Getting a business through the first few years is a tough journey. On average, 40% of new businesses won’t make it to five years*, so getting to that point is an achievement in itself. For Michael Sager, the journey from opening his first wine bar, Sager & Wilde, in Shoreditch in 2012 to today has been a turbulent one. But thanks to a quality team, staying true to his founding values, and sheer grit, Sager & Wilde is now on a steady course towards a prosperous future.
Michael’s vision for Sager & Wilde was simple: bring customers the finest quality wine – and subsequently food, when he opened a restaurant in 2014 – at an affordable price with fantastic service. “Whilst teaching you something new so you can come back and try again,” Michael adds.
Opening the second site in 2014 – originally called Mission, to differentiate it from the original bar – brought challenges that threatened to put Sager & Wilde out of business altogether. “The place was buzzing, but one and a half years in we got sued for the name,” Michael explains.
However changing the name (to Sager & Wilde) wasn’t completely straightforward. Customers that had come to recognise Mission thought it no longer existed, and online reviews and profiles that had been developed for the restaurant on Google and other platforms had to be moved.
“In retrospect I'm really happy this happened because they threw us the hardest challenge ever,” Michael says. “My accountant told me this time last year to fold the restaurant.”
Michael now recognises the importance of keeping his brand’s core values at the heart of everything it does. But he admits that’s a lesson he’s learnt the hard way. “We never defined our values,” Michael admits. “Having values from before you open is crucial to make sure that you never go off the path. The few times we have veered off it really backfired. And the work that's gone into fixing it is crazy.”
To offer customers the highest quality at the most affordable price, Michael keeps his markup on a bottle of wine roughly the same – between £20-£30 regardless of how much they cost him to buy. But once Sager & Wilde stopped being the newest spot on the block and the footfall dipped, Michael worried that he’d need to make a higher margin to pay his overheads. “Two years in – not being the trendiest new business anymore – I adjusted the prices up,” he says. “That was the wrong decision. I never saw our vision in the beginning. So about a year ago we went back to [selling at] the lowest possible margin we can.”
It’s still a challenge to convince the average British consumer that a minimum of £35 for a bottle of wine is good value, Michael says; major supermarkets selling everything from meat to wine at rock bottom prices makes it harder to justify the prices necessary on quality produce. That’s why the role of his service team is so important to the business.
“To invest in the people who recommend those wines is crucial because you got to add value,” he says. That means staff who can speak authoritatively about the menu, make appropriate recommendations, and can communicate the quality and value. “That’s really important. If you can't communicate that value then you're failing as a service professional,” Michael says.
Working with suppliers he can trust to deliver high quality goods is another key to Michael’s vision for Sager & Wilde. “We work with what we believe to be only the best. Sometimes that means a delivery may come later in the day because they're small businesses. Sometimes it means they might not have anything. Some of them, like the truffle guys, they come around and show you the mushrooms they have on the day, so you’ve got to make sure you’re early in the run to get the good stuff,” he explains. “We reprint the menu every day.”
Managing the relationships with suppliers is an on-going part of Michael’s role, along with balancing the needs of his senior staff to be creative and motivated by their roles with the commercial needs of the business. Developing his role as a leader been a big focus over the last year or so.
“I've been busy for the last two years delegating what I do not want to do, what I'm not good at, and what I shouldn't be doing. It's really important to be frank with yourself as a business owner about stuff you don't want to be doing,” he says. “I'm still learning; I'm not there yet. But you’ve got to always make sure that whatever you're doing is exactly the stuff that you're good at.”
With business now ticking over nicely, Michael is looking to the future, but he doesn’t believe that involves a roll-out of Sager & Wilde bars around the UK. Expanding the business, he says, is more likely to be in some sort of B2B capacity, wholesaling or consultancy, as the margins associated with bars and restaurants are so tough.