We speak to the council, chosen operator Steve Pilling and the Foodie Friday objectors

FIVE months ago, Stockport Council chose Steven Pilling as the preferred operator for their new Produce Hall. Their aim is to turn the grade II-listed building and neighbouring units into a buzzing food and drink destination on the same lines of Altrincham Market and the Mackie Mayor in Manchester.

The Heaton Moor-based businessman plans to create a casual dining hub incorporating a mix of permanent food and drink outlets, along with a rotating selection of guest pop-ups and street food traders. There will also be space for private hire, a programme of live music and ‘immersive theatre’.  

Much of the investment for this project, a rumoured £500,000, will come from the public purse.

Pilling predicts the new-look Produce Hall could be open by the end of September 2018.​

Plans for Stockport’s Produce Hall are just part of a £7 million transformation of the town’s Market Place and a ‘Rediscovering the Underbanks area’ initiative, which in turn is a fraction of a wider £1 billion investment programme. The town’s excellent transport links make it ripe for development and investment.

An announcement on Stockport Council’s website, following the results of the selection process, concluded that Mr Pilling’s submissions were ‘built upon a strong financial foundation and wealth of proven success, giving the Council confidence that the plans will be both transformational, successful and financially sustainable for the future.’

171122 Produce Hall Stockport
There has been controversy over the contract to overhaul Stockport's Produce Hall

Pilling has amassed over three decades of hospitality experience, having set up and run the now closed Damson restaurants, Sam’s Chop House and Athenaeum in Manchester city centre, La Cantina and Roost in Heaton Moor, as well as the Dockyard ‘industrial chic alehouses’ in Spinningfields and MediaCity, plus the Gasworks Brewbar on First Street. 

He is also co-owner of new pub group, Pilling & Pride, who are behind Didsbury’s Dog and Partridge and Stonemasons in Timperley. It is assumed that many of the permanent food and drink outlets in the Produce Hall will be based along the lines of Pilling’s current venues.

20171122 Steve Pilling
Stockport Council chose Stockport businessman Steve Pilling as the preferred operator

However, the council’s decision has caused much controversy since it was announced last November.

One of the unsuccessful bidders, the Barratt family, who are behind Stockport’s successful monthly street food event, Foodie Friday, has requested that the council offer a more detailed breakdown of the decision making process. They argue that transparency would end any ambiguity and have even launched a petition entitled ‘Stockport Council: Be transparent. Reveal the deal with Steve Pilling for The Produce Hall’, and are actively canvassing the public to sign.

The council obviously went to visit Steve Pilling's businesses, but they then rejected our invitation to visit Foodie Friday

During a full council meeting in January 2018, Stockport’s Mayor seemed to shut down a debate about plans for the Produce Hall because it was of a “commercially sensitive” nature.

We got in touch with Stockport Council to ask what progress was being made and to ask for a response in regard to the petition.

Caroline Simpson, Corporate Director for Place, put out a rather generic statement, saying: “The Market Place is a key feature of Stockport Council’s plans for the town centre regeneration. The Produce Hall and 28/29 Market Place will play a significant role in drawing visitors in to shop, relax and enjoy the unique charm and character of Stockport's beautiful historic core.

“Exciting plans for the Produce Hall are being developed and we’ll be announcing them in the next few weeks. Along the Underbanks area, we’ll be restoring the current buildings to their former glory. A range of activities and events is being planned for the next five years and the whole area will be much improved with the investment in place.”

Not much to go off there.

Stockport Foodie Friday
The team behind Stockport's Foodie Friday events have raised objections

Steve Pilling tells us he is surprised to have found himself at the centre of an apparent storm. 

“It was a pretty straightforward tender,” he told us, “and we were lucky enough to be the ones chosen to be part of the regeneration of Stockport. Everything we do there will all be Stockport-centric from the designers, to the contractors through to everything else.”

He explained a little more about the community aspect, which was a huge part of his bid. Pilling has previously worked with Salford council to regenerate the area in conjunction with communities and schools doing socially responsible projects involving hospitality training.

He said: “My social projects partner Noel (chef Noel Goulding, who helps guide local disadvantaged youths into hospitality positions) and I have always had a very strong social link with all sorts of things going back to the mid-1990’s. I worked with Salford Consortium for underprivileged kids, where we had an 80% success rate."

The irony is that they’re burning their bridges...

“In Stockport, we’ll be running a hospitality passport for teenagers as they go through their journey of work experience in the Produce Hall and the neighbouring café project. It’s a pre-apprenticeship scheme to help give them a carousel of experience to find out if they like working in hospitality.

“We’ll be working with homeless projects to introduce a healthy eating initiative and we’ve also scoped out the possibility of working with wounded veterans to get them back into working within hospitality.

“Eventually, I’d love to be able to take some of the Stockport traders to some of the fantastic European markets, to help open their eyes, so they can up their game. A lot of our profits are going to be ploughed back in to keep things going.”

Dockyard 1920X1080
Pilling owns the Dockyards in Spinningfields and MediaCityUK

However, speaking to Confidential, Joe Barratt from the Foodie Friday team expressed his concerns. He said: 

"We feel that it wasn't the professional procurement process that we were promised. The Produce Hall has been a market for over 150 years, it's a public building so all bidders must be treated equally and deserve a greater degree of transparency.

"The council obviously went to visit Steve Pilling's businesses, but they then rejected our invitation to visit Foodie Friday in a professional capacity and meet our delivery partners.

"The crux of it is that we still haven't had any feedback about our application, including how we actually scored against the other bidders, which we were promised. We put a lot of time and effort into crafting a financially robust business case, so it's really disappointing that the process hasn't been fair, equal and transparent. 

"All we want is as much information as Stockport Council can reveal in terms of local economy, especially if they're expecting to lose money."

I guess everything will pan out in the end...

So what does Pilling have to say about the response from the Foodie Friday team? 

“The irony is that they’re burning their bridges," he told us. "If they’d have been more open minded, we would have liked to work together, but they’ve made a tactical mistake running around accusing people of corruption and malpractice, which is unbelievable really.

“In the final analysis, everyone put their tenders into the council and we won," he continued. "As it happens, the benefits for Stockport will actually outweigh any possible investment in terms of training, employment, community spirit. I guess everything will pan out in the end.”

Pilling predicts that ‘with a fair wind’ the new-look Produce Hall could be open by the end of September 2018.