Battening down the Hatches: We all love a food hall, but does the model actually work?
'As operators of food halls and street food events, they’re not really sustainable anymore'
Good morning Millers, and welcome to an edition of The Mill that delves into the brewing controversy at a very popular city centre venue: Hatch.
The street food village on Oxford Road — a hive of bars, restaurants and shops that pulls in hordes of office workers and students most evenings and is often heaving with diners and pumping with loud music on the weekends — is closing. Well, it’s closing for now, after its owners (the giant property company Bruntwood) gave up on Hatch and flogged it to a new operator, a company from the North East that says it will re-open it next year. Who is losing out in this corporate deal? The independent traders, of course, some of whom have sunk years of their lives into building their businesses there and who have been given a little under a month to relocate.
In today’s story Jack Dulhanty — who since joining The Mill two years ago has established himself as the leading chronicler and scrutiniser of Manchester’s sprawling hospitality industry (see his superlative long reads on Mana, Mark Garner and Sacha Lord) — has spent the past few days looking into the situation at Hatch. His first task was to make sense of what’s actually happening here and why passions are running so high.
But there’s also a larger question at play, one that we’ve raised in our previous reporting on the problems at Escape to Freight Island: Namely, does this buzzy food hall model — that has proliferated across Manchester in recent years at roughly the same rate as glass tower blocks and newly-minted Manchester City fans — actually work? Or, to put it another way, does it work for the people who make it work, the startup traders who lend these venues their attractive (albeit carefully curated) boho indy charm?
“As operators of food halls and street food events, they’re not really sustainable anymore,” one operator says. As always, this story is a members-only affair, so please upgrade to Full Paid Up Millership if you haven’t done so yet (the free Millers just get to read the top of this edition). We’ve made a phenomenal start to the month (43 new members already), which puts us in hitting distance of reaching the big 2,500 mark by the end of September (we’re on 2,443 right now). Yes, that’s right, your decision to click on that pink button below and enter your card details could get us closer to a subscription milestone that will no doubt spark joyous scenes across the city. Go for it.
On Wednesday we published an excellent piece by longtime Manchester writer and critic Phil Griffin examining the merits of the new buildings that have popped up in Manchester and Salford in the 21st century. Phil argues that Manchester is now the architectural capital of the UK, erecting some truly interesting edifices. But he also considers a new report (launching tomorrow) that argues this city is destroying its heritage and privileging corporate interests over Manchester’s historical fabric. It’s a great (members-only) read.
Tomorrow morning, you’ll be getting a tasty piece by our editor Joshi in your inbox, reviewing Andy Spinoza’s book Manchester Unspun. Do we have The Haçienda to thank for this city’s incredible recent renaissance? And what can we learn from the popularity of racist comedian Bernard Manning — and the eye-catching bigotry of the Manchester Evening News — about the culture of north Manchester in the 1980s? Join up as a member to join the conversation about that piece.
Before that, we’ve got news about the still-soaring cost of Aviva Studios, the plummeting value of Manchester United and a message from our very lovely sponsors today: Manchester Independents. Big thanks to them for helping to fund our journalism — something you can do as well by sponsoring a Mill newsletter or two.
From today’s sponsor: If you’re a lover of independent culture, art, music, and creativity, check out what’s happening in your area on Manchester Independents — a free online platform showcasing the best new independent work. There’s everything from artwork-making workshops and open studios to interactive installations on climate change and AI-generated performances that take you on a walking tour across the city. Check out the full range of events or even upload your own listing here if you have a new project coming up.
Your Mill briefing
Believe it or not, the cost of Aviva Studios is set to rise again, this time to £242m. Back in July, the council approved an extra £8.7m to finish the site, which was meant to be finished in 2019 at a cost of £110m. According to a report to the council’s executive, another £22.2m is expected to be requested later this year. The complex hosted this year’s Manchester International Festival, but its official opening is this October. The additional money is being funded by borrowing and the council say funding for other services will not be affected. We visited the unfinished building a few months ago when Sophie wrote her very popular essay asking whether anyone knows what Aviva Studios is actually for. Or as the author Andy Spinoza put it on Twitter yesterday: “Factory/Aviva Studios: a £240m solution to a problem we didn’t know existed?”
The Co-operative Bank’s ex-chairman Paul Flowers was supposed to appear before magistrates last week, accused of fraud. He didn’t attend because he suffered a stroke, according to his lawyers. Flowers, who is 73, previously served as a Labour councillor in Rochdale and as a methodist minister. He is accused of defrauding a woman using the enduring power of attorney. According to the court listing, Flowers “dishonestly abused that position intending thereby to make a gain, namely staircase, carpets and 11 cheques paid to the defendant, for yourself”. The case has been adjourned for a month while Flowers recovers.
A bad week for Manchester United, who lost in the dying seconds against Arsenal on the weekend and have now lost £500m in stock value after owners the Glazer family hinted they might not sell the club after all. Raine Group, who are managing the sale (or investment, or whatever the Glazers supposedly have in mind, apparently they can’t decide among themselves) say they haven’t heard about any changes regarding the club’s stance. How do the fans feel about what’s going on at Old Trafford? Read our great piece by Jack Walton: A morality play at the Theatre of Dreams.
There was lots in the local news and on Reddit yesterday about people waking up to their cars flecked with dust. “Did it rain mud?” asked one Manchester Redditor. Well, kind of. It was a Saharan dust cloud passing over the UK. So no, not an unfortunate mutation of Manchester’s rain. Phew.
Finally: Don’t forget we’re hiring. We’re looking for a commercial whizkid and senior editor for The Mill and a staff writer for our sister paper, The Post, in Liverpool. Info here. Please share with friends and colleagues.
By Jack Dulhanty
It was an ominous email. Coming in late last Thursday to the food traders and retailers at Hatch — the complex of shipping containers on Oxford Road — the email called them to a meeting the next morning. The meeting, it was made clear, was of high importance: They were to cancel any other arrangements so they could attend.
“The fact that they didn't specify what it was, obviously you expect the worst,” says Ellie Grimshaw, who runs Parmogeddon, a stall specialising in fried chicken parmos. The traders gathered in one of the bars at Hatch at 11am, where a bracing statement was read out by the site manager. Hatch was going to close on the 30th of September, the manager said. The site would then be redeveloped by a new operator and wouldn’t be open again until late 2024. In the meantime, the traders and retailers would need to find new homes for their businesses.
I’m told some people cried after the announcement was read out, and others asked pointed questions. They started to bargain, asking what would happen if they arranged a boycott, trying to find some way to make it work. “Some people were like, ‘What if we go to the press? Go to the media?’” says Vinnie Tao, owner of Sneaker Pharm, a shoe restoration shop. “But it was like: it’s been done.”
Some traders, desperate to avoid the process of relocating and very possibly losing their businesses in the process, asked if there was a way to derail the transaction. “I don’t know why they would ask whether or not they could do that, to Bruntwood,” says Tao.
Bruntwood, the massive property company built from the 1970s onwards by the Manchester entrepreneur Michael Oglesby, normally specialises in office buildings and science parks. A report marking Oglesby’s death in 2019 estimated that the company owns around a fifth of office space in Manchester city centre, including the Manchester One tower on Portland Street and the historic King’s House on King Street.
So what are they doing operating a food hall (I’m going to use the term food hall for all the variously branded food halls, food villages and other multi-operator destinations)?
That question is a key part of the story here. Hatch opened in December 2017, billed as a place where small food start-ups could get their foot in the door and find a market without the off-putting “barriers to entry” (extortionate costs) of starting up on the high street. When it expanded in 2019, growing from 2,480 to almost 12,000 sq ft, it also became host to retailers, like vintage and homeware stores, plus other services like nail salons.
Hatch has always felt temporary. Piles of shipping containers holding tiny kitchens serving food in paper trays at picnic benches, the coarse underbelly of the Mancunian Way hanging over your head. It is temporary in practice too — its operators exist on rolling licences, food traders are charged a sales commission based on their size, whereas retailers pay a fixed weekly rent.
At its best, the model works as a crucial incubator for small businesses, allowing them to build up some income before moving to something more permanent, or perhaps develop a cult following that will follow them to music festivals or make late-night orders on Deliveroo. At its worst, well, read the first few paragraphs of this piece again.
The arrangement was a trade-off for many of these businesses. On a day-to-day basis, it was low risk — they weren’t tied to any property, and there were no surprise costs because the rent and commission covered their bills. “We set up a food concept we wanted to grow, but by no means did we have the capital to fork out for bricks and mortar and everything that comes with that,” says Ellie, from Parmogeddon. “So the street food set-up does really work in that respect.”
But looked at from a more existential standpoint, these kinds of food hall concepts are actually very high risk, because of the unusually unbalanced power dynamics at play.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Mill to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.