Emerging markets: street food booms as investors get the taste

A wintery midweek night in Manchester, and the tables are buzzing at Mackie Mayor with about 500 punters devouring Italian stone-baked pizzas, beef short-rib on toast and salted caramel chocolate brownies.

Once Europe’s largest fresh produce market, the building lay derelict for decades before finding a new life last autumn as a haven for foodies who dine communally at long tables set among ornate pillars under vaulted glass ceilings.

It’s not alone. Old tube stations, dilapidated market halls and empty shops are being revitalised by a new generation of food halls which combine the excitement of locally sourced street food with the finesse of top chefs. The UK, it seems, is taking a tip from Europe, and the premium food on offer in historic markets such as Barcelona’s Boqueria or Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel which have become tourist attractions in their own right.

In south London, Brixton and Tooting’s once down-at-heel covered markets are now buzzing with dozens of tiny eateries and bars which host tourists and locals alike.

Yorkshire pudding wraps, jerk chicken and monthly night openings helped attract 400,000 more visitors to the 161-year-old Kirkgate Market in Leeds last year and when Altrincham’s Market House in Cheshire chucked out the outsized pants and palstic buckets stalls in favour of foodie delights it brought in at least three times the number of visitors and well over £5m in sales last year. Altrincham’s success inspired its operators to open Mackie Mayor.

“People lust after spending time with other people in real time, eating, drinking, people watching – they always have and always will, we’re hard wired, it’s part of being human,” says co-owner Nick Johnson.

Now big investors are planning to dive in, bringing the once edgy hipster world of gourmet burgers and communal dining onto the UK’s premier high street, London’s Oxford Street.

At least 16 new food halls are planned in the capital alone, according to a report by property advisers Cushman & Wakefield, as landlords seek new ideas to rejuvenate town centres where traditional shops have lost their appeal.

Time Out Market, the operator of the Lisbon eatery which is now Portugal’s biggest tourist attraction, the street food operator London Union and Italy’s Eataly are vying to cash in on the trend with the start-up Market Halls, backed by property investors and restaurateur Simon Anderson.

It’s a new area of growth which comes just as casual dining chains, many of which rapidly expanded with the help of private equity money, face a crisis from rising costs and bored diners. Burger chain Byron, for example, last week announced up to 20 of its outlets were to close as part of a financial rescue plan.

Standing amid the dusty chandeliers, grafitti-strewn walls and gloomy black paint of a former tube station ticket hall in London’s Victoria (once the UK outpost of Ibiza’s famous Pacha nightclub), Anderson says the dodgy decor will soon be stripped away to reveal a vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.

By the summer it will host 14 kitchens and three bars, all independent local operators who currently run no more than a handful of outlets. It’s a far cry from shopping mall food courts where corporate behemoths such as Nando’s and Subway reign supreme.

Anderson says there’s now a thirst for variety as chefs and restaurateurs now have a fanbase much like pop stars, with people “wanting to try every new dish and go to every pop up”.

“Food has really changed its position in the psyche of the nation. It is much more important to people now and is the biggest area people spend on. Food is the new rock ‘n’roll and we are just providing the stage,” says Anderson.

Market Stalls is planning to open at least three food halls in London this year which combine communal dining areas with nearly 50 kitchens and eight bars between them. A further two in London and others outside the capital are also being considered.

The first to open in April will be a 10,000 sq ft site in the former Walham Green tube station in Fulham. Victoria is scheduled to open in the summer followed by a 36,000 sq ft temple to street food in part of the former BHS flagship store just off Oxford Street. A market with butchers, bakers and a cheesemonger on the ground floor will be topped off by two floors of dining.

The defunct store’s lighting and childrenswear departments will now host long dining tables served by several kitchens as well as a demo kitchen with charming views onto Cavendish Square.

Time Out is also looking at more than one site in London. The company, which opens its second establishment in Miami, Florida, this year and outlets in Chicago and Boston next year, is also hoping to open in a Victorian stable building opposite Spitalfields Market in east London.

The site is currently held up in a planning wrangle, but Julio Bruno, chief executive of Time Out Group, says it has at least two more sites under consideration in London and hopes to be operating in the capital soon.

“We are democratising fine dining. Some of the best known chefs in the country want to be part of this,” he says.

Bruno says foodie attractions are taking off as local councils and landlords realise they need to pull in punters with experiences as big retailers disappear.

“The thing that brings people together as a community is something like Time Out Market. Where else do you meet now if everybody is online?” he asks.

But Johnson says the Altrincham and Mackie Mayor recipe is not easily replicated by big companies or local councils. “The thing about corporates is they lust after – and will never achieve – a sense of authenticity and honesty. They want to create a narrative that simply doesn’t exist,” he says.

“All our vendors are passionate and independent. We are originators. It’s an antidote to brand mentality.”