The Produce Hall – Stockport’s Controversial New Food & Drink Destination

Produce HallMuch 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?

Manchego & Serrano ham croquettes at The Produce Hall

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…

Stockport Market Place on Foodie Friday

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.

The Produce Hall (image credit CJS Drones)

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?

Firecracker Chicken Pizza
Firecracker Chicken Pizza at The Produce Hall.

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.

The Gender Pay Gap – What Does It Actually Prove?

I’m not sure what the reporting of gender pay gaps really proves. With no comparison over time, we don’t know if it’s better or worse than it used to be. Many of the current gaps appear to be historic causes eg more men at boardroom level but we don’t know that for sure. Women on the radio are now talking about avoiding companies with larger pay gaps, which will only make the situation worse.

No company I’ve worked for has had a separate pay scale for men and women. I know women younger than me who get paid more than I do. Similarly, I know older women who have taken career, travelling or family breaks and have therefore not accelerated in their careers as quickly. It’s a choice they’ve made, and in some ways a necessary sacrifice as there’s little that can be done over the nature of human birth. By the same token I’ve had both female and male bosses and gender doesn’t come into it in terms of respect.

So we now know which companies have gaps, largely driven by taking an average across the whole organisation where there are fewer roles at the top that pay higher vs a higher quantity of roles at the bottom paying less. Great. We knew all of this, and fining companies for not reporting it seems childish and petty. What do we do with this information moving forward? Is everyone going to apply for a job at Starbucks just because they have no gap? Of course not.

In a world where a perceived gender is becoming less and less relevant, why is this necessary now and how will we report on ‘non-binary’ salaries in the future?

All I’d say is do what I do, employ on attitude, experience, team fit and skills for the job. I don’t give a shit what sex, ethnic origin or whatever planet you think you’re from as long as you give 100%.


Jailed Cells – Is It The End For Mobile Phones At Gigs?

Phones At A GigIt’s nothing new that people like to take photos and videos at gigs to remind them of the good times they’ve had. Often it’s simply an “I was there” willy wave but for some bands it’s a way of getting far cheaper publicity, promo shots and footage they can use to get themselves out to a wider audience. But is all that about to change? It’s been a rising trend in recent months, but as the debate has now reached these shores, it’s interesting to look at the increase in mobile phone bans at gigs.

Chris Rock and Jack White are proponents of the Yondr system for their shows in the UK this year. For those unaware, this sees punters give their phones over on the door to pouch-toting staff who gleefully pop your device in a lockable sleeve. Said sheath will only unlock after the show unless you take your device to a designated “phone zone” during the show. Obviously these artists are doing this to protect their material as well as everyone else’s experience but is this really the right way to go about ensuring a show is as enjoyable as possible?

I’ve posted a fair amount on Twitter about gig etiquette over the years; I’ve asked people to pipe down at acoustic shows a few times, much to their displeasure, for the crowd and the artists’ benefit and I’ve been stuck behind people who insist on filming pretty much a whole gig on their clapped out Nokia so they can be the first to put their fuzz-o-vision on YouTube afterwards. But really, locking a person’s phone away? I’m in no way a human rights activist but has it really come to this, that people need their phone to be physically prohibited for them to enjoy an outing? On the flip side, those protesting the ban by saying ‘what if there’s an emergency’ need to remember the early 90s when there weren’t any mobiles to take to gigs. And let’s face it, how many ACTUAL emergencies do you get on your mobile anyway? It’s like when people drop their phone down the khazi and go straight on Facebook to tell EVERYONE they can reach them on there if they need to. Anyone ever bothered? Nope. But I digress…

Yondr sleeve
The Yondr ‘solution’

I go to a fair few gigs by myself and I review them too. During the show I’ll take notes on my phone, always out of anyone’s line of distraction and always with brightness down to its lowest setting. No offence promoters, but if you start deciding I can’t take my phone in with me, and you want me to keep that much info in my brain after 39 years of muddlement, my reviews probably won’t be that thorough. I guess I could take a pen and notebook in but presumably ‘sharp’ objects would be frowned upon too. Also, in an age where we’re trying to reduce “drink culture” in the UK, is removing a slightly less harmful distraction between bands really going to help? Again, if you’re flying solo at a gig, what do you do with yourself in the 30-40 minutes in between sets other than a quick check of Twitter here, a move on Words With Friends there; probably better for you in the long run than a couple of extra pints.

So what is the solution? As ever it appears to be education. Schools and parents need to teach people from an early age that technology is a tool to take advantage of but also to respect. Encourage people to look up from their screens, and enjoy life through their own eyes and consider those around them, just like you would if puffing on an e-snout or dropping your litter in the street; there are much wider issues here around respect, dignity and common decency than just locking away a mobile for a couple of hours at a time. It might be slightly rose-tinted, but before the current boom, this worked for those who carried ‘compact’ cameras to shows with them; in typically British fashion a sign stage left or right simply stating “No Flash Photography” would be enough to put off even the most ardent of proto-David Baileys out of respect for the artists and fellow concert-goers.

To be fair, the current Yondr phase seems to mainly involve American acts and comedy ones at that and I’d say that theatre audiences in the UK are largely well-behaved when it comes to not recording shows. I saw staff at The Lowry Theatre tap a front row patron on the shoulder to remind them of the rules at a recent Bruce Dickinson spoken word show and that acted as enough of a deterrent to stop others following suit, but for how long will this be enough? And what about Smartwatches? I can do all my texting through that if I I like, do I need to take that off too? What if someone simply states they don’t have a mobile phone upon their person, will searches now class an iPhone in the same contraband category as booze and weaponry?

Needless to say, there are plenty of questions left unanswered around this topic, and we probably won’t find a one-size-fits-all solution. If I’ve got one thing to say to artists and gig promoters though, it’s to maybe focus on the real issues around rip off ticket resellers and snide merch hawkers before targeting actual fans who have paid with their hard-earned cash to do, within reason, whatever they see fit to do once they enter a live arena.

Patch Madripoor RIP

PatchI don’t like having to do this but sometimes words are the only way, and if they can offer just a crumb of comfort to others then it’s worth it.

In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t known Patch for a great deal of time, just a few years, but as a central part of the gig family, and due to his proximity to Manchester over those years, we’d often catch up at shows here or in Huddersfield, Leeds, London… anywhere that our shared love of live music would take us. The last time I saw Patch was in the notorious Wetherspoon in Wolverhampton on a quiet Sunday morning less than a month ago. I gave him a hug after another raucous gig, knowing full well I’d see him right down the front at the next one. Now I know that won’t happen, which seems brutally unfair, and wrong in so, so many ways.

Patch was a fixture. Just like Eddie at an Iron Maiden show, you’d struggle to get a gig featuring Patch’s favourite bands without him front and centre. Constantly singing the praises of bands like The Idol Dead and Dirt Box Disco long before many of the rest of us cottoned on, Patch was passionate to the point of buying the ticket and t-shirt for you to make sure you went along too. It was his passion for rock and roll that helped persuade me and many others to head that little bit further afield to gigs that normally would’ve been 50-50, always buying tickets first and asking questions later.

With Belinda perpetually waiting for doors to open, you’d normally find Patch in The Parish bar or in a boozer nearby with that sly grin on his face; we’d joke to Belinda that we’d babysit him for her, knowing full well he was more than capable of looking after himself whether we liked it or not. Okay, so maybe we had to bundle him into a taxi under protestation in between Marsden and Huddersfield or hurry him along down the road with the lad complaining his legs wouldn’t take him any faster, but he’d always be there, through hell or high water, if nothing else to select the 14 items of merch he had to get at each show.

In fact, Patch often was THE show, no more so than at his surprise secret Birthday gig at The Parish this year. So many people travelled from all over the country for it, honouring a true driving spirit of our little family in the only way we knew how – music, laughter and enough beer to see us through into the wee small hours. We even called ourselves the Parish Patch Kids in his honour and wondered how on Earth a couple of weeks before, he hadn’t seen his name in proverbial lights on the posters dotted around the venue advertising upcoming shows. It’s hard to imagine the place without him now, in fact many venues won’t be the same without him in the queue an hour before doors, getting his merch stash safely stowed by the unlucky vendor of the night or exchanging war stories with bands and fans alike, tales that you could timeline simply by his shall we say ‘extensive’ t-shirt collection.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There will never be a satisfactory justification for why something like this could happen, and I wish Belinda and his family all the love and support in the world. Sometimes though all we can do, as hard as it may seem, especially so soon after someone’s passing is to celebrate all that they believed in so that a person’s existence is never truly gone. When my brother passed away, it was pretty clear we could all “Be More Paul”, living life with more humour and to take things less seriously than before. To honour Patch it feels right that we should all be just as passionate for the underdog, keep on putting that extra effort in, and if we’re able to, spend our time and money travelling to support those who add that additional bit of pleasure to our lives. It won’t bring him back, but he’ll sure as hell be living on with all of us in spirit.

Rest in peace mate. You’ll get another hug off me one day.


This Is Manchester – We Do Things Differently Here

I’ve just walked through Manchester Piccadilly Station and there’s a sombre mood hanging over us all this morning, armed police at each entrance and on every concourse reminding us of the seriousness of what’s happened.

Exactly two weeks ago, I was at Manchester Arena seeing Iron Maiden. After the gig I remember being herded down long concrete corridors for what seemed an age as everyone shuffled along with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life ringing out from the Arena speakers. I can only imagine how different a scene it was last night.

When the news came through last night we all thought, maybe hoped, that it was a false alarm. A blown speaker or some balloons popping alongside other social media reports of stampedes. It’s only upon waking this morning that the full horror is apparent.

After the Bataclan I raised a defiant middle finger in support of live music. I may have been horribly nervous going back into a crowded public event but I did what we all have to do again now, put our faith in those who protect us and in the vast majority of the human race. A lot will be asked again about how these acts can keep happening, how people’s minds work but there’s important things to remember, Live music will win. Manchester will win. Terror won’t.

At this truth we have arrived, God damn it’s great to be alive.

Greater Manchester Police has established an emergency telephone number in response to the attack. It is: 0161 856 9400.

Everyone You Meet Is Fighting A Battle You Know Nothing About

Depression isn’t something I’d really considered until recent years. Everyone feels a bit down now and again don’t they? The media just go all sensationalist on things. Surely contemplating taking your own life is selfish when there are so many things in this world that take loved ones from us unfairly and far too soon?

But it is a thing. It’s a thing you can’t see by looking at someone’s face. By looking into their eyes. By seeing them enjoy a seemingly innocent night out with friends. No, it’s something that can usually, frustratingly, only be truly experienced by the sufferer and this merely serves to cause more hurt, more heartache, more despair.

All I want to say is, don’t always assume all’s well. Check up on your friends. Will they confide in you? Probably not. Just be ready with an arm to wrap around a shoulder or the offer of a friendly drink as and when required. One day it might make all the difference.

Peace, Love, Death Metal – How Live Music Can Live On

EODM - Jesse Hughes
Eagles Of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes @ The Ritz, Manchester, 7th November 2015

It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with what’s happened in Paris. And when I say ‘come to terms’ I don’t think it will ever be the case that I’ll feel in any way accepting of the tragedy that has unfolded.

I can’t help but think about the fact that I’d been at exactly the same gig only six days previously. Eagles Of Death Metal were playing the Ritz in Manchester, and it was sold out to the tune of 1500 fans in attendance. As similarities go, it all still feels a little bit too close to home.

The show itself was one of the most enjoyable I’d ever seen in over 20 years of gig-going. I’d never seen EODM live before and I really wasn’t prepared for how much pure fun they brought to the live arena. Frontman Jesse Hughes in particular was instantly likeable and endlessly funny, the embodiment of hip-swaying, tache-curling boogie for a good two hours of incredible rock and roll.

The show culminated in a light-hearted duel between Hughes and guitarist Dave Catching that saw the frontman emerge from the Ritz’s balconies to throw down riffs at his partner in crime. The crowd lapped it up too, kids, adults, skinheads and folk on the hairier side of the spectrum all cheering each comedic battle with grins as wide as the stage.

Then only six days later, the Bataclan in Paris sees the most awful tragedy that live music has ever had to witness. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things which band was involved, but there’s something about the fact that it was such a good-time group like EODM and their fans that were caught up in all this that makes it seem all the more awful. I haven’t been able to listen to any EODM songs since, quickly skipping tracks if anything’s been coming up on shuffle. I’m not trying to ignore what’s happened, it just doesn’t seem right at the moment to try to get enjoyment from their music.

But life does go on. On Saturday I was fortunate enough to go over to Huddersfield to see Eureka Machines and Tropical Contact play at The Parish. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while, despite having seen both bands loads of times before. I knew that in attendance would be all the like-minded folk I see at so many gigs across the country and that if any combination of bands and crowd were going to help each other get over what had happened the night before it was these.

What ensued was every bit the group therapy that was required. From staff at the venue through to the bands, punters, even other people milling around in the pub out front, there was a good time vibe in that leaky room that simply would not be quelled by recent world events. Even when an obviously emotional Chris Catalyst (the Eureka Machines frontman) took to his mic to pay tribute to his friend who had died at the Bataclan (EODM’s merch man Nick Alexander) it wasn’t with a sense of revenge or anger, it was to encourage and enlighten, ensuring that the show went on and that expression didn’t die along with all of those who lost their lives in the French capital. Needless to say, that outpouring provided some of the biggest bouncing of the night as we all joined together in thanks that we were able to enjoy live music, freely and without fear of judgement or censure.

I’m not going to get into the politics of it all, as far as I’m concerned, killing innocent people anywhere in the world is wrong, tragic and heartbreaking. What I will say is that I hope live music somehow comes out of this stronger. It’s always been a place where people from all different backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes can come and forget all of their troubles for a couple of hours, united in a shared joy and euphoria that’s difficult to match and without these little pockets of escapism, the world would be a far, far poorer place.