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Business in the Time of COVID: Pickers Wine

Sam Orbaum of Pickers talks us through his experience of starting up a business during lockdown

Words by Sam Orbaum

I’d always fancied the idea of gardening leave so, when the first lockdown was announced, I took my diminished but sustained wages gladly and enjoyed the sun. For all the external drama, my adopted domestic existence was novel and peaceful. I cooked (never sourdough), read, walked, and wrote. I spent time with my girlfriend and reflected critically on the dormant, all-consuming hospitality beast. I felt healthy and happy.  

By lockdown two, I found myself cycling furiously around London, sitting at my laptop far past any restaurant close-down time, and waking up in a confusion of planning documents and to-do lists in a self-inflicted onslaught. I was, again, having the time of my life. The common thread between a serene spring and frantic autumn was a steady flow of wine. 

In May, I took advantage of the pandemic discount on Les Caves de Pyrene’s online store to keep my finger on the pulse and nose to the glass of the ever-developing natural wine scene. To turn an indulgence into a noble project, I also put together selections for similarly housebound friends and family. It wasn’t until I was back at work, with summer’s lifting of restrictions and a dose of Eat Out to Help Out adrenaline, that I thought I might have stumbled upon the premise of my own company.   

My now business partner, Nick, operates on a productivity-breeds-productivity model and we would chat through our concept after scorching services in the restaurant we were in the middle of resuscitating. Unlike Nick, the lurching between stagnation and frenzy had driven my levels of exhaustion and anxiety to new heights and I enjoyed the conversations primarily as a form of escapist wind down. Wouldn’t it be nice to help more people to buy good wine to drink at home? How can we bring some of the joy of hospitality to online shopping? Isn’t it worth a shot just to go through all of the initial tasting? 

We set up Pickers in lockdown two, finding both discomfort and opportunity in the hinterland of furlough. Spurred on by the prize of forcing our uncertainty into a positive shape, we raced against the falling R rate to open a business on government support. More than anything, being on Rishi’s payroll provided the prospect of developing an idea that was based on the experience rather than the promise of quick riches. Sorry to anyone who was hoping for a guide to quick riches. 

I found opening a business to be like answering a series of questions; “what’s the point?” being a particularly important one. For each question I didn’t have the answer to, I had Nick or Google. And far more than I could have expected, other, generous, talented friends pitched in with ideas and solutions to aid in our development. I had imagined the end product – a glass of wine and an email of thanks – and skipped past packaging dilemmas and courier crises. Working backwards required problem solving and compromising, a little bit of sulking, and then heightened satisfaction. The day we bought a label printer will live long in the memory.  

In December we sent out our first cases in a trial run. Our logo now a stamp, our tasting sheets – with our selected fonts – brought to life with illustrations, our website operational and our wine selected, packaged up and heading out around the country to people’s houses. We opened to the public in February, hoping to spread more joy and ready to face more questions. 

If lockdown one prompted a period of self-care and lockdown two a rush to open a business, lockdown three has been more reflective. Unless temporary detachment had been forced on me, there’s a good chance I’d still be working 70-hour weeks without a second thought for my well-being and the thought of opening a business would still be a distracting fabrication. More than anything, my period on furlough has changed my relationship with time and taught me to be both more protective of it and more productive with it. Whether that’s opening a business, returning to work with a different perspective, spending more quality time with a partner, or enjoying a new bottle of wine. We can help with the latter.

Check out more from the guys at Pickers here.