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Bad reviews: Has Manchester’s restaurant scene had enough of Mark Garner?
The founder of Manchester Confidential stands accused of bullying and racism
By Jack Dulhanty
In November last year, Eunji Noh, the owner of a small neighbourhood restaurant in Chorlton, arranged a meeting with representatives of the food website Manchester Confidential. The website had been selling vouchers that allowed its readers to purchase discounted meals at Noh’s restaurant, The Thirsty Korean, but the promotion hadn’t been going well and she wanted to end it.
She thought she would be meeting a salesperson and a marketing manager from Manchester Confidential. But when she arrived at Benito Lounge, a café down the road from her restaurant, there was someone else there: Mark Garner, the website’s 66-year-old founder who both runs its sales operation and writes restaurant reviews — an apparent conflict of interest that helps to explain the regular criticism he has received since he launched the site in 2002. He writes under the long-running pseudonym “Gordo” and, not long ago, described himself on Twitter as “The North's most read and trusted restaurant critic.”
Within moments of sitting down, Noh felt she was being bullied by Garner. “This is typical of how Koreans do business,” he told her, according to those present. At another point he said: “You’re going to fold.” One witness to the meeting says Garner berated Noh, threatened to sue her if she ended the voucher promotion and reduced her to tears. “There was this tiny Korean lady — crying — with this six-foot fat man shouting in her face”. When we asked Garner for his memories of this meeting, he chose not to respond.
Manchester Confidential readers were paying £25 for vouchers which entitled them to £50 worth of food at The Thirsty Korean. Garner’s company kept the cash and in return the restaurant got some advertising from Manchester Confidential and a flood of new customers, in the hope that they might become regulars after the voucher promotion ended. Noh wanted to stop the deal because she thought it was tanking her business, which was grappling with challenges caused by the pandemic.
To make her case, she had brought an A4 sheet of paper, charting the last four weeks of trading. It showed a steep drop in revenue around the time Confidentials — as the wider company is known — started selling the vouchers to its customers. So steep, in fact, that Noh had called the meeting as a matter of urgency. She wasn’t sure she was going to be able to buy basic ingredients to open the restaurant the next day.
“It [the voucher promotion] put me in more difficulty than the lockdown,” Noh told The Mill this week. She says she regrets ever agreeing to the deal and is still fearful of Garner after the way he treated her in that meeting, which left her feeling degraded and humiliated. She remembers “begging to make him [Garner] listen,” but after about 15 minutes, Garner had heard enough. “I’m not having these crocodile tears,” he told her as he got up, leaving Noh sitting with his two dumbstruck staff, who started apologising for the way their boss had treated her.
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A social media blow-up
The way Garner treats restaurants in Manchester has become a hot topic in the city’s hospitality industry in recent weeks, thanks to a social media post about Maray, a Middle Eastern restaurant that recently opened near Albert Square. Writing on LinkedIn, Garner said he had walked past Maray and it was “as dead as a door nail”. He said he had offered them help in the form of advertising, but never heard back. By contrast Rosso, an Italian restaurant nearby which has “been marketing with Confidentials.com for eight consecutive years”, was full of customers. Garner, who is not renowned for his subtlety, was making himself perfectly clear: the marketing power of his website — which employs around 30 people and has more than 150,000 followers on its main Twitter account — was enough to make some restaurants succeed while others failed.
The LinkedIn post received little engagement, but Maray chose to respond on Twitter, sharing a screenshot of Garner’s post. “This fella has been pestering us to work with him, won’t take a polite no for an answer!” the restaurant wrote. They continued: “Just for the avoidance of doubt & for public record — we’re absolutely fine; didn’t need you then, don’t need you now.”
It looked like an example of a new generation of restaurants, digitally savvy and lacking any deference towards the established food media, using social media to do their own marketing. The response to Maray’s tweets was overwhelming, and many of the replies and retweets were pointedly critical of Garner, including some from restaurant operators. “He (and the like) never understand it when we don’t want to use the fake PR machine,” said one person. “Same. Told us we wouldn’t get far without him. WRONG,” wrote another.
“It's just the arrogance to assume that at some point the self-professed ‘rainmaker of Manchester’ would get us on board,” Maray’s co-founder James Bates told The Mill a few days after posting the tweet. “It was the assumption that at some point he would get his own way which got my back up a little bit.”
The restaurant-going public immediately rallied round Bates and his team, posting supportive tweets about meals they were enjoying at Maray. But the incident raised questions that went beyond one restaurant and its marketing decisions — questions about the behaviour of one of the North’s largest media companies and how it treats the independent restaurants it covers. More specifically, it raised questions about Garner himself.
Garner has been a well-known figure in Manchester’s hospitality world for many years, but also a controversial one. In an earlier era, when Manchester Confidential was a web pioneer and one of the few online sources for food writing in the city, he was frequently quoted in national newspapers as an expert on the sector. “When [Anthony] Bourdain came up to talk at The Lowry, Garner was asked to host it,” remembers one industry source. “That was the power that he had.”
He has been declared bankrupt three times and in 2013 was disqualified from being a company director until 2025, after being caught running a company while being an undischarged bankrupt, a criminal offence. After his disqualification, the company was under the directorship of his daughter, according to Companies House. Since 2017, Garner says he has run Confidentials privately as a sole trader, which is within the rules.
Soon after Maray’s tweet, The Mill was approached by someone who said they had collated a list of restaurant operators who had reported bad experiences with Garner. Since then, we have spoken to more than 15 sources, including many we found independently from the original source and several former staff members at Confidentials. The accounts we have heard are more serious than the “pestering” received by Bates, but they confirm a pattern of Garner putting excessive pressure on restaurants to advertise, as well as using racist and sexist language that has alienated a string of former staff.
‘He knew that I was collapsing’
Eunji Noh grew up in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul, working in coffee shops and hotels. Her dream was to start her own restaurant somewhere, and she spent just shy of two years saving to open either in England or Germany. It was a juggle between drinking cultures; her planned restaurant would focus on Korean beer and spirits.
She landed in Manchester in 2018 with no connections or family and after finding a location, she needed a way to get people into her restaurant. One evening, a customer recommended she get in touch with Manchester Confidential and she sent them an email. “I didn’t have any followers; I didn’t have any friends at that time. And they [Confidentials] told me they could do it,” she said when we spoke at a café a few doors down from her restaurant.
Garner first came to the restaurant in the summer of 2019. In initial meetings, Noh remembers things being off. By her account, Garner said things like “Asians always want something for free,” and wanted her to let him sell vouchers for the Thirsty Korean. He said she “didn’t know anything about the UK,” because she hadn’t studied here and was still new to the country, and said he could help her.
His sales tactics were persistent: “He wouldn’t leave the venue until he got a yes from me,” she recalls. Soon they made a verbal agreement — Confidentials would sell vouchers and would feature The Thirsty Korean in a sponsored post on their site. But before the vouchers could be claimed, the lockdown of 2020 kicked in.
When restrictions were lifted, Garner was back. “Mark came and told me: ‘last time you didn't sign the contract, so we could let you leave. But this time you sign the contract.’” Noh admits that she didn’t read the contract properly, and says that it contained no guarantees specifying how many new customers the promotional deal with Confidentials would bring. As a tiny restaurant with only eight tables, with margins eroded by having to order expensive Korean ingredients and drinks from overseas, it was a bad business decision. “It's my fault,” says Noh. “Because there was nothing that it guaranteed about the result.”
Before long, the restaurant was making a loss, and she called the meeting. “Mark was unhappy and pushing me to accept [the vouchers] even though he knew that I was collapsing. It was really horrible.”
After the meeting, Noh was so shaken by the experience that she wanted to alert the local media so that other restaurant owners would know not to work with Garner. She went on the Facebook page of the Manchester Evening News and described what had happened to her. In her less-than-perfect English, she wrote: “I told him not being able to pay fee what he did marketing for us didn't work. And he told me, he would sue me”. She also wrote: “This company makes me more difficult in business rather than pandemic.” Noh could see that someone at the newspaper had read the message but no story appeared in the MEN about Confidentials, and she never received a reply.
After the meeting, customers continued coming to her with vouchers and complaining when she didn’t accept them. She had assumed Confidentials would have informed customers that the vouchers were no longer valid, but that wasn’t the case. Noh posted on The Thirsty Korean’s Instagram account, explaining the situation: “All your purchased per voucher £25 for £50 we did not receive even 1p from Manchester confidential, which means all money you spent is belonged to the Manchester confidential.” Basically: if you want a refund, don’t ask me.
As happened with Maray, she received lots of public support. “So glad you are calling them out EJ. I’ve seen them do the same with other small businesses,” reads one comment.
That same evening, Garner had a salesperson call Noh saying she wouldn’t have to pay the invoices for the remaining vouchers — for which he had asked for £1,300 a month — if she took the Instagram post down. Noh chose not to do so — it was more important to her to clarify the situation to her customers than to avoid paying the invoices. “She did the smartest thing she could do,” says someone familiar with Confidentials, “she went public, and there was a pile-on. He can’t do anything then. You’ve got him over a barrel.”
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Inside Manchester Confidential
Aspects of Noh’s experience with Garner — including his intimidating tone and his casual racism — may sound shocking to some readers, but they are strongly corroborated by people who have spoken to The Mill in the past fortnight, including former members of his staff.
The staff we spoke to pointed out that Garner could be a charming and amusing boss, and was often kind and generous with his employees. One former staffer we met this week said she was conflicted about saying anything bad about him because he had at least paid her a salary in a sector where regular jobs are scarce. But, there was still a steady stream of inappropriate comments, and regular threats of sacking.
In the Confidentials office, the commercial and editorial teams are kept separate. The editorial team is led by an independent editor and the sales team is led by Garner. Minutes from one team meeting — under a heading “for MRG” (for Mark Roy Garner) — say: “MRG should not send upsetting emails/ text messages to sales staff.”
An ex-employee describes Garner as a “transitional figure” — someone who evokes the Manchester of the late 20th century. “It’s a way of doing business that’s all about playing fast and loose, going bankrupt, bending the rules, breaking the law. It’s a bit 90s,” they said.
In a conversation with The Mill’s editor in 2020, Garner admitted to giving restaurants that advertise with him a “grace period” and explained they wouldn’t get a bad review but instead told to “sort it out” before the next visit from one of his writers. It is a policy that clearly shows advertisers get preferential treatment from the editorial team.
For years, operators have complained on social media about the way Confidentials operates. In one blog from 2014, an incident is described in which Garner appears to threaten an independent operator who had suggested that the website didn’t make it clear when an article was sponsored (i.e. paid for).
Jason Bailey said Garner turned up at his market stall and said he would make it known it was selling an “inferior product”. When Bailey asked Garner if that was a threat to his business, Garner said: "Son, you mark my words: it's a promise". Speaking about the incident with The Mill, Bailey said: "He was aggressive, he blatantly said that he was going to crush our business."
In our reporting we haven’t found any evidence of Confidentials giving restaurants a bad review in retaliation for not taking out advertising.
The Mill has seen letters showing that, as of October this year, Garner was 90 days late in paying contributions to his staff’s pensions. We have also seen emails that strongly suggest sales staff worked over the pandemic while receiving furlough from the government, which would be illegal. Garner did not dispute these claims.
Other staff members described a working culture that led to poor treatment of restaurant owners like Noh. “It's just getting harassed all the time and being screamed at for not getting an answer out of somebody,” one former salesperson remembers. “And, literally being made to harass small businesses, because that's what Mark wants you to do, and if you don't keep harassing them, keep showing up unannounced then you'll be fired.” A different former staff member remembers: “Most of the time that I worked there, I just felt like a piece of shit. Like I just hated it.”
Former staff also back up a key plank of Noh’s account — that Garner regularly says things that are, by any standards, extremely racist. One black journalist who worked at the company told us: “I experienced some racism that I would definitely not experience in any form of company ever.”
Multiple people recall a story Garner told about catching a train and finding that a black woman was sat in his seat. They remember him saying there was a “black bitch sat in the seat”. He went on to add that he had ended up having a relationship with that woman.
The black journalist who spoke to us also remembers an incident where she was wearing ripped jeans and was sharing a taxi with Garner. “He started talking about how my legs were black like hers,” she recalls. He added that his employee’s legs were “different” because they weren’t “as black as the ace of spades,” like the woman on the train.
The comments had a lasting effect on the staff member. "I was one of the few black journalists in Manchester, I was really proud of myself to have achieved what I wanted to achieve in Manchester without having to move to London,” she told us. “But unfortunately, that came with a price, and that price was putting up with some awful comments that I probably wouldn't accept today.”
“It has impacted the way I have moved forward in my career now,” she says. “It gave me a sense of impostor syndrome because of the level of bullying, the comments made towards me… I'm just saying this now for that 23-year-old girl that really wanted to be a journalist more than anything, and who put up with it."
The Mill approached Garner on Thursday morning to give him a chance to respond to these allegations. He didn’t correct or dispute any of the quotes or details in this story.
‘They want me to come back to Korea’
In recent weeks, the executive editor and senior campaign manager at Confidentials have both left the company. The editor “just quit” we were told, leaving without working her notice. Was the Maray blow-up the final straw, we asked one ex-colleague of hers? “It didn’t help,” she replied (the editor in question did not respond to our requests for an interview).
Restaurant operators say the industry’s increasing rejection of Garner is draining him of his influence as more social media focused companies like Manchester’s Finest and EATMCR, with their buzzy videos and online reach, become a more attractive place to advertise. “He just doesn’t have that kind of power any more,” says a former staff member.
Noh never told her family in Itaewon about her experiences with Garner, but did after speaking with The Mill. “They want me to come back to Korea and drop everything,” she laughs, “and that I deserve to be treated better.” Asked if she will, she says no. She came here specifically to open her restaurant, and she plans on sticking with it.
It’s been four years, she’s been through a pandemic, has a loyal staff and customer base, and the business is now sustaining itself. In spite of what Garner told her — that she would fold, and that it was her fault — she has retained a sense of confidence in herself.
“I know I’m not a failure, because I’ve got plenty of bookings tonight”.