As small children Kate and Kelly Latham knew they wanted to go into business together. The problem was deciding what to do. Catherine Scott met the sisters behind the award-winning wine bar Pairings.
Even when Kelly Latham was a little girl she knew she wanted to run her own bar.
“People would laugh at me when I said what I wanted to do when I grew up. My aim had been to own a bar in Spain. Well I suppose one in York’s not so bad.”
Kelly, 37, and sister Kate, 38, own Pairings in York – a wine bar with a difference.
“Growing up we always knew that we wanted to be in business together,” continues Kate. “We weren’t sure what we wanted to do but we knew eventually it would be together.”
Unlike many siblings, the Lathams get on. No, I mean really get on.
“We are pretty much inseparable,” says Kelly. “There is only 17 months between us and we have always been great friends and growing up in Harrogate we did everything together. But we are quite different personalities which is great when it comes to the business.”
Although they knew they wanted to have a business together, it didn’t actually happen until three years ago.
“We had been doing different things and then we decided that we needed to go travelling together and sort out what we were going to do,” says Kate.
So they sold some houses they had been renovating and travelled to South America and parts of Africa in a bid to decide how they were going to work together.
“We did a lot of brainstorming and asked each other what was it that we really, really liked, and we both said ‘wine,’” says Kelly.
“We didn’t know anything about wine – other than where you get three bottles for £10 – and we didn’t know anything really about hospitality, but while we were travelling we visited a number of vineyards and I just fell in love with their passion and the great wealth of wine there is out there beyond our usual Pinot Grigio. I wanted to learn more and also to pass on that knowledge to others.”
Kate took a little bit more convincing about Kelly’s vision for a bar, worried that the market was already saturated, but as they developed the idea she became 100 per cent behind it.
On her return to the UK, Kelly set about getting her wine tasting qualifications with the aim of becoming a sommelier.
“I started at WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) level 1 as I knew absolutely nothing about wine. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do my level 2 and then level 3. It was very hard and there were a lot of tears but I did it.”
She then took a job working at the Star in the City where they soon realised how qualified she was and promoted her to Wine Champion.
She then took at job as head sommelier at Hotel Du Vin York, but it was all aimed at gaining experience for her end goal, opening a wine bar in York with Kate, who was working at a high end estate agency in York after eight years in event management and then property development.
“Our aim was to open somewhere where we would like to go,” says Kate. “Somewhere people could have some great wine, paired with tasty food and try something different.
The only place where you could get the type of wine tasting we wanted to offer was with a tasting menu in a high end restaurant. We wanted to create somewhere relaxed and informal where staff could help people explore something new that was right for them.”
And so Pairings was born in a former shop on Castlegate in York. “We had looked for premises for a while but in the end we had just seven weeks to convert a dress shop into a wine bar,” recalls Kelly.
“We did a lot of the work ourselves as we have ploughed all out savings into the business.”
The end result was relaxed, modern environment that the sisters were proud of. But just a few weeks after opening in autumn 2015, disaster struck.
“The flooding in York on Boxing Day 2015 nearly finished us before we had really begun” says Kate.
“Although we weren’t actually flooded, the city council advised people not to come into York and so what should have been one of our busiest times nearly finished us.”
The sisters were forced to borrow money from family in order to stay afloat and it was a very worrying time.
“We invested everything we had in the business and we were desperate for it to work. It was touch and go for a bit but we pulled through.”
And pulled through they have, winning accolades not only from Visit York but from the many returning customers via TripAdvisor.
They specialise in pairing a choice of wine flights (three glasses of different wines) with sharing plates made up mainly of Yorkshire charcuterie, cheeses, pork pies and chutneys and deserts, although there is a large choice of other drinks from artisan beers, gins and cocktails.
But wine, with more than 70 of them in total from all corners of the globe, is by far their biggest draw.
They also offer ‘experiences’ where groups can get there own wine and food tasting experience in the informal and relaxed surroundings with one of the wine bar’s sommeliers.
Last year they employed James Hallam as general manager, taking their staff to 11. It might sound quite a lot for a small family run business but when you hear that Pairings is open seven days a week from noon to 11pm weekdays, and 11am to 12pm at weekends it kind of makes sense.
“We pride ourself on the customer service that we give. All our staff are very knowledgeable and five of them have a wine qualification,” says Kate, who is currently on maternity leave after having her son, Seb.
The sisters say working together is everything they dreamed of and more.
“We don’t fall out, although we do end up talking shop all of the time,” admits Kelly.
“It works because not only are we quite different personalities we have different skill sets. Kate is very much the creative one, and handles the accounts, social media and marketing side of the business while Kelly spends more time with customers and staff and the wine side of the business.”
Although they have a successful place they are ambitious women and want to expand their business.
“We initially wanted to open three Pairings in the first five years, but Brexit has put paid to that. We will expand, but we will just wait and see what happens in March.”
In the meantime they have a calendar of wine tasting events planned for 2019, which are aimed at passing on their passion for wine to others.
For a full list of wine tasting events, visit pairings.co.uk