Chris White has just begun his 10th year trading on Market Street. We sat down with him to chat about his journey from a home delivery business to today’s Reno Refills shop.
“People sometimes ask if I’m Mr. Reno but I’m not. The shop name ‘Reno’ comes from ‘Re’ for re-use and re-cyle, and ‘Oeno’ which is a Greek prefix for things to do with wine, as at the beginning we were solely a wine refill business.”
On July 18th, 2014 they opened Reno Wine at 15 Market Street. This is where the wine, beer, spirits, tea and coffee are on display now. In 2018 they expanded next door by opening Reno Wholefoods at 17 Market Street. Shortly after that it was combined into one larger shop, Reno Refills. “It was essentially two businesses at first, as it was me as a sole trader running both. We weren’t sure if the wholefoods would take off, so we started it separately, just in case,” Chris clarified.
In his former life, Dr Chris White earned his PhD in science and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. After being made redundant he made the entrepreneurial jump to selling refillable wine at farmers markets, travelling the district for four years with a pop-up stall. People got used to seeing him at local music festivals and literary events. “They were quite reassured that it was our wine being poured at these events. That gave me some confidence that there was a market for quality wine in a refillable bottle.”
“We took a trip to the south of France around 2009 and started to meet the right people. Our first wine came in and we didn’t even have a bottle ready. I was kindly allowed to use some space on the property of a cider maker, about the size of a sofa with a little metal table and a big tank of wine. I invented a system for dispensing the wine and replacing the air with food grade nitrogen so it was completely inert and it kept it really stable.”
“I worked a bit like the milkman where I’d deliver to people’s houses and take their empties back. It was a few years of quite hard work but it was confidence boosting. People like wine. If you’re evangelical about the eco aspects people aren’t as interested as when you say ‘try this wine it’s really good’. It was almost just a fringe benefit that you could bring the bottle back. Some people were driven by green credentials but most weren’t. That’s why we became a wine merchant with a focus on quality wine.”
“I spent a few years meeting people and seeing what they thought of the wine. We did a few tasting events and worked out what was acceptable and what was too challenging for the average palette. Then we had the challenge of getting the right quantities delivered. Ordering small quantities is more difficult than you’d think. Most people want either a few cases or 24,000 litres. Try buying 400 litres and it falls in a weird gap where producers aren’t that bothered. One guy we worked with used more than that just for flushing out the lines before filling tanks for the big companies. He said, ‘I’ll tell you when I’m filling theirs and I’ll put aside a couple barrels for you.’ So we work closely with the producers to get the right quantity for our needs.”
When they moved into the Reno Wine shop they couldn’t use barrels as they don’t fit through the door. So now they use containers which are more like kegs.
Chris chose to open up the shop in Wymondham after growing out of the bottling facility when it came to a ‘make or break’ point. “I was spending more time washing, cleaning and refilling bottles than I was out on the road meeting people and selling stuff. So, we changed the system from selling pre-filled bottles and taking the empties for cleaning to the current model where people wash the bottles themselves and bring them to us for filling.”
At the beginning it was just Chris and a Saturday helper running the shop. He built the range of products from just wine to beer, gin, tea, coffee, and it continued growing rapidly. They now employ eight people including two daughters. “We’re now at a stage where we’re specialists and we’re very good at refilling lots of different products well. It can be done badly. I’ve walked in other shops in other towns where there’s shampoo and cereal all over the floor. Here we have very little waste, we are very efficient and tidy.”
Typically Reno has 12 different refillable wines available at any given time. The range includes whites, reds and usually at least one rose. A lot of those are organic and vegetarian/vegan. They have some core wines which are always available and some of the more special varieties rotate to give people a treat option which can be seasonal.
They can fill any kind of container. Some people come in with a plastic bottle as they’re going to a festival or picnic somewhere they can’t take glass. As long as it leaves the premises with a Reno label on it saying the mandatory information it’s all compliant.
The labels have to be done a particular way. “I enjoy when the trading standards inspector comes due to my geeky background in quality systems and regulatory standards in pharmaceuticals. I like to show off my spreadsheet showing I’m doing everything properly.”
Prices are compared with the same products sold elsewhere locally. Often, Reno Refills prices are lower. “Some things here will be more expensive than a comparable item but the product itself is higher end or organic. Basic refills like cleaning vinegar, rinse aid and such will be a small percentage of the cost of a new bottle bought elsewhere,” Chris explained.
“We tend to pick things that we know are coming from a source that we want to sing about. You might have a coffee plantation which is fair trade and operated by two or three people. There are even some coffees being produced solely by female workers. Those are the type of things we like to showcase but it means we are paying more for it because it isn’t just being churned out by a massive factory. If items are more expensive here than they could be for a similar product it hopefully reassures customers of their quality and provenance.”
“Featuring local suppliers is very important to us. We have local brewers, beekeepers, growers and more. Not just because of the food miles but also I like to be able to pop over in person to the producers when needed. And we try to stick to an informal rule that by the time a third person has asked for a product it’s on the shelf, so the range responds to demand. For example, there’s a lady who only drank one type of rice milk which got delisted a few weeks ago. We spent a morning trying to find alternative products for her. She’s bought loads and sent us messages of thanks as she’s so happy with the new product.”
The Reno Refills team take pride in excellent customer service. “We have to do this right every day as you’re only as good as the last person you served. So you always have to make sure that everyone is served right.”
The past few years hit retailers hard, and Reno Refills was no exception. “The business isn’t like it was when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was doing a big war on plastic and we had loads of people drifting in to refill their containers. That was the peak right before the pandemic hit, which caused a big problem as it was suddenly impossible to shop in that way. The motivation is still there, people still want to refill their containers. We’ve been offering refills for so long we have basically everything in stock which people want to regularly refill. Even the honey guy has started taking back empty jars to reuse. I don’t know if anyone else does that. It took me years of asking and he finally agreed.”
Business on Market Street has been picking up recently. “In the last few weeks lots of new residents have been coming in to check out the shop and chat. People like to come in, meet us and have a connection. It’s very much a community hub.” They’ve also recently begun letting a therapy room above the shop to therapists providing massage, reflexology, herbalists, cranio-therapy, ear candling and the like, further expanding the Reno community.
“People like shopping here because they can speak to the staff.” Not just because they are friendly but generally customers have a question when they come here and they want to ask someone who really knows about the products. They might want to know where our cranberries are from, how the fabric conditioner smells or how hot the Bombay mix is this week. They can taste the wine and cheese. They can come in and handle some oats before deciding if they’re right for their crumble. Packaging and online descriptions don’t give you that. The customers find the experience of the staff really valuable. They like knowing that in most cases I’ve tasted the wine that’s on our shelves, and I know the brewers. If they say ‘we’re having salmon tonight but I want red wine’, there’s something I can pick for them which will work. You can’t do that in a supermarket.”