Spotlight: Vikesh Harji, Simply Local

Vikesh Harji from Simply Local

Burntwood is a small Staffordshire town, situated around four miles west of Lichfield and 15 miles north of Birmingham City Centre. Whilst forming one of the largest urbanised parishes in England and home to a number of pubs, it’s not a place that you would consider to be a beer haven. However, for the last year or so, one local business owner has been working hard to bring the tastiest brews to his corner of South Staffs. Simply Local is a specialist off license in the Chase Town area of Burntwood and Vikesh Harji is the man at the helm.

I first met Vikesh (known to friends and customers as Viks) on the second bank holiday Monday last year. Dave and I were in the mood for a few beers and we remembered hearing from a mutual friend about a shop in Burntwood that was starting to gain some notoriety for stocking out-of-the-ordinary beers.

At the time, I don’t think either of us were expecting much, but we thought we’d head on over just in case. Entering the shop, it was pretty clear that we’d underestimated Simply Local. In front of the till there were an abundance of shiny cans from the likes of Beavertown, Magic Rock and Roosters, as well as two breweries we were starting to hear a lot of hype about – Deya and Verdant.

Noticing that we were pretty enraptured with the 30 or 40 different beers at the front of the shop, Viks pointed out the further three rows of shelves and hundreds of bottles and cans that took up the majority of the shop. By the Hammer of Thor! We were shocked to find shelf upon shelf of beers from our favourite breweries and many from brewers we’d never tried or in some cases, even heard of.

Since that fateful day, we’ve grown to be regular customers at “The Local”. The beer selection is ever growing and we now count Viks as a good friend, despite what he does to our bank accounts.

At the end of last week, Viks and I took a seat on a stack of energy drinks and chatted about the past, present and future of Simply Local.

WB: Tell us a little about yourself. How long has Simply Local been in business?

VH: The shop was actually established nearly 40 years ago. We’ve been in trade for eight years now – we bought the business from the original owners. The shop was quite run down when we first purchased the business and naturally we’ve refitted, refurbished and modernised it since we took over.

You’ve built up a really impressive range of beer. When did you start expanding your stock past the ordinary? Was this always the plan?

Not really, if I’m honest with you. To be frank, the business came to a bit of a crossroads after we refitted; we tried to take it in a different direction but it just didn’t work.

I was literally sitting in the shop last year, reading a magazine and I came across an article on Cotteridge Wines and Stirchley Wines and the awards they had won for their bottle ranges. I felt that what they were doing fell in line with our principles of quality over quantity and offering good quality products at the right prices, along with excellent service. We started from there, following Cotteridge and Stirchley on social media and learning from them, finding which breweries were worth getting in.

When you first started stocking more craft beer, who were some of the first breweries that you were keen to stock?

I think that the first brewery we started with was Wild Beer Co. Initially, having little previous knowledge about beer styles and the quality of the beers, it all came down to design and what I thought looked good. As I got to know suppliers, I would always Google the breweries on their stock lists and if something looked nice, I thought that it might sell based on its image… and that’s how it started!

How have things changed since then? How do you decide what to stock now?

I think that our overall relationships with our customers and suppliers have got better over time. Naturally, my own knowledge is a lot better now so I have a much better idea of what to look out for. What it comes down to is our customers – a lot of them will keep us in the loop with new releases and up and coming breweries. Social media is really valuable to us – as well as engaging with our customers, we still work hard to keep track of Stirchley and Cotteridge and a few other bottle shops and bars.

Your UK beer range is fantastic and you’ve got a really impressive selection of beers from across Europe in stock, particularly Scandinavia, Belgium and Germany, but you’ve also been a great champion of local beer. Are there any local breweries that you’re most excited about? Any beers that you’re really keen to add to your shelves?

I’m really excited about Thousand Trades Brewing Co, purely because they are based in Hall Green, Birmingham, where I was born and bred! They brew behind my primary school so I have a little bit of sentimental value towards them.

I honestly don’t know much about them, but I love the Steampunk influenced labels on the bottles.

Their Hazelnut Porter (Zetetic Astronomer) is doing great business for us at the moment.

Another brewery we have got to know about recently is Silhill Brewery over in Solihull. One of the brewers is a customer of ours, so from that relationship, we’ve learned more about their beers and we’re excited that they’re delivering to us this week.

In terms of Brum breweries, it’s got to be Burning Soul. We’ve heard only good things about them as brewers and we would love to work with them. In a short time, they’ve brewed so many different beers and showcased them in their tap room and even won the Thirsty Games at IndyManBeerCon. We hear about them all the time from our regulars who visit the Burning Soul tap room at weekends.

Tell us about the Breweries from outside the UK that you are starting to hear more about. Are there any new breweries you are planning to stock in the near future?

Just recently there has been a big influx of American beers making their way into the UK market, but there’s also a buzz about a handful of Spanish breweries at the moment, particularly Garage Beer Co. We take it as it comes and we’re really reliant on what our suppliers have. We’ll never disregard any brewery – we will always give them a fair go.

One of the biggest problems we face, and Melissa Cole tweeted about this issue recently, is that breweries now have a different perception of independence. Whereas small businesses like ourselves were the ones initially supporting craft brewers, we are sometimes finding that we’re getting bypassed to an extent for the bigger, mass-merchants.

Yup, when things are doing well at a small scale, the big boys will always try and muscle their way in.

Yeah, that’s what has started to happen. When some of the popular craft breweries are finding their way onto the shelves in Waitrose or Morrisons, you can sometimes get brushed aside for the 5-case pallet order, but hey, we’ll keep on persevering. What makes us different is that our range is always going to grow, we’re not going to do any less, it would just be nice if there was an even playing field.

Simply Local Burntwood

Who are your main customer base for the shop? Do you get many people travelling in from outside Burntwood?

We’re lucky with where we’re situated. There’s a lot of people saying “we can’t believe that you’re doing what you’re doing in an area like Burntwood”, but because a lot of people in this area were having to travel into Birmingham initially to get exciting beers, now more and more people are realising how close we are and making the trip over. It makes a big difference.

We get customers from Burton, Cannock, Lichfield, Telford, Walsall, even people from North Birmingham. We’re always happy to deal with any customer and it’s great that people do make the effort to drive over to us.

How have the local community in Chase Town reacted to your ever-growing range of craft beer and alcohol?

Some people have embraced it. Some people are willing to try new beers and still a lot of people are a little uneducated in the whole concept of craft beer; they think it’s just your traditional real ales, that the stereotypical pipe-smoking 60-year-old man would drink out of a dimpled glass tankard. But yeah, awareness is growing and it’s growing at the right stage, locally and a little further afield.

Are people generally supportive? Are they open minded? Have you converted many people to the new styles of beer you are getting in?

I would say there’s a small percentage of customers locally who we have converted. Price is still a big factor, which is natural, it’s human nature, but in the sense of converting it all comes down to taste. Once people have tried stuff, they are more intrigued to try more. When you read the descriptions of certain collaborations and exciting styles, it definitely makes you want to explore more of the same. So yeah, I would definitely say there are a good handful of people we have converted, but again, it’s still an ever-growing sector for us, so a lot of people still don’t know we are here, or don’t know we’re doing this, so we’re working hard to reach out as far as possible!

What is it that makes you so passionate about your business and the growth of craft beer in the UK?

It’s not just the passion for craft beer – the core principles of my business are serving good quality products over the mass-produced stuff and being a little bit extrovert and offering something different.

With regards to craft beer, it’s an up and coming scene and there’s some fantastic people doing amazing work. It is all about independence, regardless of supermarkets starting to take an interest, and you know, it’s a much friendlier environment. Whilst there is a lot of competition, there’s definitely a sense of comradery, friendship and support amongst small beer businesses of all descriptions.

It’s really cool. You only have to see all the collaborations that go on between breweries; these guys should be ultra-competitive are just hanging out, learning and creating with each other.

It’s the same with retailers.

As you said yourself, you’ve learned so much from the likes of Cotteridge Wines and Stirchley Wines over in Brum…

Precisely. I’m now finding that there are other retailers are telling people, “Go and see Viks at Simply Local” and I’m letting people know about bars or bottle shops that are opening up, because there’s enough business to go around. It’s not like the old-fashioned off licenses where you would argue with the person next door over a ten pence difference in packs of Carling!

That’s one of the fundamental reasons for why we’ve been successful. We get on with our suppliers and get on with people who’ll enjoy the products and acknowledge what we do right.

Where would you like to take Simply Local in the future?

From my point of view, it would be nice if we were to work with some of the up and coming breweries in the West Midlands, in the sense of being thought of a little bit more in terms of availability. We all appreciate that stock is one of the biggest issues that we all face on a day to day basis.

We’re still at a baby steps stage here. It’s still early days for us even though we’ve come such a long way in the last 14 months. I think if we can just keep tweaking our range and getting in better quality beer from a larger array of breweries. Those are our initial principles for growing the business. We are in the process of looking at putting in a tasting room to help us to champion great beers in as many different ways as possible.

If something came along where we could do something with a local brewery such as Burning Soul, where we could collaborate on a beer together, maybe for the Stephen Sutton Foundation. He was an amazing local lad and we’d love to do something to raise money for a great cause in his memory. We will certainly look into something like that for the summer.

I know you spend a lot of hours working in the shop and researching beer, but are there any particular beers that you like to take home with you to relax with?

I think the sad reality of it is that we’ve stocked over 2,000 beers, but I’ve really had chance to try a small number. I tend to find that the fruitier beers are more geared towards my palette, but when stock can be quite limited, I feel like if I’m buying a couple of bottles or cans for myself, I’m doing my customers a disservice and taking away their opportunity to try a special beer. All of the really limited stuff like (Buxton x Omnipollo) Yellow Belly, or the new Beavertown/Verdant collaborations, we don’t get to try because we’d be disappointing a customer.

Viks Harji

When was your first real taste of beer? What were your first impressions?

I was young, I was probably 13 or 14, with a bottle of Budweiser. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the bitterness at the time. From an older perspective, my first experience of drinking craft beer would probably be with Fourpure Juicebox. I picked it up purely through the description. Anything I ever try, I split in half with my wife.

It’s all about the sharing and caring.

Yeah man. I wouldn’t say I’m much of a sour fan, but that’s probably because my palette just hasn’t become accustomed to it.

How does your wife find sour beers? In the last year or so, as I’ve learned more about sour beers and started to enjoy them myself, I’ve found that a few female friends who perhaps had believed that they didn’t like beer, have really enjoyed beers on the sour/tart, fruity and cidery spectrum. These beers have a lot more in common with wines than some other beer styles.

I think you’re pretty much on point there. I do find with my wife, and myself, that when we get to some of the stronger, 8% plus beers, they are a little too strong, as we’re not seasoned drinkers, but when we discuss flavours, my wife (Roopa) is always quite intrigued to try the beers that we have arriving at the shop.

What have been the biggest positives you’ve taken from running Simply Local?

I think the biggest positive we have to take, especially when it comes to craft, is the pure appreciation from our customers. People appreciate the level of hard work, the effort that we have to go to when sourcing some of these products. We deal with suppliers as far as York who deliver to us, when the beers we’re ordering were brewed in Burton, for example. It is an ongoing struggle, but, like I say, it’s the appreciation of what we do that eggs us on. We feel like our customers are more than just customers; they’re our friends and part of our business. They’re so helpful in recommending what’s coming soon, what’s happening. It’s almost like they are helping us expand our range to a bigger extent than we are!

That’s excellent, so you really feel the support from above and below and from your retail compatriots! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Viks.

No problem!

You can find Simply Local at 28 Queen Street, Burntwood, Staffordshire, WS7 4QH.

Be sure to show Viks some love on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @simplyburntwood.

Rob Edwards

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