Over the past few months I have been writing about the latest and greatest trends in the world of alcohol; cocktails, trendy rum, Cornish gin and vodkas ability to change with the times. Whilst it’s good to look to the future, I found myself in a retrospective mood this week and thought you would like to know the amazing history of how Drinkfinder came to be. If you live locally to Constantine Stores (Drinkfinders bricks and mortar base of operations), then you may well know something about what is known as ‘the hidden gem of the South’. Depending on how old you are, you may even know this story firsthand but a gentleman does not presume to ask such questions!
The theme of the story is a classic one – one mans struggle to grow something small into something great and succeeds! Please enter the stage Mr. Ivan Rowe, proud owner of Constantine Stores and Drinkfinder. His story takes us back to 1950s Cornwall where the young Ivan worked as a stonemason like his father before him. At age 18 he was called to perform his National Service and enlisted with the RAF. After 5 years (the exploits of which are perhaps a whole new story altogether!) he left and returned to his native Constantine, expecting to return to his career as a stonemason. Upon his return however, his father informed him that the future of this trade looked bleak indeed. Never one to be deterred, Ivan decided to change tact completely and, in 1957, bought a small village store in the heart of Constantine.
Initially, the store only sold groceries but the high number of retired colonials in the area gave the entrepreneurial Ivan an idea to expand the business. You see, the colonials were used to buying wine by the case and there was nowhere in the then heavily rural Cornwall to meet the demand. Ivan applied for a license to sell alcohol, something that hadn’t been done in that part of Cornwall since after the war. It was not easy to obtain; he had to attend two court appearances with a multitude of witnesses in order to eventually be granted it. This was the first step taken on a path that would lead him to becoming one of the largest wine and spirits stockist in the country!Armed with his hard won license, Ivan began to buy cases of fine wine from Hawkers in Plymouth and spirits from Gilby Vinterners which he stored in the cellar! Suffice to say, they sold well and so did Ivan’s business credentials!
Over the course of the next few years, Ivan married Gwen, a local girl from Redruth and had three children; Mark, Andrew and Sharon. Business continued to improve and Ivan would often find himself driving around the local area to make deliveries of alcohol – maybe this was a portent of the future evolution of the company? In 1969, the Post Office came up for ownership in Constantine and Ivan was keen to add this to the ever expanding collection of strings on his bow. There was stiff competition and eight other candidates put themselves forward to win the contract. Luckily, Ivan had some experience doing similar work during his time in the RAF and a letter of recommendation from them meant that he was successful and a Post Office was incorporated into the store. Ivan continued to increase the stock levels of both groceries and alcohol to the extent that the store underwent 6 extensions from it conception to the modern day!
As the children grew up, they began to learn the ropes and started working in the store where they remain to this very day – this is a truly family run business! Ivan’s son Mark started at 16 and is the stores whisky specialist and stock acquirer. Andrew joined the business after a couple of years backpacking in Australia and has taken over the reigns as Managing Director. Ivan’s daughter Sharon worked in the shop itself until she left to raise her children but soon returned to work in the Post Office where she has been for the last 16 years. With the advent of supermarkets becoming commonplace, Ivan soon realised that the grocery side of the business would die a death. That’s when the decision was made to focus solely on wines and spirits. Did this decision pay off? You’re too right it did!
With the company going from strength to strength, the family looked for new ways to expand and grow. It was a passing comment from a customer that provided the nucleus of an idea that grew into the hugely successful Drinkfinder online store. The customer mentioned how he had started trading gardening supplies on the Internet and how he had seen a decent return from this. Being the most technologically minded of the family, Andrew seized upon the idea and realised the massive earning potential of the Internet. The first iteration of the website came to be in the year 2000 – an historic brand married to new technology for a new millennium.
That was 13 years ago and Drinkfinder has gone though many changes. Constantine Stores now ships wines and spirits all across Europe and beyond, something that Ivan had probably never envisaged back when he started in 1957! The store now boasts more than 1000 different whiskys, 200 rums, 200 vodkas and 120 gins plus thousands of varieties of wine. Suffice to say, this really is one of the largest wine and spirit traders in the country! What I really love though is the fact that the original shop still remains in operation – people can barely believe that such a large operation is run from what appears to be a village store! I know this because I am sitting here typing this from the shop floor right now!
What is even better though is that Ivan, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, still comes into work every day and mans the Post Office and chats to the customers that still come from across the country to visit the store. So next time you purchase something from the website, spare a thought to the heritage that it came from. This is the real story of how one man built a liquid empire that continues to overflow its cup daily!