Eat the City: Are we at ‘peak food’ or are we just seeing the start of a new urban revolution?

15th May 2017

Are we at ‘peak food’ or are we just seeing the start of a new urban revolution?

What part is food and drink playing in the ongoing renaissance across downtown Manchester? A recent CitySession debate hosted by Manchester’s Business Improvement District (BID) and CityCo, at Harvey Nichols, started to explore these and other questions.

A couple of decades ago, the talk was all about the ‘creative city’ and the role that the arts, design industries, and everything from coding to performance art could play in transforming the fortunes of our towns and cities.

Every urban revivalist had a copy of Richard Florida’s latest tome under their arm. Fast-forward to today, and that very same creative sector now represents over 10% of the urban economy in England. It’s flourishing.

More recently, and as Nesta pointed out a couple of years ago, food innovation looks like it’s setting a similar trend. At the mass-market end of the spectrum there is a raft of new restaurant and bar openings every week in our cities, which have transformed the landscape and kept footfall growing on the high streets of England.

At the more complex and intriguing end of the equation are urban farming projects, ‘real junk food’ kitchens combating food waste and agile food delivery networks that criss-cross our cities on bikes and mopeds with cool bags strapped to backs.

There’s even a new buzzword bingo you can play: eclectic, craft, pop-ups, street food, fusion, sushi burritos, deconstructed and, of course, artisanal. Apparently the hipsters have much to answer for in this particular arena; not least sending the price of quinoa spiraling out of the reach of your average Lima resident.

We seem to be in a new urban age where food is the flavour of the month and we are in an endless pursuit of the novel, of the new, of a concept.

“What worries me is that food retail is still obsessed with the notion of concepts. I detest concepts. The real thrill should be the everyday nature of food, of it being part of our regular existence.”

Altrincham Market’s ‘Head Honcho’ Nick Johnson told a recent audience in Harvey Nichols’ restaurant that after he’d written a university dissertation about how to get people back into the city, and spent two decades at Urban Splash making it happen, his ‘Market Operations’ venture is his most genuine and heartfelt contribution to our urban future.

And it’s not a concept.

“I’d kill anyone who says that Altrincham Market is a great concept. It’s anything but a concept. Concepts are irrelevant and what we do is honest, deep-rooted and completely relevant.”

Authenticity, relevance, ubiquity and urban systems were all themes that bubbled up throughout our recent CitySession event on food, drink and the future of the city.

Chaired by food writer Tony Naylor, and alongside Nick Johnson, the audience heard from a panel that featured Mowgli’s founder Nisha Katona, Harvey Nichol Manchester’s Store Director Iain Mackenzie and Professor Kevin Ward, director of the Manchester Urban Institute, part of the University of Manchester.

The conversation ranged from big picture reflections on how global cities were now seeing a ‘browsing and grazing’ symbiosis, with shopping areas and centres across the world doubling the floorspace they dedicate to food, to the detail of how it can be tough (but rewarding) to get an innovative food operation up and running.

“In India there’s no such thing as restaurants,” said Mowgli’s Nisha Katona, as she described how for her, street food she’d experienced right across the world represented the most natural way for eating to be a visceral and critical part of the urban experience.

“It also needs to be affordable,” she continued. “You should be able to eat out of the home at least two or three times a week. Good food has to be something for all of us.”

The democracy of street food and its accessibility are all part of the brand built by Nisha, one that’s now in high demand from developers and landlords looking to add some gustatory ‘cool’ to their offer.

“My vision was always informed by how Indians eat on their streets and so that preys on my mind even when we consider places to go into. I’d never get dressed up to go out to eat. I prefer something grittier, something more open. Give me two and half thousand square feet next to some cool neighbours, and I can make it work.”

Even if Mowgli is seen as an irresistible addition to any development’s portfolio of brands, Nisha has had her challenges with landlords; from poor signage, to over-equipped ventilation systems; but at the end of it all she’s adamant that it’s the food that will drive footfall, if you’re on your game.

“You’re only as good as your last dish, and it’s not your landlord’s responsibility to drive customers to your door,” she said. “I don’t believe the world owes you a living as a restaurateur.”

The proposition that headed the CitySession was that this pull-factor of great food and drink brands like Mowgli was to a large part the key ingredient in delivering an urban renaissance and that, alongside a much improved cultural scene, food and drink was bringing people back into the city, and as a result, a retail recovery was underway.

The manager of Harvey Nichols gently challenged this idea that food was solely bringing people back into our cities and throwing a lifeline to a retail sector that’s struggling to tread the waters of a ‘click and buy’ world.

“Food, drink and retail are totally linked,” said Iain McKenzie. “But if there were no shops, would people still come into the city to drink? I doubt it. People are still coming out and shopping in stores in city centres because it’s not just about the guttural activity of purchase for them, it’s a leisure activity, just like having something great to eat.”

His comments pulled out a thread of conversation around the wider urban experience and how the thing that city dwellers and city visitors are looking for, is authenticity.

“If you look around the world, it’s diverse cities like Manchester that are well placed to make the most of a genuine desire for authenticity,” commented Kevin Ward. “There are 150 languages spoken in Manchester, with a long history of people coming from all over the world to live and work here.”

Extending that global footprint to an incredibly diverse mix of food and drink opportunities was part of the success story. “The city’s not a transaction, it’s an experience,” he said, “an ecosystem.”

Authenticity was critical for Nisha, too: “You come across as a weird hippy if you start talking about provenance,” she said, “but it works.”

Inevitably in a conversation that will echo parallel discourses around music, art and fashion, there loomed the question of whether a food scene of true distinctiveness can in any way actually be ‘created’, or whether you simply have to establish the pre-conditions for it.

“I’m sceptical of one organisation such as a city council being able deliver from the top down an urban renaissance,” said Kevin. “It’s sometimes more about getting out of the way. You want someone to have a vision and fight for the city but the city is made by us, as citizens. It’s shaped by our ideas.”

“You can however create better preconditions for independence,” he urged. “Earthy, edgy urban experiences can be nurtured and it can’t only be financially attractive for large brands.”

“If it’s brave [the city] will be sometimes ready to say ‘no’.”

According to Nick Johnson, this conscious subjectivity amongst the key players across the city is only just emerging. In spite of the fact that Manchester has cast itself as the original modern city, according to Nick we’re still “adolescent”. He says, “We still have great challenges to come. We don’t know what we are about to become.”

Urging places and cities to ‘rip up’ the Town and Country Planning Act as outmoded, Nick believes that it is time to talk about the ‘curation of place’.

“I sat on the Local Enterprise Partnership as Chair of Marketing Manchester and was a CABE commissioner. I kept banging on about the importance of good design and working with great designers and architects. I realised if I was honest with myself it wasn’t about design, it was about what people do in those buildings I created.”

“As a developer you are largely inert. You don’t get to control what people do in the spaces you create. That’s curation of place. Nobody’s got to grips with it. It’s incredibly subjective.”

“The great thing about Altrincham Market is that we can say ‘I’m sorry, you’re not very good’ and then reshape our offer by taking poorer performing operators out of play. We have been able to have an element of selection around people we thought were very good,” he said.

Iain McKenzie also thinks the journey has only really just started, but turned the gaze away from food and drink and to the rest of the city; it’s transport, it’s economy.

“There are an enormous and wide variety of restaurants in the city but it feels to me now like the city has enough, perhaps,” he said.

“We’re not London yet, we don’t really have a 24/7 economy. The trams don’t run all night. We’ve got to the point now where I think we’re going to start getting more of the same. Is there really enough business to go around, for yet more restaurants?”

“Are we at peak food?” he challenged.

Mowgli’s founder Nisha Katona feels there is still room for more players, more brands and more great places for people to go, and for an existing enterprise, the more the merrier.

“I don’t see competition as competition,” she said.

“If you’ve got other good food operators around you, that can only be a good thing. We’re niche and there’s room for more of us in any food hub. Competition is a sharpener for you.”

“If I can’t excel and can’t compete, I can’t reach into the future,” she said.

For Nick Johnson, citing food and drink as the ‘new rock and roll’ for cities, we’re actually just playing catch up. We’re rebuilding our identity, turning away from the cloning of towns, and are just starting to see a return. It’s a journey that he says could take 100 years, but at least we’ve begun.

“Elsewhere in the world food’s always been part of every day experience but in the UK we’ve only really discovered this in the last decade,” he said.

“It’s exciting, where this might be heading. Places were beginning to look the same. Everywhere looked like everywhere else. Now we’re starting to challenge that and places are asserting their own identity and food is a great way to do it.”

In Manchester’s downtown, the resurgence of what’s called F&B, or food and beverage, has been a considerable force in our improved prospects for prosperity, overseen by Manchester’s Business Improvement District.

In the ‘shoulder hours’ from 5pm to 8pm we’ve finally seen city centre footfall growing on average by 3% each year, above the national average. In the last twelve months that growth has been even more pronounced, with a 6% growth in footfall after working hours compared to the year before; a phenomenal result given that a few years ago there would be a wholesale depopulation of the city centre after the peal of the factory whistle.

Experts also think there’s an environmental dividend, too. Academics at the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute have shown that there is potential for mass-catering in cafés and restaurants to generate less food waste and energy use than all of us beavering away at home cooking each and every meal from scratch.

According to government figures there are over 1.5 million people working in restaurants, contributing £25bn to the economy. The sector is growing by over 10% each year and in some areas it’s genuinely booming, with 25% year-on-year growth.

It’s been called an, ‘unlikely boom’ but it is genuine, sustained and happening here.

Author: Steve Connor, co-founder and CEO of Creative Concern