We talk to Claire Woodier from New Smithfield Market Café, which is closing after 13 years
Food and drink markets are changing. Since the year dot, all over the world, they’ve been a central part of the community, with traders selling seasonal produce piled high to daily visitors.
But nowadays you’re more likely to find 'artisan markets' selling gluten free wheatgrass pizzas and quinoa kumquat salad than a place that'll do you a deal on a pound of pickling onions. But progress is popular. The seats at Mackie Mayor or Altrincham Market barely ever get cold thanks to the endless procession of warm bums constantly on them.
We’re ‘community’ and ‘Manchester’ at its best. We’re the worker bees
But does this 'progress' mean the end for more traditional produce markets, such as New Smithfield Market in Openshaw? It’s the largest wholesale market in the North West, occupying a 35 acre site and it's just two and a half miles from the city centre.
New Smithfield sells wholesale fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, operating overnight to serve buyers from catering firms, restaurants and grocers. In fact, not everyone knows this, but all produce is available to anyone willing to buy food by the box, sack or crate.
According to Claire Woodier, who has run the market café for the last thirteen years, ‘there are increasing empty units, and the weekly Sunday Car Boot Sale trade has halved.’ She suggests that ‘rising prices for pitches and entry are putting people off both trading and attending.’
Claire took over running the café from her ex mother-in-law who ran it before her, and opens every day from 2am (!) Monday – Saturday with 'a lie-in' on Sundays when they open at 6am.
They serve fresh home-cooked food to all the traders and visitors to the market. They know everyone. They know when Billy Cooper is in for his ham and onion butty on buttered crusts, which he pays for in exchange for empty mushroom boxes, which Claire’s team recycle to use for carrying brews. Her mother-in-law fed his dad, Georgie, before him.
They know when Ian’s in, who doesn’t want a lid on his milky Nescafe, but he wants it filled to the brim so he doesn’t get diddled, and he wants it ‘really fucking hot.’ ‘He always walks away spilling scalding hot coffee while Justine who served him shouts ‘burn ya bastard’ at him. Same thing, every day,’ says Claire.
‘We source our fresh produce from our traders, making sure we support each other’, she adds. ‘These people work their bollocks off in all weathers,’ Claire tells us. ‘They do it with humour, resilience and a great deal of whinging. We listen, ply them with bacon butties and caffeinated beverages and sometimes tell them to shut the fuck up.’
But after all these years, Claire’s Market Café is closing. Rent and service charges have recently been more than doubled and they cannot continue. ‘Wednesday 31st July will be our last day,’ says Claire. ‘We’re heartbroken. I am so incredibly proud of our little place. Claire’s Market Cafe on New Smithfield Market is a place to ‘have a warm’ by hugging the dishwasher, get amazing coffee and a tirade of abuse from our Justine.
‘I’d hate for us to disappear. It's a privilege to be part of such a brilliant group of people who look after each other, work bloody hard, and do it with a smile on their face. We’re ‘community’ and ‘Manchester’ at its best. We’re the worker bees. The place and the people get under your skin.’
Is there anything they can do?
‘We need the council to make a good decision,’ says Claire. ‘We are in a fading industrial area, but we can socially enrich Manchester if someone looked outside the remits of their job description and somehow allowed corporate entities to help public sector issues. Low income families could become informed enough to club together with their neighbours to come and buy a 4kg bag of onions for £1.50, a 10kg bag of basic carrots for £2, £4 for a 10kg bag of spuds.’
She has other ideas. ‘There could be cookery classes to teach families how to make freezable dinners that their kids might eat, and make their pound go further. Bring families and communities together to save money? Yes please Mr Politician we’ll vote for you.’
Claire talks about the ways in which traditional markets could help young adults coming out of the care system between education and employment. ‘They could spend time working placements, learning skills; how to get out of bed on time, the value of money, experience male mentorship.’ (Statistically young males have spent the majority of their formative years around female influencers due to being part of single parent families). ‘We’ll work you hard,’ she continues, ‘but you’ll feel like you’re part of something; a very large, loud and potty-mouthed family.’
She continues; ‘you could bus in the old folks for a good hearty lunch at really reasonable prices. Bring school kids in to teach them about different fruits and vegetables. We need to be embraced by the council for providing a service to hard-working people who contribute to our economy. The market could give more back to the locality in return. Let us do more.’
One last word from Claire before she closes the door on her café, 'I’d like to thank everyone who came through our doors. We love you.'
We contacted Manchester City Council for a response and a spokesman said:
“The New Smithfield Market is a vibrant and well used community asset, but, in order for it to remain within the community, Manchester City Council has to ensure it is economically viable.
For several years Claire’s of Smithfield has been supported by receiving a discounted rate of rent and charges within the market. Following a recent review of charges at the market by property consultants Jacobs, in order to keep the market running, the council is no longer in a position to provide subsidies to commercial businesses.
We have endeavoured to find a solution for this business to remain in the market. This has included support of a supper club and help in generating new business ideas, and an offer to increase rent in smaller increments over a period of three years.
Sadly these efforts have not been successful.
The success of the market and the traders who use it is of great importance to the council and we will continue to work to ensure it remains a viable focal point for the community in East Manchester.”