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Escaping Freight Island: Inside Manchester's latest hospitality meltdown
The directors are 'mortified' about a badly-worded letter to staff - but what does the saga tell us about one of the city's biggest industries?
Like a lot of new ventures in this city, it got a lot of hype. “It feels very Manchester in the best possible way,” gushed the website I Love Manchester, whose July 2020 review of Escape to Freight Island hailed “restaurant quality food vendors, inventive bars, secret dens, music, immersive art, festival takeovers and family focused events.”
Based in a former freight depot just behind Piccadilly station, Freight Island was technically a food market, allowing diners to order — via their phones — from a tempting list of burgers, pizzas and “ingredient-driven tacos”. But its founders — a group of well-known Manchester hospitality operators — said it was much more than that. “Escape to Freight Island will take its place as one of the most exciting, forward-thinking and disruptive markets in the world,” said co-founder Luke Cowdrey, who said it would “fill a hole in the life of our city”.
So what’s gone wrong? The doors to Freight Island have been closed since New Year’s, while its owners have tried to work out how to cut costs and adjust their business model to declining footfall. Then, last week, staff received a bizarrely-worded letter saying they had all lost their jobs as a result of the company taking on a deal with a new bar provider and would need to re-apply to work at the venue when it opens up again in April. Jarringly, the letter began with the words “We are excited to inform you” and said: “As per your contract, one week’s notice is being given”. It prompted a wave of anger on social media and a recovery operation by the company.
We’ve spoken to one of Freight Island’s directors, Jon Drape, and plenty of current and former staff members for today’s story, which tries to understand why one of Manchester’s most talked-about venues has hit the buffers. “Look, as I said before, it’s challenging,” Drape told us. “We had a running joke that we were in a TV show, because everything was so comical,” says an ex-staffer, while another mentions a “designated crying spot” by one of the food vans.
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This is the kind of journalism we can only do because of our almost 2,000 paying members. It involves making lots of calls, scrutinising the claims made by companies and checking information that people have posted online. So much coverage of Manchester amounts to re-writing press releases from companies: just type “Escape to Freight Island” into Google and you can read hundreds of stories that are little more than free PR. If you think Greater Manchester needs more than that, please do join up today if you haven’t already — a membership costs just 23p a day.
Your Mill briefing
Big news in yesterday’s budget, with chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirming Greater Manchester’s new devolution deal will allow the city region to retain business rates and will offer multi-year funding settlements, a big goal for Andy Burnham. We’ll let the experts at the think tanks examine the detail of how that will work in the coming days, but it’s already clear the government’s moves on “levelling up” are pretty limited in this budget. There’s £1 billion going into the levelling up fund, a pot of cash that local authorities bid for, and Hunt referred to 12 investment zones — including Greater Manchester — where the government is offering to invest £80m each. “16m per zone per year for 5 years will not shift the dial on regional inequality,” tweeted Zoë Billingham, the director of IPPR North. “Considering it [levelling up] was supposed to be the defining mission of the 2019 manifesto,” tweeted News Agents reporter Lewis Goodall “in substance and emphasis, it feels like it’s fading rapidly.”
Interestingly, the FT reports that as part of the new “trailblazer” devolution deals being given to Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, the regions’ mayors will have to appear before mini select committees of MPs on a quarterly basis. “This is in v large part because Tory MPs in GM are not very happy about Burnham getting new powers without them being able to publicly grill him about what he’s doing,” tweeted the FT’s reporter Jennifer Williams. See her full thread here.
After last week’s news about HS2, an internal government document seen by the Guardian says delays to the rail project will increase costs (remember, the official reason for HS2 delays is to save money). Parts of HS2 being “rephased” will mean work on the lines between Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester will be delayed by two years, potentially delaying the Manchester connection until 2043. “This damaging leak blows apart their key claims to be saving taxpayers’ money,” says shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh.
Damage to overhead lines on the Metrolink network caused cancellations yesterday, with no trams on the Trafford Park line and widespread delays elsewhere. How reliable is Metrolink? In its report covering July to December last year, it said 89.7% of trams departed less than 2 minutes late, although that dropped to 82.8% on the Oldham and Rochdale line, meaning almost a fifth of trams were late. We reported on problems with the network’s maintenance last year.
“Forget about the Haçienda,” says a music feature in the Guardian, which looks at the many interesting artists coming out of Manchester’s “DIY music scene”, hailing a city “no longer getting lost in nostalgia”. The piece features Andy Burnham trying to give new musicians a chance on his radio show (inspired by Tony Wilson, he says) and a new music industry conference founded by Wilson’s son Oli. Forgetting the Haçienda might be harder than it looks.
One great shot
September 1963. Sally Ann Smith, a four-year-old at Knolls Lane Primary school in Oldham, is joined by her dog, Brandy. The golden retriever followed Sally everywhere, and couldn’t understand it when she left him to start school. So, the teacher decided to let him join the class.
Escaping Freight Island: Inside Manchester's latest hospitality meltdown
By Jack Dulhanty and Mollie Simpson
Last week, Dan Morris, managing director of Escape to Freight Island, wrote to his staff to tell them their employment with the company would be terminated with a week’s notice. They would need to apply for a role with a company called Peppermint Events, which was taking over the bars.
Featuring phrases that seemed designed to cause an uproar — “We are excited to inform you,” and “we would be delighted for you to continue to work at Freight Island,” — the letter caused a bonfire on Reddit and offended staff, many of whom work on zero-hours contracts and have earned little or nothing from the business this year. “It was just like, what the fuck? Are you kidding?” one worker told The Mill.
What’s a place like Freight Island — an innovative pandemic-era success story that opened in 2020 to great acclaim — doing handing over its bar operations and insulting its staff? And are there broader lessons here about Manchester’s hospitality sector, which has enjoyed major political backing and steroidal growth in recent years? We’ve spent a few days trying to work that out.
For the most part, Freight Island has been shut since New Year’s Eve. In the months before, staff were told the venue would close for the first two weeks of January. But by mid-December, that shifted to all of January, opening in February.
This was, of course, inconvenient, especially to the many staff working on zero-hour contracts. One month was “doable” says a junior worker — they would have to dip into their savings, but that’s hospitality. But then things changed again — the venue wouldn’t open as usual but would show some rugby on the weekends. An internal email said Freight Island would open “throughout February and March as the largest Guinness 6 Nations Fanzone in England.”
Staff started to leave when the timeline changed once again. “A week before the end of January we get another email from the directors saying we’re going to be closed until the last week of March,” says an ex-staffer. “That was like: ‘holy shit.’”
The letter last week — a kind of baroque work of anti-PR — “should not have been issued,” says Jon Drape, one of Freight Island’s founders, who invited us to come and speak to him at the venue on Tuesday lunchtime after we sent the company a set of questions about what was going on. “It was a complete and utter mistake. It hadn’t been signed off.” Drape says Morris, the managing director whose name appeared on the letter, was on holiday at the time and is now upset about his new casting as Manchester hospitality’s Satan incarnate.
Here’s our exchange with Drape about the letter:
Mill: “So, there was never any intention to terminate employment?”
Drape: “No, no. Absolutely not.”
Mill: “So, how did that end up in the letter?”
Drape: “Well, I think two HR people drafted the letter. That’s how it ended up in the letter. How it got sent out, I’m still getting to the bottom of.”
Drape is a veteran of events production (best known for Engine No. 4, whose clients include Bluedot Festival and the Warehouse Project) and he is refreshingly honest about the issues at Freight Island, which he admits has been beset by calamity from the start. He and co-founder Gareth Cooper are both experienced in organising festivals and they envisioned a kind of permanent festival, with traders and events churning year round. Then, just as they were about to start the build, the first lockdown happened.
“Then there was the staffing crisis after Covid, Omicron, train strikes,” says Drape, as we walk around the venue, which is being jet washed and generally touched up in preparation for the April re-opening. More recently, there have been skyrocketing bills (it costs £1,500 a day to heat Freight Island’s indoor spaces).
Cracks in the model
When the directors looked at the figures for the last quarter of 2022, they realised something had to change. Last year was quieter than the year before (“Footfall in 2022 was dramatically down on 2021,” says one person with knowledge of the business), and the pandemic was part of the reason for that.
Freight Island was well designed for Covid-19 fears and restrictions — its attractive outdoor space gave diners cover while still being outdoors — and initially many competitors were still struggling to get back up and running. “By 2022, there were lots of other venues open,” Drape says. “So footfall was reduced.”
Unpredictable footfall is the crux of Freight Island’s problem. It’s massive — 55,000 sq ft, with space for up to 3,000 people — and runs like a festival, with multiple operators, which means lots of suppliers and hundreds of staff. But, when you run a festival, you know how many people are turning up, because you’ve sold tickets. Freight Island has many of the logistical challenges a festival has but with much less predictable income.
Some days it has been badly understaffed (Drape once had to work a 12-hour shift running food himself). In other instances, they’ve relied on agency staff to make up the numbers, many of whom had to be virtually trained on shift. “The quality of the agency staff that we ended up getting in here last summer was shocking. So we couldn't even maintain good service standards ourselves,” says Drape.
We experienced those issues first hand. When a Mill writer had dinner at Freight Island last year, one of the orders didn’t turn up for just over two hours, when it did, it was the wrong order. When the mistake was pointed out, the staff member offered a refund (“which might take a few days,”) but no apology. They explained that it was too late to order again.
The ‘crying spot’
For a venue billed by one of its co-founders as “one of the most exciting, forward-thinking and disruptive markets in the world,” things weren’t panning out. Clearly, opening a new venture like this is an incredibly stressful and difficult endeavour — and that’s without the external factors the hospitality sector has dealt with these past few years.
Freight Island has done a lot right to attract the crowds it has, as well as the public profile. It’s ambitious and imaginative, and any city would want entrepreneurs to try place-making projects like this. But if it is meant to represent a brave new vision for how we eat and drink, it has some ironing out to do.
Drape says the directors have been tweaking the model since the business opened. In the early days, they ran everything, including the food vendors and bars. They then offloaded the food concessions to independent operators who would essentially be businesses within the business, dealing with all their own admin. That left Freight Island with the drinks and the floor, hiring for and managing the bar and service operation.
By all accounts, they weren’t great at those bits either. “We had a running joke that we were in a TV show, because everything was so comical,” remembers one ex-staffer. Staff we’ve spoken to recall regular breakdowns in communication, having to work shifts of up to 13 hours with minimal breaks and walking miles and miles in the heat.
“We had a designated crying spot, near one of the food vans,” remembers another person. For the ex-staffers we spoke to, the letter from Dan Morris represented a lack of care they felt their employers had for them. “Complete backstabbing,” one ex-staff member said about the letter. “Some people are just not even surprised.”
“Look, as I said before, it’s challenging. Go work on a festival site, it’s more challenging. We’re not perfect, and we’ve acknowledged that with staff as we have gone along,” says Drape when asked for a response about staff experiences. He goes on to say:
We've made improvements as we've gone along, tried to improve the environment, working conditions, rates of pay, contracts, everything. We've done our damnedest and, given the amount of staff we've had over that period, am I surprised that there's some disgruntled staff? Absolutely not.
One change he points out is the installation of a staircase into an outdoor greenhouse bar area, to stop employees from having to walk all the way around the structure to deliver drinks or bring back empty glasses. And he makes the point that some of the children of shareholders have worked shifts at Freight. “We’re not sat in an ivory tower.”
Why it matters
The issues at Freight Island drew our attention because they point to a couple of important issues in the city. Firstly, there’s a point about labour. Hospitality is one of Greater Manchester’s biggest employers but workers tend to be poorly paid, casually contracted and easily disposed of. The line in last week’s letter about workers getting one week’s notice might have jumped out at many Mill readers but it wouldn’t surprise people who work in the industry.
The fast-rising model of food markets offers diners cool new venues and lots more choice and spontaneity when they order, but how do they change the experience of staff? Uneven customer numbers, an ever-changing ecosystem of operators and cavernous venues that require massive footfall in order to break even are all factors that seem to make life even more precarious for zero-hours workers.
Or is that overly pessimistic? Some of these venues seem to have it down, think Altrincham Market, Mackie Mayor or Hatch, all admittedly smaller-scale venues than Freight Island. Insiders tell us they operate in a more hands-off way, charging a patchwork of independent traders very low rents plus a percentage of takings. That’s similar to Drape’s vision for Freight Island, fully switching back to a festival-style operation with the bar under Peppermint essentially functioning as another concession.
Some people hearing about the footfall issue at Freight Island might wonder whether Manchester has reached Peak Bar. Are there now so many venues that there aren’t enough punters to go around? One major operator we spoke to this week doesn’t think so, pointing to cost-of-living pressures and specific issues at particular venues as the main problems in recent months. “People are still going to the special occasion ticketed events, but nipping out to a bar is down across the board,” they said.
The Mill has reported that hospitality was surprisingly resilient during the pandemic, with few venues closing and many opening up. Andy Burnham is a vocal advocate for the industry and by appointing media-savvy Warehouse Project founder Sacha Lord as his night-time economy advisor, hospitality has enjoyed unusual prominence in the public life of the city.
Recently, another giant multi-operator venue, Diecast, was announced in the city centre. “Freight are about to get absolutely reamed by Diecast,” one supplier says. But then what happens when Diecast’s honeymoon period ends and another place opens to ream Diecast? Are all these big, buzzy operations doomed to only a few years in the sun?
Drape, obviously, thinks not. “I don’t see it as competition,” he says of Diecast. Before Freight Island and its Mayfield Depot neighbour, the Warehouse Project “everybody came out of Piccadilly Station and turned right, with what’s happened here, people turn left.”
So, what is next? Since the letter, Drape has written to the Unite Hospitality Union saying that all Freight Island employees will be either be retained by the company or transferred to Peppermint. It means their contracts aren’t actually being terminated, and they won’t need to reapply for their jobs.
Drape says he and the other directors remain “mortified” by what’s happened, and want to draw a line under the whole thing. They’ve been in discussions with Unite and are now looking to clarify the situation with employees and the public ahead of the reopening. When asked if he has any worries, considering the number of people online vowing never to return, Drape says: “no, we don’t have any great concerns.”