing. “We’ve done a bit of radio advertising which has worked very well for us and we post videos on YouTube from time to time,” Ferguson explains. “We also employ a PR company and invest heavily in our website and social media – Twitter and Facebook.
We have a blog and you can find cocktail recipes on the website and also food recipes, our Flavour of the Month and so on. It’s a lot of fun and I think it’s important to enjoy that aspect of your business and we encourage our staff to have fun, too. We have a core team of 10 and 35 in total across the four shops, plus seasonal people, and while we don’t like losing people, we know that some will move on and, indeed, we have inspired some to move on.”
Ferguson refers to Hollie Reid, who has set up her own business, Lovecrumbs, in Edinburgh. “We saw a spark in Hollie,” says Ferguson. “She actually went down to York to open the shop there for us and discovered Bettys, the famous Yorkshire business,” he says. “Working for us inspired her to open her own version of Bettys and we’re absolutely thrilled for her.”
Just looking at all the different bottles in the stores is an experience in itself. Ferguson often describes Demijohn as the “adult equivalent of a sweet shop” where you come in and gaze lovingly at the large glass demijohns filled with delights such as Organic Rhubarb Vodka, Gooseberry Gin, Butterscotch Cream Liqueur, Bramble Vinegar and Walnut Liqueur.
Customers can also bring back their bottles for refilling. At 10am it’s probably far to early for a tasting but Ferguson insists, lining up half a dozen liquids including a rather splendid Gooseberry Gin Liqueur, his amazing Seville Orange Gin and Elderflower Vodka Liqueur.
Tasting the Limoncello Liqueur, Ferguson reveals that his supplier is currently creating a Grapefruitcello variant, and this will soon be available for Demijohn customers to purchase both in-store and online.
It’s clearly not too early for an aperitif in Byres Road as a regular customer arrives to buy a gift for a friend, happily trying the Bramble Scotch Whisky Liqueur first. “Customers are encouraged to taste before they buy and because the staff are primed to share recipe ideas and talk about the provenance of what’s in your bottle, a visit is rarely a quick in and out,” says Ferguson, describing the Demijohn approach to selling as a “whole new concept”.
He continues: “You’re not just picking something from a shelf, you’re learning about its ingredients and where they come from, taking time to discuss its provenance with our staff. It’s what you might experience on holiday on the continent, where everything about food and drink is a pleasure and the pace slower. It’s what I’ve loved about a lifetime of travelling and I love now being able to share that pleasure with customers.”