Nestled in a back street of Neutral Bay is one of Sydney’s favourite wine bars, The Cheese & Wine Co, boasting a selection of wine and cheese from local and global suppliers that rotate on the menu every three months.
But the laneway spot actually started as an Instagram account (@thecheeseandwineco) dedicated to pretty pictures of wine and cheese, which amassed a following of almost 100K, and eventually became what is now the brick-and-mortar bar, restaurant, online store and – most recently – café. In order to adapt to COVID-19 times, Cheese & Wine Co have now expanded their offering from dinner and wine to breakfast and lunch.
We spoke to one of the co-founders, Sean Christie, about how the wine bar started, how the business has adapted to lockdown and kept regulars engaged with their offering over the years.
Tell us a bit about how Cheese & Wine Co got started.
We actually started as an Instagram account several years ago, and we built up our following to around 100K followers. We’d built this community on Instagram, but we weren’t selling anything through it, it was more just a compilation. We had other people’s photos on there, and targeted people looking through hashtags to find good photos of cheese and wine, retagging people’s photos and reposting. And then, people just jumped on board and the account grew.
I think we got fortunate with the name, because the hashtag #cheese is popular – when hashtags meant something back in the day! People also hashtagged cheese in their photos because you say ‘cheese’ when you smile. We decided to open up a wine bar because we were getting comments from people asking where they could try the things we were posting about (mainly photos of cheese and wine!).
Did any of the founders have experience in hospitality when you first started out?
I used to work in stadiums and venues, more on the management side of it – I never worked in hospitality as a bartender or anything like that, but I worked for a company that had a few cafes and facilities we looked after, but that was it. My other business partner Tiago – no, not at all. We’ve since added another founder, Gary, who is a sommelier, so he’s the one with hospitality experience, and given his wine expertise he’s an important part of the team.
The bar has recently spanned out to breakfast, what made you decide to do that?
At the moment with COVID-19, we’re limited by the amount of people we can fit in, like every other business, and given the space, the only real way we could double the capacity was to double the operating hours.
We had a wine bar that was sitting there empty for most of the day, and most of the week actually. We only open Wednesday through to Saturday, so it was a matter of looking to expand the offerings at the time and seeing if we could make it work.
Have you got a favourite product at the moment?
The Eggs Bene is unreal! The breakfast is awesome.
How have you been navigating COVID-19, and the lockdown?
The lockdown itself, initially, was quite a frightening prospect, and the potential of not opening for 6 months was what freaked us out more than anything. But then, the ability to reopen after 9 weeks was great, I think everyone in Sydney was just keen to get out and have a drink somewhere, after 9 weeks of all the bars being shut.
The other side of it hasn’t been too bad – the locals have really supported us, which has been unreal. But we’re fortunate that we had been there for nearly 3 years prior to COVID-19 coming in, so the customer base was very loyal, and the support has been great coming out of it. I’m looking forward to all the restrictions ending, don’t get me wrong, but the support has been awesome.
How did you get set up with Square, and what tools do you use most?
We’re using Square for Restaurants, we had the other Square POS app first, and that was good, but we needed to switch over to the restaurant software for the extra functionality like running tables and the covers options. We’ve also integrated Square payments with our online store which is run through Weebly – we use our online store mostly for our events and functions, and cheese sales.
What’s next for Cheese & Wine Co?
We have our online side of the business that’s been allowed to open up with the Government relaxing liquor licence laws and being able to do takeaway wines – so that’s another opportunity that we have to develop some more business in addition to opening the café.
Do you have any advice for small businesses, particularly those struggling during this time?
Reach out to your existing customer base – the people you know really like your product or service already. The practicalities of watching cash flow is also super important.
Making sure your staff are onboard and know what’s going on is really important too – so I suggest sitting down and chatting with them about COVID-19 and what it might mean for the business. If at least one thing is running smoothly then it should be staff morale, making sure everyone’s on the same page for the next little while.
The other thing I would say is to look for opportunities in the market – so for us it was the fact we had a venue that’s sitting there during the day with a coffee machine and a kitchen in it, so we thought why not try and open as a café? Obviously, you’ve then got to put on more staff and that’s a bit scary, but there might be opportunities for other small businesses to leverage the current capabilities of the business in different ways.
So that would be my advice – try not to get bogged down in the freak out and the fear of COVID-19, try to look at your business capabilities and what you might be able to deliver.