The city is abuzz with excitement as we move into the next step in the roadmap
Not since the Industrial Age has Manchester's bee emblem been so apt.
If you venture out into town, or even further afield, you can't help but notice the buzz. The city centre is a hive of activity and everyone is as busy as bees getting ready for Monday. Can I squeeze in a reference to honey here? Ok I'll stop, you get the idea.
In pubs, bars and restaurants throughout Manchester, the energy is palpable.
We all need remember how to socialise again. We all need to learn relearn essential skills, like how to handle our booze
One thing to remember is that although the 12 April date has been floating around for a while, it was only confirmed by Boris Johnson last week, meaning venues have been in limbo until a very few days ago. So while the excitement in the hospitality scene is off the scale, stress levels are also way up there as owners and staff try to get everything just right for the big reopening. Worries about deliveries and new furniture, as well as making sure the outdoor space follows all the regulations, are amping up the pressure.
Storm in an ex-Teacup
Thomas Street in the Northern Quarter - which along with Stevenson Square and Edge Street, has to have the densest population of licensed premises in the city - is the scene of some of the most intense preparations. Last summer, when the road was closed off and businesses were allowed to set up tables and chairs in the outside space, it was deemed such a success that the council have moved further along with their plans to pedestrianise the area.
This time around some of the bar owners are worried about street works that might prevent them from putting out tables and chairs. An annoyance in normal times, but lethal when you are banking on a surge of customers for your outside space to kick-start your business.
I check in with Jobe Ferguson, director of The Bay Horse, Cane & Grain and Crazy Pedro’s, as well as part of the team opening the Smithfield Social at the old Teacup site. He told me: “Today's been a crazy day, everybody's trying to get organised, ready for next week. It's a total hub of activity, that's for sure. If you look out on Edge Street, Thomas Street, everyone's out measuring everything, getting geared up, deliveries of booze are arriving. It's the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s quite a momentous day."
I asked him about the works outside his business, which are for a cycle lane.
"I was really worried, to say the least, because it was supposed to be done by yesterday. There wasn't a single person to be seen. We thought, 'This isn't happening’. It was just a mess outside. Today, the guys turned up, then they got super-organised and tarmacked this half of the road. Everyone was getting a bit twitchy about it. It didn't look like it was going to be done at all and now it’s a nice, new, pothole-free road. It'd be nice for it to be known sooner, so we didn't have to worry but I’m pretty happy, to be honest."
Jobe tells me that although the cycle lane has been causing worry in the short-term, overall he is satisfied with how the proposed pedestrianisation of the Northern Quarter is making the area even better for people and businesses.
"I can't knock it because the cycle lane was always going to happen. It's been in the pipeline for two years, apparently. It's a segment on the street, down to Wolf at the Door. The cycle lane isn't going to be in operation until it's all done, so we can still use part of the cycle lane for outdoor furniture until then and even after that we will still have three metres of road. That's three metres more than we were going to have when we started planning this, so we are pretty satisfied."
What the council are doing?
Almost every bar I talked to mentioned how helpful the council had been. In order to aid the restaurants and bars that can reopen on Monday, the council have waived the cost of a table and chairs licence (sometimes called a pavement licence) and streamlined the application process so that businesses get their applications granted more quickly than usual. A boon when the hospitality has had to mobilise so rapidly.
Jon-Connor Lyons, the councillor for Piccadilly Ward, said:
“No businesses are paying for their tables and chairs application costs - which in normal times will be paid by businesses. That’s being paid for by Manchester Council. The businesses on the street should really be commended for their investment in making a really nice space for people to come and enjoy themselves.
“The council are supporting around 100 pavement permits for 12 April and there will be naturally more to come after that. Businesses and the council have been working on to 12 April, but it's only very recently that the national government said go ahead."
Jon-Connor Lyons continued: “This time around, given the erratic weather, the City Centre Recovery Board [has] approved the use of canopies and gazebos, which previously weren't approved, and also semi-permanent structures such as wooden structures. We saw during the summer that businesses were really willing to invest in the space that they were given and we want to see that continue because it just makes the experience so much better for all involved. That shared ownership is really beneficial.”
Around a hundred extra licenses have been granted, which would usually cost over £300 per business, meaning £30,000 in revenue that the council have not collected in a time when every penny counts. The council consider it worth it, to help revive an industry that is one of the most affected by the year or so of restrictions and is crucial to the economy and, less tangibly, the spirit of the city.
Besides the input from the council, CityCo, which works on behalf of businesses in the city, has commissioned a deep clean of the retail district. This means that street furniture and bins are being sanitised with an anti-viral foam treatment, followed by a 100-degree steam clean. Retail areas will then be cleaned every 48 hours as we come out of lockdown.
Over in Spinningfields, new structures aren't top of the list. The Oast House has always been a go-to destination for relaxing outdoors eating and drinking so they were in a better position than most when the confirmation came. The structures already there provide most of the coverage needed, though a few extra umbrellas have arrived.
Instead, preparations are focused on capturing the excitement most people are feeling. There are some fun branded cups, reading "My First Pint in 2021", that are destined to end up in a museum one day (if they survive the drinking that is). The idea is to commemorate a happy moment after months of less-than-happy moments. "This lockdown has been the toughest yet," the Oast House's Jack Jolly tells me. "We are super-excited to be open. We've got walk-in space every day and a healthy number of bookings. We've never had a history of bookable tables which is why we remain committed to allowing walk-ins."
As well as the souvenir cups, the bar is launching the AirOast Trolley to deliver Aperol spritzes to socially distanced tables. The cabin-crew style theme will hopefully alleviate the pain most of us feel at not being able to go on holiday this year.
The energy in manchester today was pure electric - everyone buzzing about reopening - seeing old faces - people being around people for the first time in months - anxiety excitement energy - see you all Monday 🤗
— Almost Famous EATS (@FamousEats) April 9, 2021
The European influence
While in the city centre, bars and pubs are focused on maximising every precious square inch of outdoor space, out in Hale Barns that's not a problem for San Carlo Fiorentina. Its generous garden is being transformed into a restaurant space with an "Il giardino di Aprile" theme. The trees are being festooned with flowers and, while they can't guarantee Italian weather, a huge marquee means every cover will stay dry whatever the skies decide to do.
But even a slick operation like the San Carlo group is racing to have everything ready. Three days before opening and managing director Marcello Distefano is still waiting for the heaters to arrive. "I started trying to organise it," he said "and after about six days I said 'This is not my area of expertise'. So I got Liz Taylor events management company to come get it all sorted for us. It does look spectacular. We are having a bit of fun with it and trying to recreate a real restaurant experience outside." The result is a drop-dead gorgeous space that is a world away from the chaotic energy of the Northern Quarter bars.
Up the road in Altrincham, more food and drink businesses are getting creative with outside space. While the area around the market has always had a reasonable footprint for outdoor dining, as soon as you move away from that hub it gets more difficult. On Stamford New Road, Wow Yau Chow has given its courtyard a complete makeover. Across the road, Spanish tapas bar Evuna has transformed an overlooked pocket of space outside the old Grafton Mall into a welcoming "Spanish terrace".
Jane Dowler from Evuna told me: “It’s only at the Altrincham branch that we have enough space outside to make it commercially viable at the moment, but Trafford Council have been amazing. It’s worth noting that the cost of purchasing outside equipment, including heaters and parasols, has been around £10k.
“We were hoping to be able to open outside at the Northern Quarter branch but unfortunately the pedestrianisation of Thomas Street is not complete. However, both Manchester City Council and CityCo have been really proactive in this initiative and we will be revealing plans for a Spanish terrace in the Northern Quarter very soon, so watch this space!”
These little nods towards European bars and weekend city breaks make me think that perhaps Manchester will finally have the means and the momentum to take inspiration from some of our continental cousins, who have always done outside dining so well. Shame we can't borrow the weather, but the will is definitely there.
Perhaps the feeling of exhilaration and anticipation for reopening is best conveyed by something Jobe Ferguson said:
"Monday is huge for hospitality. We've stuck with our staff, and we are super excited to have everybody back. Like, unbelievably excited. I think people just want to get out and see their friends and be able to catch up. I think we all need to remember how to socialise again. We all need to relearn essential skills - like how to handle our booze. But it’s going to be a lot of fun."