Journeys in Taste Interview with Avril & Johnny McMurrough of Boutique Wines

Any business that has survived a 20-year existence, from selling their goods out of the boot of a compact car to establishing itself as a credible go-to, has to be doing something right. When a year like 2020 comes knocking on your door, however, it takes more than business skills and acumen to continue. Dublin-based Boutique Wines knows this as much as any other business caught between the rock of Covid-19 and the hard place of what-do-we-do.

According to Johnny McMurrough, co-head honcho of Boutique Wines, 2020 was not only unprecedented but also incomparable. “The business came to a complete standstill last March,” he relates. “Most wholesale companies had an off licence trade but we didn’t, so we were caught. Even during the recession of 2008, while those times were tough, of course, you could change your strategy and still trade your way out of it. Last year we had to totally rethink our business model and at lightning speed. We did what we had to do to survive, quite literally, and I would say the birth of the website is the main positive we will take from 2020.”

Avril Kirrane McMurrough, Johnny’s other half, points to the unstinting support received from family, friends and clients. “People really came together and lifted us up. There was and still is a great sense of people rooting for us and helping us out by supporting us in any way they can, and we are very grateful for that. It was a really emotional time. I would say it has also brought us closer together as a family. There were definitely a few tricky moments we had to navigate that I would say have made us stronger.”

While the business, as such, celebrates its 20th birthday in 2021, it was only about four years ago that Boutique Wines became a more formidable operation with two heads instead of one leading the charge. Avril says she had no intention of working alongside her husband, having operated as front-of-house for many years in restaurants such as Dublin’s Vintage Kitchen and London’s St. John. As time passed and as each was entrenched in the hospitality industry, however, she says “it made sense to join forces.”

Johnny highlights the practical as well as business reasons. “Running a small business, as you know, requires a lot of multitasking. There’s no marketing, no HR department, no finance director, and so on, and as we definitely fall into the space of a small business we – and I include here Nigel Hennessy, who has been by my side also for years – do it all. Avril is a naturally caring person and was always helping out where she could, so teaming up really did just happen.”

What about working together? The cut and thrust of any business is such that the temperature in the room can sometimes reach boiling point. What is the balance like?

We both bring different skills to the business that complement each other,” remarks Avril. “I love getting out and about, chatting to our clients about wine, wine recommendations and wine training, making sure they are all happy and their needs are met – but all of that was pre-Covid, and so I now do all of this by phone. Johnny loves this part, also, but he has the business head and is amazing with numbers, which are not my forte. We also are completely honest with each other. That can be difficult at times but we always come around and listen to what each other has to say. I think this creates a good balance for the business. We also have each other’s complete support, which is invaluable.

The not-so-positive aspects, according to Johnny, is that all work and no play can “lead to us being consumed by wine, food and the industry, but I could think of many worse things to be doing. I’m grateful for what we do and especially the people we have met along the way.” Being totally honest with each other, advises Avril, can occasionally “go down like a lead balloon, on both sides. Thankfully, we have always managed to navigate that. Also, we have to consciously check ourselves to shut down the work talk. We both have to be self-aware and that can be tricky sometimes.”

Outside the actual business, of course, is the home/work balance. For many people that’s easier to say than to do, isn’t it? “Yes, it can be difficult to shut off,” agrees Avril. “We have – or rather had – a system in place where we would spend an hour chatting about work when we got home – just to check in with each other – and unless it was really important there was no other work talk allowed for the evening.”

That system, all too inevitably, ran through the door in 2020, but both Avril and Johnny remain pragmatic about it. “These are unusual times,” reasons Avril, “and we are fighting for the survival, literally, of the business, so you do what you have to do.” Business talk has been virtually non-stop since then, adds Johnny. “That’s not healthy but it’s a necessity. The whole hospitality sector has been thrown upside down and livelihoods are in serious jeopardy, so working 24/7 has had to happen.”

The dynamic between working/living/loving couples can be equal parts frail and unyielding – what defines Avril and Johnny’s business relationship? And is it similar to what defines the pair as a unit, in personal terms?

Trust, honesty, good communication and a love for wine and food,” says Avril. “The same principles that define our personal relationship.” Johnny smiles in recognition, with the proviso that nobody is perfect. “Sometimes the honesty can be a bit brutal and the communication gets a bit shouty!”

Enough about them, they say. What is 2021 going to deliver? With 20 years as a going concern under the collective belt, Boutique Wines came through the 2008-2010 recession years without losing sight of its central ethos of providing wines of great quality and value and to deliver great service. “If we always stick to those principles,” says Johnny, “then we will be in with a good chance.”

He and Avril (and everyone else in the world, needless to say) are aware that the first half of 2021, at least, looks as if it will be tough enough. We all know by this stage that the only certainty will be contrasting layers of instability, but what do they hope will happen this year for their business? “People’s safety is paramount,” confirms Johnny, “so getting the vaccine rolled out efficiently is the most important. We have vulnerable members in our own family and have friends that have lost family to Covid-19 or are currently battling it, so for us, it’s very real.”

Government assistance for the sector is also a necessity, he adds, and for Boutique Wines to have lined up Plan A and B in order to bounce back up, start running and stay open. Only then can they start to properly formulate a business strategy. “For now,” recommends Johnny, “don’t count the days, just make the days count.

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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