Much has been said about the recent opening of The Produce Hall, Stockport’s answer to the ridiculously popular Altrincham Market and Manchester’s Mackie Mayor, and let’s face it, not all of it has been good. But has all the criticism been warranted or are people failing to appreciate a good thing when they see one?
Local businessman Steve Pilling’s deal with Stockport Council to take on both The Produce Hall and the neighbouring Blackshaws Café has certainly come under scrutiny, especially after he beat the bid of the hugely successful Foodie Friday operators who host the monthly street food extravaganza right outside both venues. Pilling’s plan to turn the old Grade II-listed Market Place hall into a casual dining hub seemed like a no-brainer following the popularity of the similar operations in the city centre and Altrincham, but should it have been a shoe-in for the Foodie Friday guys since they’ve put the area back on the map?
According to the council, all bids were fairly assessed and Pilling was deemed the most sustainable and transformational, but some locals have been up in arms at a perceived “outsider chain” cashing in. Pilling however, seems far from that; perhaps more in the mould of a traditional businessman, which is always going to jar, he is, nevertheless, local and barely a chain operator, promising to give slots to independent catering businesses within The Produce Hall and also looking to give employment opportunities to those who have recently concluded a career in the Armed Forces or are starting out in the hospitality trade through apprenticeships.
Similar operations elsewhere trade off of getting independent street food vendors in to fill their halls; Altrincham Market boats Honest Crust on pizza duty and Great North Pie Co. (well you can guess what they do) among their six kitchens with Blackjack Brewery running the bar, while at the Mackie Mayor other vendors such as Baohouse and Fin Fish Bar join the party. Although The Produce Hall has a similar set-up, with separate kitchens offering food from pizza to pies, burgers to tapas, each kitchen apart from Black Market Espresso Co. are operated and owned by Pilling. But wait – is all as it seems at Mackie Mayor? Well, Tender Cow and Fin Fish Bar both share two of the same Directors, while Rotisserie also falls under Matthew Walsh’s remit, making it three of the kitchens within the Mackie that he is responsible for, once again questioning what the word ‘independent’ really means…
Meanwhile, a week in, and The Produce Hall is buzzing. It’s seen a mix of regular drinkers from 18 to 80 enter its doors, with families and friends alike choosing their food from the wide variety available and sampling the locally-sourced beer is no chore either. It’s already proving a draw to the area, but let’s not forget that others had already begun to get the crowds in; Mobberley Brewhouse’s Project 53 next door to The Produce Hall opened in late 2018 and offers great pizzas and fantastic beer while another new kid on the block The Angel has had an extensive renovation after a 67-year closure to restore original features and a traditional pub experience. Let’s not forget either about longer-standing servants to the Old Town area such as Remedy Bar and Bakers Vaults. Even The Cocked Hat around the corner has re-opened, and it’s not just pubs and bars that are driving an Old Town resurgence; The Warren has opened up and given over 40 local artists a hugely popular outlet for their wares, while the delicious food from Hillgate Cakery on Underbank sells out frequently and Rare Mags run their famous shop nearby too. There are many, many more independents in the area as well, all proving that businesses of all sizes can thrive and co-exist successfully.
You can’t deny either that competition is healthy. When Stockport Market Place gets busy on Foodie Friday, the choice of pubs encourages you to venture to somewhere you may not have sampled before; and as it’s not a city centre location, prices are reflective and excellent value for money. Pilling has certainly reflected that with The Produce Hall where you can get a pie for £3 and a pint for just over £4, fitting in perfectly with price-points in other pubs nearby. Other criticism of The Produce Hall has arrived through the naming of the food traders within. Deciding to give them ‘punny’ names without checking to see if they were used by other independents was certainly naïve and as the real Dough Boys over in Leeds admitted recently “”I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe it’s an innocent mistake. And it is just on a blackboard so it’d be easy enough to change it.” In fact they already have, with The Produce Hall pizza kitchen now monickered ‘Dome and Base’. It may well be that some of the stalls end up being so popular they become independents in their own right, and the door is still open for other established indy names to take spots in the hall to give the place the variety it will need in the long term. So has Pilling really done such a terrible thing?
Having had the ‘privilege’ of working out at MediaCityUK during the BBC’s migration up North, it was a welcome relief to see Pilling’s The Dockyard take up a sizable unit as there wasn’t a normal “pub” anywhere in the vicinity. I’m guessing there were a couple of reasons for that, Peel Holdings and their pricing of units for one, but also the fact that the area wasn’t tried and tested. It didn’t have much infrastructure or any other facilities to encourage people out of town other than the half-closed Lowry Outlet and old-stager Lime Bar. But now, no doubt in part to The Dockyard leading the way, The Botanist and The Alchemist are proving successful alongside Wagamama and Prezzo, despite the latter’s failings elsewhere. This is exactly what happened in Altrincham; apart from its Belgian beer outlets and the odd half-decent boozer, the town had little to encourage people to shop local, but with the success of the indoor and now outdoor market, things have changed to the extent that you’ll struggle to get a seat, especially at weekends. The Mackie Mayor is also ragingly busy at weekends despite its independent food outlets coming under hefty criticism on price (£7.50 for a solitary bao seems excessive when the Arndale Market offers double in quantity for less than that price). Nevertheless, it continues to help the surrounding area, with the neighbouring Smithfield Tavern, getting its over-spill at busier times.
What I’m saying is, in a time when the country’s European future is so undecided and long-established business on the high street are dropping like flies, let’s give props to ALL the businesses who are taking it upon themselves to do something positive with a long-neglected area in order to turn it into a thriving hub for people of all shapes and sizes. After all, everything was ‘independent’ at some point.