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City Centre Bars and Restaurants: Recession Proof?

Najeeb Rehman asks successful operators their secret - and fears?

Published on September 19th 2012.


City Centre Bars and Restaurants: Recession Proof?

A CURIOUS thing is happening in the centre of Manchester. 

While shops crash and burn on King Street and elsewhere across the city centre there seems to be no stopping the bar and restaurant scene.

The rate of new openings indicates there maybe something recession proof about this industry - especially in the city centre. 

“Rates are ridiculous! I think the Government want people to go out of business. They are still basing them on the turnover from 2008 and no one’s still operating at those levels.” 

Cleo Farman, Managing Director of the Odd Bar group, said: “More and more people are cutting down on expensive things, like holidays, and then spending some of that money locally. They still want to go out and treat themselves which means you’ve seen a rise in the bar, restaurant, and beauty industries.” 

The confidence so many bar and restaurant owners have about opening new outlets stands out in an economy when most businesses are consolidating what they already have. 

Cleo FarmanCleo FarmanMs Farman recently opened her fourth bar, The Blue Pig, in the Northern Quarter and sees plenty of room for manoeuvre in the city centre. 

She said: “The Northern Quarter is the place to open new bars at the moment but when it reaches saturation point people will start opening in other areas, like Peter Street.” 

Roger Ward (main picture above, not in the hi-vis jacket) runs the Victorian Chop Houses and has enough belief in the city centre economy to launch another boutique hotel, restaurant and pub in Albert Square in November. 

He said: “Manchester is a regional capital. The place is absolutely heaving on the weekends with people looking for a good night out.” 

The Black Dog Ballroom brand is also expanding with a new five-lane boutique bowling alley called The Dog Bowl opening in the former Cocotoo building in Whitworth Street West. 

Jobe Ferguson, co-owner of the Black Dog Ballroom, is planning to launch the bowling alley by the end of January 2013 and said: “You can’t just open a run-of-the-mill bar and expect it to be a success because it won’t. It has to be unique and that’s what we are doing with The Dog Bowl.” 

The city centre economy often looks like it operates in a different world to the rest of Manchester – it is a destination and has a huge catchment area that will always bring enough people in to sustain most businesses. 

But there is also a feeling amongst operators at the moment that bars and restaurants could thrive in many town centres. 

Mr Ward said: “I’ve not got plans to open a Chop House in the suburbs but if you go to Heaton Moor on a busy evening you’ll find that the streets are jumping with people or Didsbury village at the weekend the streets are jumping with people. There’s no reason a new bar wouldn’t be a success there as well.” 

Ms Farman opened Oddest in Chorlton three years ago and said that it has gone from strength to strength. 

The secret to success all the people we interviewed stated is that location has to be mixed with quality

Tables at Black DogTables at Black DogJobe Ferguson thinks it's a meticulously thought out concept that gets customers excited. 

Mr Ferguson said: “Before we opened our place in the Northern Quarter we researched the bar scene in New York to get the speakeasy style just right. We did the same thing for The Dog Bowl.” 

Mr Ferguson and his business partner Ross MacKenzie went to visit the upmarket bowling alleys in New York, such as Brooklyn Bowling and Lucky Strike, to get the concept just right. 

Not one of the operators agree with the observation that the sector is recession proof and fear that the longer the economy struggles the more likely it is that bars will fail. 

The Odd Bar group have had to adapt to changing consumer patterns – Oddest on Oxford Rd used to be a pre-club bar but now has a dance floor on the second floor to keep and recycle customers through the night. 

Albert Square - new operatorAlbert Square - new operatorMr Ward said: “The established operators will be fine but the big threat to everyone is the economy and unemployment. It has a massive affect on consumer spend and, if we have to keep prices down, on our margins.” 

Every operator voiced concerns that margins are razor thin as cost increases cannot be passed on to the consumer. 

Banks have been indiscriminate in cutting credit and loans to businesses and Black Dog Ballroom have had to rely on private investors and efficient use of cash flow to finance new projects. 

Many see the high cost of business rates and parking as factors that could bring the current growth to a halt. 

Ms Farman said: “Rates are ridiculous! I think the Government want people to go out of business. They are still basing them on the turnover from 2008 and no one’s still operating at those levels.” 

The extended parking charges introduced last year mean car owners have to pay to use parking bays from 8am to 8pm, even on Sundays. 

Mr Ward said: “Look at the Trafford Centre. It’s free to park there but here charges have gone up and meters are everywhere.” 

They also have the same fear as every other small business owner – the fear that supermarkets will encroach on their business by offering a cheaper alternative. 

Blue PigBlue PigCleo Farman said: “We run at full capacity but you know that some people, students in particular, are taking advantage of cheap supermarket booze before they come.” 

Roger Ward again: “We’re competing with supermarkets, we’re competing with the Trafford Centre, we’re competing with people dining at home, and so our job is to offer an experience people can’t have anywhere else.” 

The growth in the bar and restaurant sector indicates a boom but there are still many pitfalls for food and drink operators. 

While there is confidence this is underpinned by fear especially of factors outside their control that might jeopardise careful planning or a commitment to quality.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

SmittySeptember 19th 2012.

Where's the evidence that retail is "crashing and burning" in the city centre? There are, admittedly, about seven units going on King St, but this doesn't appear to be a systematic symbol of the recession as they seem to be mostly shops that have relocated elsewhere. There's no vacant units on Market Street at all, and the Arndale seems to be doing pretty well. The only major vacant unit I can think off the top of my head is the old Habitat building. Oh, and Nobles Amusements on Picc Gdns (although that has only just closed).

So, basically, can you back up your second paragraph?

Ghostly TomSeptember 19th 2012.

I wondered about recession in the retail in Manchester as well. Apart from the odd unit here and there everywhere seems quite full. It would be good to get something in the Habitat building but I though that place on Piccadilly Gardens was going to become a Waitrose. Do Waitrose do bargain, own brand lager and cider btw?

JoanSeptember 20th 2012.

There’s a fantastic array of restaurants and bars in Manchester city centre. In the main the good ones survive, prosper, and even grow, while the poor quality providers struggle on or quit. I regularly eat out on a Saturday at pre-theatre time and find we need to book, so the demand is there. What I would welcome is more bars with a really continental offer, such as serving coffee late at night. There’s room for a post-theatre market as well as a pre-theatre.

Kieron McGlassonSeptember 20th 2012.

Can we have some decent clubs that play decent music please its all bar bar bar drink drink drink yawn yawn yawn

Kevin PeelSeptember 20th 2012.

I like the focus on quality in this article, which should be the aim of all bars and restaurants in the city centre. It's great to see the sector thriving but those at the bottom end bring the whole scene down, attracting the wrong crowds and causing a nuisance to the surrounding community. We also need more diversity to ensure that Manchester city centre is a night-time destination for those seeking more than just alchohol and it's great to see more laid back cafe/bars like Home Sweet Home springing up.

1 Response: Reply To This...
James KaySeptember 21st 2012.

Odd that the owners of these successful establishments cite parking as a major threat. They must have missed your 'consultation' or their views were simply ignored... like those of the voters/ManCon readers.

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