We talk to Mital Morar about his plans, the neighbourhood and new wave corner shops

Britain was at one time referred to as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, a moniker we took pride in. All the popular soap operas feature a corner shop set where characters come to gossip and shoot the breeze over a packet of hob nobs. 

Despite the rise of supermarkets, hypermarkets and online grocery shopping, resulting in the demise of the local high street, the corner shop seems to have, in most part, survived. Is it because humans are somehow pre-programmed to forget at least one damn thing on the big shop, or are they fighting back in some way?

Let’s keep changing people’s perceptions of what a corner shop should be

We caught up with Mital Morar, the brains behind Greater Manchester’s contemporary ‘convenience stores and more’ in Ancoats, Castlefield and Salford, as he begins work on his upcoming Stretford Foodhall, to discover what he’s doing differently and why it seems to be working.

When does Stretford Foodhall open?

MM – “It’s looking like March or April, although we still have quite a bit of work to do. It took a bit of time to negotiate the deal, but work has now started on site. It’s a big old unit to play around with. We’re excited.”

How did it come to be?

MM – “Ancoats General Store is coming up to three years old and the model is working well, so it was a no-brainer to extend the idea into an interesting suburb, which has a genuine community, for them to use and enjoy. Lots of pubs have closed down, so we want to create a place with a bit of atmosphere.” 

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A mix of convenience store, bar, coffeeshop and street food hub, Ancoats General Store has proved a hit since opening in 2016

Why Stretford?

MM – “The clientele are there, but they don’t currently have much in the area and probably have to travel to Urmston, Altrincham or the city centre. I see an opportunity to engage with people who will support us. If we opened in Didsbury or Chorlton, we might get lost amongst all the other stuff that’s going on. The local feedback has already been phenomenal, which is testament to the support that’s there already. With The Mall on the decline, there’s a big opportunity to give the place a go again.”

You have a captive audience in Ancoats though, mostly young professionals with a disposal income. Is an upmarket corner shop what Stretford needs?

MM – “We might come across as premium with some products, but we sell a huge range of everyday products to everyday people. We just do that in an environment that may feel a bit quirky and we complement all of that with some amazing niche products. But I’m just as happy to sell Fosters and Carling against Cloudwater and other local premium craft beers. So disposable income may be one thing, but in terms of what we sell, it’s everyday stuff and I love that. That’s retailing for me.”

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Stretford Foodhall opens at The Mall (next to PureGym) later this year

Are you expecting to attract the same type of customer?

MM – “We’ll have a different demographic, but that’s exciting. We’ll be talking to families and a ‘real’ community, dare I say, as opposed to Ancoats, which is new and emerging and youthful. I think we’ll be dealing with people who are already part of a settled community, who would engage and be a part of what we’ll be doing in Stretford and that excites me really. Retailing is what I grew up with, in my mum and dad’s corner shop in East Manchester, where lots of people used to hang out and have a quick chat and I think Stretford is right for that.”

What can we expect from Stretford Foodhall?

MM - “Everything that Ancoats does and more really. We’ve got 6000 square feet of space and the idea is for half of it to be dedicated to a convenience store and the other half will be a social space with fifty seats, selling coffee, beer, soft drinks, and there’ll even be a florist. 

"We’re going to build a blank kitchen with rotating street food vendors and the idea is for the two areas to work together like they do in Ancoats. I expect we’ll have lots of families coming in, so there’ll be quite a few daytime activities, workshops and things we’re putting together at the moment. A lot of people are offering suggestions, which is brilliant because we’re already starting to engage with people and bring the whole thing together.”

Mital Morar Ancoats General Stretford Foodhall
Mital Morar: "It’s one thing putting exciting products on the shelf, but really we’re talking about meeting spaces"

Aren’t corner shops generally in decline?

MM - “If you look at Altrincham and certain suburbs that are still striving and pushing forward, it’s because they have a great mix of things going on. Expectations have changed and everyone needs to evolve. People have started going online to buy, so retailers need to start giving people something they can’t get online, and offer more than a one-stop shop. We’re talking about social interaction and spending time in a place, which starts with the community. It’s one thing putting exciting products on the shelf, but really we’re talking about meeting spaces where you spend an hour or two rather than ten minutes and that gives us an opportunity.”

What have corner shops got that supermarkets don’t?

MM – “It’s whitewashed retailing. Yes, supermarkets are busy and people use them, but they’re boring places. We’re a nation of shopkeepers and this backbone is in danger of being lost. So this is a step by me to stand up for the fact that people still need to get out, to interact and be social and it’s a big smash of ideas that keeps on evolving.”

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'Stretford Foodhall will be everything Ancoats does and more'

In a nutshell, what are your stores all about?

MM – “We still have people discovering us in Ancoats, and it’s great to see the look on their faces as they sit down with a beer and wonder what’s going on here with a DJ in the same place they get their groceries. I was unloading the van outside the shop the other day and I overheard these two lads saying, ‘have you been in there? You know they’ve got a bar in the shop, it’s mental.’ And I thought, yeah, let’s keep changing people’s perceptions of what a corner shop should be.”

Stretford Foodhall will open at Stretford Mall (next to PureGym) later this year (probably March or April).