Thirsty feels like it has been around for years such is the impact it has made in Cambridge. It only opened on Chesterton Road in 2015. The man behind Thirsty is formidable, flamboyant and a force to behold: Sam Owens. I met with him to find out a little more about the person responsible for this drinking revolution.
Sam knows Cambridge well; he says, “it’s like a vein that flows through me”. He was born just outside Royston, studied French and German at Christ’s College, and is now settled here with his family. After university he worked as a copywriter in London for 10 years before heading off to Chamonix in 2003 to set up a small catered chalet business. It didn’t take him long to see that a lot of the British chalet operators were offering poor quality supermarket wines to their guests.
“I’ve always had a passion for wine and was lucky to spend my gap year working at various wine companies in France where I visited producers and vineyards and learnt loads about the industry. There was no excuse to be serving inferior wine. I was quite outraged, but it did give me the idea for a business.
“In France I made some great contacts including Roch, my friend and fellow wino. So, when in December 2004 I told him about my idea to sell good quality wine to the chalet operators and hoteliers in Chamonix, he immediately saw the potential. We set up on a shoe-string budget, but the positive feedback was instant.” Two years later they set up Le Verre Gourmand. Today they are one of the leading wholesalers of wines across the Alps.
Coming back to the UK was prompted by Sam who wanted to return with his family. It also suited the business, which had a strong British client base; so, having a UK presence was advantageous. “The original idea for the British arm of the business was to set up as an import wholesaler, possibly with a website, but through an idea by Matt Boucher, one of our original partners, who was with Cambridge Wine Merchants, we decided to team up and set up Thirsty. We opened on Chesterton Road in August 2015.
Ask Sam about the name and how they came to Thirsty, he says: “As a consumer-facing business in the UK we tossed around loads of ideas. We wanted something that wasn’t ‘wine merchant’ and wasn’t stuffy. Thirsty it’s a word that everyone gets: it’s easy to understand and to remember. You can be thirsty for so many things not just a drink, thirsty for knowledge for example.”
Sam has strong feelings about the wine industry, particularly the rather stuffy and elitist way wine is presented. With Thirsty he wants to revolutionise the way people enjoy drink, and wine in particular, as well as the conviviality of our drinking culture. He says: “A lot of people in the wine trade have been trying to lose the crusty image and we’re part of that. I’ve always thought that with booze, we shouldn’t be too reverential. Wine is ultimately a consumable product that goes with some nice grub and some nice company. Some people can take it too seriously, and I don’t want us to be guilty of that.”
Everything about Thirsty is geared towards the pleasure and enjoyment of drink, and it’s not just wine: they also have an enviable reputation for craft beers and spirits. Inspired by a more continental approach, guests enjoy eating and drinking at long tables and benches, Sam exclaims, “informality and conviviality is key to our business.” The same informality is reflected in the labelling of the drinks throughout the shop. “We’ve rejected the traditional, conservative way of describing wine and we group ours in a simple, logical away. Such as ‘big’ for the reds and ‘fresh’ for the whites, it’s much more fun and provides equally useful information. Plus, we deliberately don’t put out too many wines which can be overwhelming.”
More than any other independent business in Cambridge, Thirsty has developed a fantastic symbiotic relationship with lots of street food vendors, local businesses and communities. Was this always the intention? Sam explained: “I thought about this from the very start which is why our application to the Council was for an off-license as well as a license to serve drinks on the premises. We took the initiative from Steak and Honour, who were serving outside Hot Numbers, but we have gone for it whole heartedly.”
“For all of us this is a really big win. Thirsty provides the food vendors a ready audience of people who appreciate good food and who like a nice environment. We’re able to offer top quality, varied food without having the kitchen and additional overheads associated with that. And of course, people can enjoy excellent wine and beers at the same time”.
And there is no doubt that Thirsty has fully embraced this. A different food truck is stationed outside their permanent site on Chesterton Road seven nights a week. Food trucks always accompany their events which have included Thirstyfest at Bodywork in June 2016, and at MacKays in December 2016, Oktoberfest, Thirsty Service at St Philips Church in November 2017 and Thirsty Farmers Markets throughout summer 2017.
This summer Cambridge has benefitted from the incredibly popular and inventive Thirsty Biergarten, a semi-permanent fixture at the Museum of Technology site on Riverside. And, the seamless transition to Thirsty Wintergarten, on the same site this winter is proving just as popular. Because of this the museum’s profile has been expanded and visitors’ numbers boosted, and Sam is thrilled to be utilising the only example of industrial Victorian architecture in Cambridge.
Thirsty for more
The potential to take Thirsty in so many directions is vast. Sam explains that the priority in 2018 is to have three sites: continuing with Chesterton Road (which is about to be upgraded) and the Museum of Technology, as well as looking for new premises in the south of the city.
Sam concludes: “We’ve now got the Thirsty bus, so we can get out there and create exciting private and corporate events. We’ve built great relationships with local musicians, food traders and venues in and around Cambridge. I’m looking forward to the future because we have a unique opportunity with our position in the market and experience and I don’t know of anyone who is putting in place a model like ours.
“We’re like an amoeba, an amorphous blob that can go in any direction. Anything is possible.”
Find out more about Thirsty here
Sam was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information please visit scuseme