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The Caterer

Northern focus: Northern lights

23 March 2006
Northern focus: Northern lights

Business is brisk up North. Cities such as Leeds and Newcastle have erupted into happening places following huge investment in infrastructure and tourism in recent years; Liverpool is the European Capital of Culture 2008; the Olympics in 2012 will need to make use of the state-of-the-art stadia north of Watford - and let's face it, some of the best bands are from that direction, too.

Take Manchester. The once-grimy old mills are being cleaned up and converted into swish apartments, trendy boutiques and bars are hidden down back streets, and in the super-cool Northern Quarter, design and media companies have created demand for a hip eating-out culture.

You just have to look at the Manchester skyline - it's dominated by cranes, says Andy Ormrod, director of recruitment company Thomson Select Group. A lot of this activity is in hospitality. This year the city will see the launch of its third five-star hotel, Hilton, which will join the luxurious 263-room Radisson Edwardian and Rocco Forte Hotels' state-of-the-art, 64-bedroom Lowry at Salford Quays.

Niche properties Chic hotel chains such as Malmaison have already taken the North by storm, with a presence in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, while national groups such as Macdonald already have hotels across the region. There's plenty of niche properties too. According to June Crossley, chefs division manager at Cummins Mellor Recruitment, the recently opened, luxury Stanley House hotel near Blackburn has taken the fancy of singer Robbie Williams, who has named it as one of his top five hotels.

On the restaurant scene, most of the big chains have a presence in the cities, and some have moved out to secondary towns - for example, Nando's, famous for its peri-peri chicken, is about to open its eighth outlet in Manchester and has multiple sites in Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, as well as Sunderland, Derby and Wakefield.

Cuisines with a traditionally more acquired taste are finding equal success. Yo! Sushi, which relies on a hip, cosmopolitan clientele to feast off its conveyor belt sushi offerings, has perhaps a tougher market to crack, but already has two outlets in Manchester.

Across the region, the list of successful independents includes Andrew Nutter's Nutters, Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth at Northcote Manor, Paul Kitching at Juniper. There are also some home-grown chains that the North is keeping to itself. Acclaimed chef Paul Heathcote - whose empire includes Heathcotes in Longridge, the Chop House in Preston and four Simply Heathcotes - recently opened his fifth Olive Press in Bolton alongside outlets in Preston, Liverpool, Warrington and Manchester, and shows no sign of heading south. In fact, Heathcote told Caterer recently that he was glad to be out of the frenzy of London.

His runaway success highlights the growing demand for better food in the North and an untapped market for entrepreneurs. Ormrod says the success of the Olive Press shows that the northern palate has moved on from anglicised Italian food and he reckons there's plenty of room for more players.

So there are plenty of stimulating places to work, but what about salaries, packages and standard of living? The cliché of cloth caps and rundown houses is, sadly, an enduring one, but it's far removed from reality. Recruitment consultants confirm that the companies they deal with pay comparable salaries - and that most chains pay exactly the same across the board. The real perk, however, is that the cost of living is much lower. "The average price for a good property in the region is £120,000-£130,000 - you couldn't do that in London," says Ormrod.

Crossley adds: "The North is an ideal location for anyone wanting to move and buy their own property. House prices are far cheaper than in the South, with lots of plush city apartments and canalside developments in Manchester and Liverpool." According to Bernadette Haworth, director at Flourish Recruitment, the quality of life is so much better, too. In the North there are shorter working hours and the cheaper housing means less of a commute. "We go home after work, have our tea and then go out. We don't have to spend two or three hours a day commuting. We can be home in 20 minutes," she says.

As anywhere, there are regular working patterns and rotas, paid extra time, tips are shared between the front and back of house - it's just that you'll get much more for your money. Even so, it seems that many talented professionals are missing out on the rich quality of life and career opportunities available in the North simply through prejudice. "There are a few southerners coming up here to work but it's not massive," says Ormrod.

Haworth agrees: "A lot of London-based workers think that it's too cold in the North. We deal with executive chefs who still think we have flat caps and whippets."

Meanwhile, hardy northerners - who aren't scared of a bit of cold weather - are increasingly seeing the advantages of staying where they were born and bred. "It used to be that you had to go to London to develop your career, but that's changing," says Haworth. "The younger ones see that professional standards are the same and that companies are run by people who've been trained nationwide."

Case studies
THE NON-BRIT Johan Scheepers, 29
What? Hotel manager
Where? Radisson Edwardian Manchester
Nitty-gritty Five-star rating, with 263 rooms

You sound as if you're a long way from home That's right, I'm from South Africa. I came over to the UK in 2003, worked in London initially and then moved up here to Manchester last year.

So how are you finding it? It's much friendlier up here. It's less rushed and the quality of life is better - it's cheaper for a start. Salaries are comparable with the South, and things like transport and accommodation are cheaper. I can afford to live in the city centre here and walk to work, whereas I was in Zone 6 on the Underground in London.

What about Manchester itself? There's space for all of us, which is important to me. I see Manchester as a big town. Your hairdresser remembers you, the guy in Starbucks remembers what you like and gets your skinny latte ready in the mornings… that sort of thing.

Does that apply to the working culture, too? Yes, it tips over into work. In the hospitality industry we get out and about and meet each other. We know everyone so there's a transparency and respect - we're neighbours, so nobody poaches your best staff.

You're young, free and single, so have you found a good social scene? It's definitely not dull, there's a busy music scene and a good variety of night-life. It's also much easier to make friends. I'd be happy to stay here.

THE SOUTHERNER Robert Thompson, 23
What? Head chef
Where? Winteringham Fields, Winteringham, North Lincolnshire
Nitty-gritty Two Michelin stars, 42 covers

You're not a local No, I'm from Bedford, but I came up this way six years ago. I worked at a fine-dining restaurant in Doncaster first, and then four-and-a-half years ago I applied to work here.

Is the eating-out culture different? A bit. There's still a big gap in the North for good quality restaurants. A lot of people spend an awful lot of money on eating in brasseries when they could be dining in better restaurants.

What might put them off? There's a tendency for customers to expect twice as much on their plate for their money. We've recently reduced our menu size so that people don't leave feeling so full, but you have to bear in mind that people here look at what they're getting. Obviously we spend about four times as much on ingredients as other places, but changing people's views is a challenge.

Have you got many southern colleagues? Not really. A lot of people are scared to leave London, but there are now so many good restaurants to work in outside of the capital. It's cheaper up here in general, too. The salaries are comparable with the South, but one of the best things is the quality of life.

In what way? There's the pressurised, busy kitchen - just like anywhere else in the country - and the beautiful countryside. After work it's nice to leave that environment and give my head a rest.

Five reasons to love the north

  • It's an entrepreneur's paradise.
  • It's developing fast, and crying out for more talent.
  • The working culture is friendly and personal.
  • Quality of life is better.
  • You get paid the same, but your money will go further.
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