The South Manchester suburb is suddenly popping - but why?
“IF you build it they will come.”
That’s what one resident of Sale says to me when I spend an afternoon mooching about the centre of South Manchester’s most up-and-coming suburb. He is quoting a film of course (either Field of Dreams or Wayne’s World, he didn’t specify) but we aren’t talking about the cinema. Instead the hot topic is how suddenly Sale has become the dining destination du jour.
It's so exciting to be part of the regeneration of our wonderful town
We’re in the Stanley Square shopping centre which overnight has acquired a set of Caroline Dowsett murals; the frenetic, colourful artworks being a must-have for any developer with an appreciation for the urban arts. “They remind me of Keith Haring,” another shopper tells me. Outside, underneath blue skies, builders are frantically at work and the first of a slew of restaurant fit-outs - all copper and tiles and funky industrial light fittings - has begun.
We’ve written about Stanley Square’s reinvention before. Developers Altered Space invited designer Dave Sedgwick to spend a year working from a unit in the centre so he could observe how shoppers used the area and talk to people as they passed. His on-site studio also became an art gallery and held community events throughout the year. The whole area is in the process of getting a major glow-up, but it was important that it wasn't just a superficial change - the very nature of the area came in for a rethink.
While Sale has its share of heritage buildings (see the Town Hall) none of them are lying handily disused a la Altrincham's Market Hall. Instead, the developers decided, you don't need to borrow Victorian gravitas when you have 60s brutalism to work with. Luckily, restaurants agreed.
Sugo Pasta Kitchen made the news when it crowdfunded its third outpost in roughly 60 seconds, so keen were Sale dwellers to get their hands on its premium pasta. Then venerable veggie restaurant Greens made a splash when it announced it would be taking up a spot nearby. In the next few months, we can expect to see Altrincham’s Blanchflower, tapas bar Petisco, Ashby’s, Oystercatcher, family café Bean & Brush, Zumu Sushi, and Rum Bar Rum join Sale Foodhall and Roti as residents of the central shopping area.
Beyond the Square, Rudy’s, Mano a Bocca, Grapefruit and hip fish and chip shop Off The Hook are all recent or recent-ish additions that are flying the flag for dining options that give good aesthetic as well as tasty scran.
I ask one worker in a café why she thinks Sale is the next foodie hotspot. She rubs her fingers against her thumb in the international sign language for money. “I can’t afford to live here,” she says.
Sale has always been one of Greater Manchester’s more comfortably-off areas. Not as likely to make it into a Sunday supplement as Altrincham or Didsbury, it nevertheless has all the amenities which means house prices remain chunky. In fact, the mystery really is not, why now but why not earlier? Certainly, not everyone who lives here has the disposable income to go out often, but enough people do to make it worth a restaurant's time.
Alex Haigh puts it more matter-of-factly. “There's always been demand for South Manchester suburbs. The demographics here are great. The schools are great. The offer has never been very good.”
Ah yes, the “offer”. It’s not that there haven’t been good individual restaurants in Sale before. But rather that they haven’t been very close together (the popular Fat Loaf is all the way over in Ashton on Mersey) and have all targeted a very similar age bracket and demographic, namely older couples off for a celebratory meal.
Casual family dining was a bit of an afterthought until Mustard brought its friendly brand of Americana to the burbs. And indeed, with a dollop of outstanding state primary schools and access to the grammar system, it is no surprise that the area is extremely popular with families. The area was crying out for not just one particular type of restaurant but a whole new selection that worked together in concert – i.e. the “offer”.
Alex, as director of retail and leisure at Sixteen Real Estate, is assisting Altered Space with finding the right tenants for the units in Stanley Square. Having worked with restaurants in Ancoats and the Northern Quarter, he knew exactly the right mix of stylish independents needed to liven the area up without trying to replicate those city centre areas too slavishly.
Altered Space agreed with Alex and decided to look at getting the retail and leisure part of Sale sorted out before the residential scheme (traditionally, money-making residential gets the most attention). If Sale had the reputation of a suburban Ancoats, then the residential scheme would fly. If you build they will come, indeed.
At the vanguard of Sale’s hipper approach was Grapefruit Coffee, now beloved by commuters and anyone in need of a caffeinated pick-me-up. The tiny coffee spot occupies a cute shop above Sale’s tram station that owners Perry and Laetitia had had their eyes on for ages. Having worked in some of the city centre’s hipper coffee shops such as Siop Shop, they thought Sale was ready for a really great cup of coffee and they were keen to be centred in their own community. Grapefruit opened about two and half years ago, not ideal timing for a new business, but during lockdowns the handy hatch meant that residents of Sale were designing their daily exercise routes in order to pick up a coffee and one of Perry’s off-menu kimchi cheese toasties.
Although Altered Space's work on the area - begun way before the pandemic - was a twinkle in a bat’s eye, lockdowns and tiers have, perhaps unexpectedly, funnelled operators towards the area. In this age of data, one of the first things smart operators did was look at where most of their orders were originating from. According to Alex Haigh: “It made them realise the demand was there. They had the time to step back and look where their orders were coming from and they followed those numbers."
Alex agrees that what has perhaps not helped Sale in the past is the unusually large amount of supermarkets here, again attracted by those juicy demographics. As people drive to do their big shop, they are missing out on having a wander around and grabbing a lunch-to-go or trawling through a shop for a gift. Perhaps counter-intuitively, pedestrianisation hasn’t helped according to Alex, as the town centre then became “a dead zone after five o clock”. Not any longer as bars such as Dutch Courage and Draft open up.
The move away from bigger retailers drives a corresponding interest in independents and food shopping is no exception here either. Alex says: “We're targeting bakers, fishmongers, butchers. We spoke to local ones first but unless you are a new entry the cost of moving doesn’t stack up."
High street hits
Five years ago you might not have thought that the hot new thing on the high street would be a greengrocers, but Mital Morar’s reinvention of the corner shop has opened the door for seeing old high street favourites in a cool new light – and such is the case with Ashby’s Greengrocers, due to open in Stanley Square in a couple of weeks.
The brainchild of Ashley and Abbey, the traditional greengrocers will sell local organic produce wherever possible, smartly capitalising on lunchtime trade looking for a healthy option by selling salads, cold-pressed juices and daily soups. Waste will be low and plastic packaging will be eschewed wherever possible, important to local shoppers.
Ashley told me: “Abbey is a resident of Sale and used to work in the Square and I used to visit from London quite frequently. When I saw what was going on with the redevelopment of the square I knew I wanted to be a part of what was going on. I decided to enquire about a unit in the square, the estate agent was very forthcoming and said the business was exactly what the owners were looking for. After many months of hard work and getting the shop ready, we can safely say we are only a couple of weeks away from opening and we can’t wait.”
Even the operators who are not residents of Sale originally are just as likely to come from other South Manchester suburbs. Oystercatcher is a popular seafood restaurant in Chorlton; Blanchflower's first outpost is in Altrincham, wine merchants Cork of the North is as popular and knowledgable as its Heaton Moor sister shop, and Greens, of course, has been resident in Didsbury for over 20 years now. When we spoke to Ryan Singh of Roti, which started life in Chorlton, he said he would prefer to make a mini-empire in South Manchester, giving the city centre a swerve.
Of course, the influx of new operators is not good news for everyone. When Rudy’s opened during the pandemic, as the numbers predicted they did a roaring trade in takeaways. Not great news for the artisanal pizza takeaway Dough Project only a few doors down. The bigger brand seems to have muscled out the local independent as its social media hasn’t been updated for months.
Not every resident likes it either - a fact the Foodhall acknowledges, with some of the more spicy feedback it has had now in pride of place on the window. But most are welcoming of the changes. William Moxley, of Italian Mano a Bocca, tells us, "As both a resident and also business owner in Sale, it's so exciting to be part of the regeneration of our wonderful town."
So once Sale cements its reputation as a dining destination we can recommend exploring beyond Stanley Square. The Perfect Match gets a mention in the Michelin Guide and was adored by our reviewer. Amphora on Hope Road does cracking cakes while Delicia Deli does the best jerk chicken around.
It won't be long before we are back in Sale, but next time we will be eating and drinking our way this most intriguing of re-inventions. If you build it, after all, we will come.
We can expect the vast majority of the new operators to be opening throughout spring, with Petisco ready to open its doors at the end of this month.
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