Society is no normal food market, insist its founders Nick Gregory and Richard Sweet. Rather, it's a collection of dedicated street food traders bringing an offering that's " a bit more luxe" to the people of Manchester.
It's been a busy few weeks for hospitality, gearing up for the big reopening and finally experiencing the joy of inviting customers back over the threshold. But as well as reopenings, there are a number of brand new food offerings popping up around the country.
One of those is Society, which opened its £1m, 350-person-capacity food hall and entertainment events space on 20 May. The site in Manchester underwent a huge transformation during the dark months of lockdown, driven by a joint venture between Yorkshire-based Vocation Brewery and PopCity, a development company run by Nick Gregory and Richard Sweet.
The pair complement each other well – former restaurant owner Sweet has a background in redeveloping retail areas for British Land by creating F&B sites using shipping containers, while Gregory's experience is in entertainment, food, music and DJ events.
Society, located at Barbirolli Square, is next to the Bridgewater Hall concert venue and close to the Palace Theatre. It's a stone's throw from Manchester's main shopping arcades and just south of Peter Street, home to a BrewDog bar and the ever-popular Bavarian-style beer cellar Albert's Schloss. The area was crying out for an anchor brand to encourage people to eat, drink and socialise, and Society is perfectly set.
"We firmly believe in the regeneration of spaces," says Gregory. "People can be very binary in their thoughts, and think ‘this is an office, this is a restaurant', but I think in the future spaces will be completely adaptable as the world develops and changes."
Small but perfectly formed
This is not Gregory and Sweet's first venture. The pair opened their first casual food-hall in Assembly Underground in 2018, in the Grade II-listed former Leeds School Board building on George Street, previously the Carpe Diem nightclub. The two are setting their sights on further locations to roll out the concept, including Sheffield, Bristol, potentially Birmingham, Reading and Lewisham in London.
"London is just so vast, so expensive. You've got to pick the right area and that's the most difficult part," says Gregory. "But a location like Manchester is absolutely perfect. The city centre is small and it has a great infrastructure."
Society takes inspiration from Assembly, but moves away from its basement aesthetic to a light and airy and, according to Sweet and Gregory, a "bit more luxe" building. The food hall features five street food-style F&B offerings, a cocktail bar and a taproom offering 44 beers from Hebden Bridge-based craft brewery Vocation, with plans for live music and events.
The majority of the project is funded by the landlord. After the site's last tenants, Pitcher & Piano, closed up a decade ago, the space was unoccupied. The landlord got in touch with Gregory and Sweet directly after visiting Assembly Underground, hoping for something a little different to aid its plans to build a destination food and drinks space as part of the broader regeneration project around Deansgate.
Sweet says: "It's about working with the landlord to re-energise the area and keep it interesting. I don't like the word ‘food hall', but I can't think of a better way to describe it. Others just open the doors and offer food and drink, whereas we want to be a bit more cultural and evolve into an art space over time.
Others just open the doors and offer food and drink, whereas we want to be a bit more cultural and evolve into an art space over time
"We want to aim for the broadest appeal. We're not a late-night venue – our licence finishes at 12.15am – so we want to maximise those people coming in. We'll find out who our customer base is and it'll develop and go down avenues that maybe we haven't though of yet."
The pair can imagine parents with prams coming in for coffee in the morning, families eating during the day, and events such as chef demos, a farmers' market and yoga classes. Office workers will be the main consumers in the weekday evenings and, "we're thinking of doing informal co-working, but it's not on our agenda yet," says Sweet. Gregory says: "We're not telling people what they should want – we want it to be for the locals. We both love going out and we're excited to share the obsessive quality we've put into it from start to finish: from the design to the quality of the food and drink offer and the music."
Set up for start-ups
The nature of Society makes it attractive to street-food start-ups as a potential first or second venue as they look to expand a business. Tenants pay rent and a commission-based service fee, which reduces the start-up costs for operators, who only have to kit-out the kitchen rather than an entire restaurant. Meanwhile, Society and Vocation Brewery run as a joint venture operating as a revenue-share basis on wet sales.
One of the operators, smash burger concept Slap & Pickle, is very familiar with Gregory and Sweet's food hall ambitions, with owners James Tabor and Zoe Perrett having taken a unit at PopCity's Assembly Underground in Leeds when it opened in 2018. Tabor even became general manager for the venue's inaugural year, while his partner Perrett looked after social media and marketing.
"We came from a street food business model, and we've been doing pop-ups at festivals and people's backyards and outside pubs. The idea was to get a bricks and mortar place as soon as we could, but in Leeds or Manchester you're talking a quarter of a million quid," says Tabor.
He dabbled in bricks and mortar trading at Leeds' Trinity Kitchen shopping centre in 2017 before taking a unit at Leeds Assembly. Then the pandemic hit, putting any plans for another permanent venue on the back-burner. "Most people closed, but we did the opposite and turned ourselves into a delivery business overnight, and within two weeks we were overwhelmed," he says. "So we took over a [closed] pub kitchen on the outskirts of Leeds and operated as a dark kitchen, and then took on another pub kitchen in Sheffield."
Tabor and Perrett operated out of several venues, including Vocation Brewery in Hebden Bridge, over the course of 2020, taking advantage of Eat Out to Help Out. Suddenly, sales were soaring. From employing two people in March 2020 to 35 today, Slap & Pickle is a case study in how to pivot in times of crisis.
"Two [pubs] said that without us being there to bring in dry sales during lockdown they might not have been reopening this year. And our butcher, which saw 90% of its business fall off a cliff overnight, says that without us and a couple of other burger guys, they wouldn't have been able to survive."
Now hospitality is getting back on its feet, Tabor believes the future will be food hall-style social dining. The raft of start-ups created in lockdown will need a new permanent home, and Tabor says food halls provide a cheap space with little competition due to the wide variety of options.
"We all do chips and that's about it," he says. "There's a street food vibe about it, but it's a long step up from street food trading to do this and take on the financial commitment – it's not cheap to set up one of these units. But the co-operation between the traders remains like street food guys at a festival, so if you run out of boxes you can borrow some from your neighbour – it's a close-knit and supportive community."
The co-operation between the traders remains like street food guys at a festival, so if you run out of boxes you can borrow some from your neighbour – it's a close-knit and supportive community
Most customers come to a food hall and eat an average of 1.5 meals, so tend to support more than one trader, Tabor adds: "They will have an extra taco or something. This is part of the future – just look at what happened with delivery in lockdown. The whole world of delivery is growing so fast, that in one year it accelerated what would have taken five years, maybe even 10. And this place is designed to do deliveries. There's a delivery entrance for drivers and video units in the kitchen to let you know when the driver has arrived.
"We're hoping Manchester will be our flagship, along with a mix of dark kitchens. Or maybe we'll find a few cool pubs and bars – dark kitchens are brilliant and efficient, but they're pretty depressing places to work in with no windows," he says.
And what exactly is a smash burger? "It's where you slap the meat on the grill rather than using a traditional burger press," Tabor says. "You get a loose ball of meat and splat it on the grill so it smashes into a flat patty, which caramelises and crusts on the outside. It's as thin as a McDonald's patty, with a high fat content, which makes it really juicy.
"The street food mentality is do one thing and do it really well."
Elnecot diversifies into Roman pizzas with English ingredients
For Manchester chef-owner Michael Clay, Society presents an opportunity to create a new brand and experiment with a completely different type of cooking.
Clay's restaurant Elnecot in the Ancoats area of the city has a playful menu with dishes including ‘lockdown wings with stay-alert sauce', and ‘Bollocks to Brexit' – lamb testicle croquettes with ‘magic money tree' sauce, trout roe, foie royale and 24ct gold. But for his Society offering he plans to open a pizza brand called Dokes.
After reading an article about Society, Clay managed to secure one of the site's five kitchens. "I thought an outlet like that with fewer start-up costs than a traditional restaurant could work well to get our name and the idea out there and to get people tasting our product," he says.
Clay plans to serve a Roman-style base using heritage grain flour from Gilchesters in Northumberland, with toppings showcasing the British ingredients his Elnecot restaurant has been serving for the past five years. "I want to use the suppliers we've met over the years, and we know that pizza is popular, but I wanted to do something a little bit different and to get it out to an even wider audience."
He will source tomatoes from the Isle of White, Italian-style cheese from London and across the rest of the UK, and charcuterie from Cornwall and Trealy Farm in Pontypool.
"We've used all these component parts in Elnecot but never made pizzas," he says. "It's always a bit nerve-racking opening a new place, but it's also exciting – pizza is a big world. It might just be a few ingredients, but you could spend your entire life playing around with those ingredients and maybe not find out quite what you were aiming for."
Society F&B operators
Vocation Brewery Yorkshire-based brewery that started in an old turkey shed and has grown to a business with 60 staff, selling the equivalent of 10 million cans of beer per year.
Slap & Pickle Smash burgers using local meat served with loaded fries, with sites across Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester.
Manzoku Asian-inspired pop-up and delivery street food operator with its first permanent home at Society in Manchester.
Dokes Pizzeria Established Manchester restaurant Elnecot's first spin-off into pizza will be housed at Society.
Yoki Social Table Health-conscious Korean food available in Sheffield and Manchester.
Chaat Cart South Indian street food operator serving homestyle dishes, with sites in Manchester, Stockport and Sheffield.
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