When George Osborne spoke of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ a few years back, he probably didn’t have food and drink on his mind. And yet, growth in the UK’s bar and restaurant scene is being led by the UK’s northern cities, with analysis by trade show Northern Restaurant & Bar and CGA showing that the number of city centre bars and restaurants in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds has increased by more than 20% over the past five years, a percentage double that of London during the same period.
“We’re delighted but not surprised by the data, we have seen the changes first hand – new restaurants and bars are opening almost every day,” says Thom Hetherington, CEO of Northern Restaurant & Bar exhibition. “Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds are building top class food and drink scenes, and that’s great news for diners. Despite this being a challenging time for hospitality businesses, growth is being largely driven by ambitious regional independents.”
Buoyed by its £1bn Liverpool One development, which opened in 2008, and its growing independent scene, Liverpool topped the table with a 25.2% increase in sites – to 408 – over the past five years, ahead of Manchester (24.9%) and Leeds (20.5%). Liverpool is now rivalling Manchester as a city suitable to build a restaurant brand in the north of the country, and it’s not hard to see why.
One such brand to have started in Liverpool and which is now growing at pace is Indian street-food restaurant brand Mowgli. Founded by barrister-turned-restaurateur Nisha Katona in 2014, the company now operates five restaurants – two in Liverpool as well as sites in Oxford, Birmingham and Manchester – and is on the expansion trail following a £3.45m injection of funding from Foresight Group.
Mowgli’s first restaurant is located on Bold Street, a street made up predominantly of independent shops and restaurants, although Katona admits that she had originally wanted to open in the city’s Liverpool One development where there is more footfall. The Bold Street site was the only premises she could afford at the time, but it turned out to be a serendipitous move with Mowgli becoming an instant hit.
“Bold Street is a gritty, authentic dining experience and it set the tone for us,” she recalls. “We went there out of necessity, but it was the best thing we could have done.”
The second Mowgli opened in Manchester but Katona returned to Liverpool for her third restaurant, to open in the Corn Exchange area of the city. Katona believes that the fact that Liverpool can sustain two Mowglis within a 15 minute walk of each other is a sign of the city’s growing food culture. She also says that, as a restaurateur, success in Liverpool can lead to success elsewhere.
“The food scene [in Liverpool] is trailblazing. Liverpool is no longer seen as a hinterland. What’s amazing is that people can be brutal and speak their mind, but if you can survive in this city, you can survive anywhere in the country.”
A varied city
For restaurateurs looking to expand in the north of the country, there’s a lot going for Liverpool, according to Ted Schama, partner at property Agent Shelley Sandzer. With an estimated population of around 500,000 within the city centre, growing to over two million when taking in nearby surrounding areas, it is a compelling place for a restaurant business, he says.
“Liverpool has a number of international headquarters, a strong hotel and tourism industry and high dwelling numbers in the city centre – not all of the big cities outside of London have such a strong collection of all of those factors. It’s a really serious, powerful city on all fronts.”
Being home to two large Premier League football clubs, as Liverpool is, should also not be underestimated, he adds. “If you are a restaurateur, this drives an enormous amount of business.”
Schama points to areas such as Bold Street, with its mixture of brands and independents, as becoming increasingly desirable and offering good value for money. Here, he says, average rents sit at around £30 per sq ft. “It is more affordable and a realistic option for independents looking to gain a foothold.”
That said, parts of Liverpool are more expensive, with some brands even paying prices approaching that in London in Liverpool One.
“Liverpool One is the obvious place as it has huge footfall and it’s glitzy and glamorous. When you build something new it becomes extremely magnetic and people want to go and be seen there. It has prime retail and a large Odeon. Cinema goers are excellent in converting to restaurant sales at times throughout the day and night. The big brands have gravitated towards there.”
These include Bill’s, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Las Iguanas and Nando’s, with operators paying an average of around £45 per sq ft, says Schama. However, Five Guys’ entrance into the scheme has broken the mould somewhat, with the US burger giant believed to be paying around £75 per sq ft for its site, according to Schama. “You’re talking about London rents here. It’s not a typical Liverpool rent – it’s pretty steep.”
The city’s Albert Dock area, meanwhile, is described as sitting between Bold Street and Liverpool One in terms of rents. An increasingly attractive area thanks to its recent and ongoing regeneration, Schama says anchors including the Tate, The Beatles Story and the International Slavery Museum make it a high footfall location, albeit one likely to have seasonal trade.
In the dock
The tourist attractions within Albert Dock – as well as its proximity to the Echo Arena and the BT Convention Centre – were partly the reason behind the decision to make it the location for the first Rosa’s Thai restaurant away from the capital.
Rosa’s has 12 sites in London, and co-founder Alex Moore says it was a crucial decision about where to go next. Ultimately, it was the feel of Liverpool that swung it for him.
“I like the place, it’s friendly and has got great character. In London I chose areas I liked and that were up and coming, and [Albert Dock] had that feeling when I got here. The area has a great buzz. I came a year ago and was blown away with the scene here.”
“Another prerequisite is to have good neighbours and an ecosystem, and I instantly had that feeling for the place. Liking it is a good start.”
Moore says that the regeneration of Albert Dock has centred on bringing new and diverse players to the area following a review of the brands (including two Costas) that were already there. This view is supported by Chris Wright, portfolio manager at Aberdeen Standard Investments, who has overseen the Albert Dock development.
“Rosa’s Thai Cafe marks the first phase in our long-term plan to reinvent Albert Dock with an eclectic offering of restaurants, retail and leisure that Liverpool locals will want to visit regularly,” he says. “Liverpool’s restaurant scene is thriving at the moment and shows no signs of slowing down. Rosa’s Thai Cafe will be a first for the city and knowing how much the people of Liverpool love to try new concepts and flavours, we are confident it will be a huge success.”
Another compelling reason behind choosing Liverpool was its strong Asian community, with the city home to the oldest Chinese community in the UK, according to Moore. Its Chinatown is also a good source of ingredients for Rosa’s.
The pull of the Premier League was another key factor. Liverpool FC has a huge Thai fan base (its Liverpool Thailand Fanclub Facebook page has more than a million followers) and the city is a popular tourist destination for Thais. “Various tour guides have told me that when Thai people come to Liverpool they like to eat Thai food. Hearing things like that is important to us.”
Moore says that the plan is to create a hub of northern restaurants, with Liverpool as its centre, to justify the large leap northwards. “There is no sense in having 12 restaurants in one place and just one in another. The idea was to pick a location and expand by clusters.” The company is looking at sites within a 45 minute drive from Liverpool, with three or four on the cards.
Welcome to the neighbourhood
Chef and restaurateur Gary Usher is already building a cluster of his neighbourhood bistros in the Merseyside area. His Burnt Truffle restaurant opened in Heswall on the Wirral in 2016 and last year he took a more city-centre location, just off Bold Street, to open Wreckfish.
Unlike Moore, Usher says he was beguiled by the building rather than the area in his decision to come to Liverpool, but like Katona has since realised the opportunities that being in the independent-friendly area of the city has brought to the business.
“My friend took me to see the building and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I’ve since found out that where we are is an up-and-coming area, which I didn’t notice at the time. I didn’t have much of a plan.”
Liverpool has so far proved a hit. “We could end the year with an amount of money that maybe I could use to open a new restaurant with. Whereas before with my neighbourhood bistros there’s no big pot of money in the bank at the end, which is why I tend to crowdfund them.”
Wreckfish’s all-day trade has encouraged Usher to look at more central locations for future projects, with plans for a Manchester location on the cards. “At half past eight in the morning [Wreckfish] is full. If I opened Sticky Walnut (Usher’s first restaurant, in Chester) in the morning it wouldn’t be. We want to expand and make some money as well and maybe it’s better to be nearer the city centre. I know it sounds obvious.”
Usher isn’t abandoning his tactic of moving into more out-of-the-way locations, however. He is currently crowdfunding to open Pinion in the town of Prescot, some eight miles east of Liverpool city centre, which he says will be a community-led, neighbourhood-style bistro.
It’s not without its challenges, as Usher freely admits, but he shares the view of others that the Liverpool area is ripe for regeneration. “There’s not much going on [in Prescot] at the moment, particularly on the high street. I went for an evening and after 3pm I didn’t see anyone walk past the restaurant. But I did a bit of filming there and spoke to a lot of the locals and there’s a real sense of pride in the area – it needs a few bits and pieces to get it back to where it needs to be.
“It could be suicide from a business point of view and it’s hard to visualise making much money but I’d really like to put a restaurant where there isn’t one at the moment and build it. If it is used by the local community it will be nice to be involved in.”
This feature uses comments from speakers at Restaurant’s latest R200 UK city conference and study tour, held last month at Camp & Furnace in Liverpool. For more information about the R200 Club and its forthcoming events, email email@example.com