He heads up the largest chain of independent off-licences in the UK... from an HQ set up in a church. Sue Scott meets Martin Swaine, Barnsley’s maverick bargain booze retailer


The good Methodists of West Riding must be dizzy from spinning in their graves.

First Martin Swaine, MD of Britain's biggest-selling indpendent booze chain, converted their 18th-century chapel in Holmfirth into his home, then he moved his headquarters to another former prayer house in a suburb of Barnsley. From there he masterminded the takeover of 34 former First Quench stores last October.

Now he risks stoking the Wesleyan fires again by introducing hand pumps dispensing three take-out pints of pub-quality real ale for £4 at three more of his Rhythm & Booze stores. If it goes as well as a summer-long pilot suggests, he'll be adding lager, wine and cider, too. "We could have a mile-long bar," he jokes.

The irony is Swaine can't drink a drop at home, where a covenant prevents alcohol consumption on the premises. It's a paradox that appeals to his dry sense of humour, which is stamped all over his range of bottled beers, including Nutty Stack and Ronnie's Owd Cock.

The beers, launched two years ago and brewed under licence by the Wentworth Brewery, have helped drive bottled beer sales through R&B's 76 stores up 87% in the past year. They've been such a hit that Swaine now plans to invest £2m in a brewing and bottling plant. He's also binning the tinnies and converting shelf space in store to ales mainly local ones at that.

"We used to stock a spread from across the country," says Swaine. "Now two-thirds to three-quarters of the range are from Yorkshire because I believe customers want local beers made by local people."

His own, produced under the name of the Barnsley Beer Company, is marketed on the back of the town's dialect and self-deprecating humour. It pokes fun at pretentious dinner table beers, carrying on-bottle hints such as the recommendation to drink dark mild Clog Iron "with tripe, onions, and a liberal dash of single vineyard, oak aged, vintage balsamic vinegar".

Retailing for between 99p and £1.29 for 500ml, the beers which are also stocked by Netto and Booths and will soon be available nationwide give Swaine a degree of insulation in a retail business where 50% of lines stocked are beer.

He explains: "When I was kicking this off there were a lot of price increases coming through. Duty was going up and one of the worst was on bottled beer. £2 is a big ask for a 500ml bottle when you can go to a pub and get a pint for almost the same."

The First Quench deal was, he says, a step change for the company and the new stores are still taking time to settle. The cost of the acquisition which has never been disclosed was modest compared to the investment required later, says Swaine.

"The stores were run down in terms of stock, and staff were demoralised. Six were closed. The biggest cost came afterwards till system, refit and time and effort. We also had to get new lorries and suddenly we needed more drivers and pickers."

That it came together so quickly and painlessly was something of a miracle. But church is the place for those, after all.