Changes at the Grainger: What next for Newcastle’s famous and iconic Grainger Market?

Alongside Grey Street, the Theatre Royal and Grey’s Monument, the Grainger Market is an essential part of the historic Grainger Town that makes Newcastle’s historic core so special.

Opened in 1835, the market was originally separated into a open-plan vegetable market and a series of aisles for butchers and other traders selling meat.

Grade 1 listed, the market has evolved constantly and in recent years a rash of trendy food shops has brought younger and more affluent customers to the market to give it a new lease of life.

Now the market stands again at a crossroads, with plans mooted by Newcastle City Council’s proposal to outsource management of the site to a third party to see if more can be made of the city centre site.

Last month, the council held a ‘sounding event’, inviting experienced market and retail management companies, market and retail consultants and current stallholder groups to share ideas on how to drive the market’s future.

Last year the 180-year-old market welcomed 6.5m visitors – 124,000 people every week – and it hass held a special place in the hearts of Newcastle shoppers and visitors who pop in for buttons and light bulbs just as much as they do for artisan bread and gourmet bangers, for decades.

But these are tough times on the High Street, no more keenly felt than in recent weeks with the demise of Maplins, Toys R Us and Grainger Games – the last of which actually started out in the market before going nationwide.

So, with one eye on the current troubles of the retail sector and the other on this brilliant and bustling market’s future, the council have been holding discussions to see if an outside private company, a one-man consultant or even a group of traders could take up the reins and manage it.

Could it work? Outside investment and management has certainly helped other markets.

Marketplace Europe, which organises Continental Markets in Newcastle was enlisted to take over the day-to-day running of Market Harbrough and Stockport markets, managing all the business aspects including operations, trader management, marketing and promotion, but the councils have since taken them back.

Focussing on food has been claimed to be a winner in other covered markets, including Kirkgate Market in Leeds, which says it has 400,000 additional visitors last year through monthly foodie night openings, and at Altrincham’s Market House in Cheshire – but that came at a cost with the banishment of traditional market stalls into more of a restaurant feel.

Grainger has more than its fair share of foodie stalls, with a 40/60 food to non-food split among its 100-plus traders – including quality hot food stalls like La Petite Creperie, Slice, The Fez, Meat:Stack and the forthcoming Al Baik, and international and artisan food producers like La Casa, Pet Lamb Patisserie and Rise.

But making the market entirely food-focused offers risks says retail consultant Graham Soult, as it could completely alienateits core audience:

“I first came to Newcastle in 1998 and since then the market has been gently modernised”, says Graham.

“It’s brought in those higher-end, more diverse uses that has attracted new people and done that without scaring away all the people who look to go in for their chunk of meat or fruit and veg. What’s lovely about it now is that it works as a whole.

“People would have thought that these butchers and fruit and veg stalls were old fashioned but all of these things now, local provenance and so on, are so important, to everyone.

“The council certainly isn’t showing any signs of washing its hands of the market – it has invested too much in it.

“It seems to be simply asking the question: ‘Are there partners out there who can help us do things even better and even faster?’, and if that’s the case while keeping ownership it’s clearly a good thing.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would mess with a winning formula and boot out retailers people have liked to see there for years or put up the rent.

“There are countless examples of markets being the birthplace of some of our biggest retailers, for example the M&S penny bazaar. M&S started out in a very similar indoor market in Leeds.

“It’s not the best example now as it failed for other reasons, but until recently Grainger Games was a hugely successful business which grew to 60 stores from its Grainger Market stall. Mmm and Glug have also expanded into their own large shop after starting in the market.

“It’s an important hatchery for businesses that make them grow and take space on the high street later. That’s more important than ever now. If you look at the high street now growth is coming from independents and the big names are retracting – it’s all about the independents doing things on the high street we can’t get anywhere else.”

The last few years have seen newer businesses – more often than not with a food-slant – move in alongside the long-serving fruit vendors, fishmongers and butchers, and they’ve been welcomed by the traders. Keeping the mix right, however, is must for anyone looking to run the market, says trader Nick Robinson.

Nick, owner of Robinsons Pet Store. which has been a popular fixture in the market for almost 100 years, can see advantages in outsourcing management, but fears rent rises are inevitable.

He said: “A management company will want to make a profit and the council will want something back because it’s an asset to them – and that has to come from somewhere, and the only way really is to increase rent or applying service charges. I can see both sides, and a management company would have to put effort into it to justify any ways to make money.

“At the moment we have had surveyors and property people who have run it, and it’s not always translated. At the moment the mix is all wrong. There should be just 20-25% of food stalls in a market like this.

“I don’t have a problem with having more high-end businesses in the market – as long as there’s a mix and more for customes to have a choice. We want people in the market who have money and always want people with limited means, we want both ends of the spectrum and people in the middle to come in.

“It’s all about the mix and if we have too many food uses they will risk hurting each other because there’s not enough to go round.”

If anyone is enlisted to run the market, they can expect traders to hand them a shopping list of requests – queries submitted by several traders at the March sounding event included requests to install glass doors to make it warmer and to improve lighting, decor and toilets, plus suggestions to make it a dog-friendly market and stage cinema screenings and more evening festivals.

They are part of the way there with getting more evening events in the diary. Earlier this year the council secured a licence to allow for more one-off events to bring in more trade.

A Christmas shopping night and pop-up markets that intermittently appear have all proved popular but not all business owners take part – some butchers, for instance, will have been there since the early hours, so struggle to stay open for more than 12 hours? Not everyone is keen to make these regular occurences.

Mr Robinson said: “People won’t necessarily come into a night market to buy a bag of dog food. Also, if you make them regular events they aren’t special any more so fewer will come because they’ll just think: ‘We’ll miss this one and go to the next one’. We need to keep them special.”

John Philips is chairman of the Grainger Market traders group and owner of several units, including Oliver’s cafe, Urban Grill, Sloppy Joe’s and Colman’s Deli. He said the market is a great place to start a business, and to try out a business.

But he too has mixed feelings about late events and the potential for sunday openings.

“We could have more Boilershop-style events,” he said, “With all the fresh food stalls preparing tapas from their fish, sausages or cooked meats.

“As for Sunday openings, some traders start at 6am and work until 5pm, six days a week, so to open on a Sunday is difficult. Asking my members of staff to work on a Sunday when that’s the one day they have with their families doesn’t sit well with me.”

John believes the future of the market rests on everyone’s shoulders.

“Some people think it’s just the council’s responsibility to bring people into the market but it has to be a joint effort,” he said.

“Sometimes I don’t think they operate as efficiently as they could – units stay empty much longer than they should – but I think a lot of that is down to pressures at the council: more responsibilities and less time. And the people we deal with aren’t based at the market but are inspectors and so on, at the civic centre.

“I think we should have a manager, someone who could have fresh ideas. If we had a general manager who was responsible for going round the traders and ensuring they were doing things in the correct way, the market traders would feel they have closer contact.

“It’s also possible that a group of traders, maybe some of the newer ones, could say: ‘We feel we could run this market’.”

Fully in support of outsourcing, Graham says more operational changes should be made. It’s not about reinventing the wheel – it’s about making tweaks which can involve as many traders as possible, he says.

“Sometimes I have thought that the marketing and awareness of what’s happening there is a little underplayed. I think there’s scope to do more and really push the message out.

“It might be that they have more resources to do more marketing and operations in other places they manage and cross promote the Grainger Market – I can see how that would work.

“I know that there is a move to run evening and Sunday markets in recent months and that’s something I would like to see ramped up.

“As someone who doesn’t live in Newcastle I find it frustrating that when I do visit, on evenings and weekends, that the market is closed.

“It’s the nature of independent retailers – often it’s just one person and often have to work silly hours, but there has to be a way to make it work. If retailers want to be open they can do that. It just needs a critical mass to make it work.

“It’s one of the big things in retail – convenience. People want to shop when it suits them and I do worry that if the Grainger Market doesnot embrance all of the out-of-hours a little morec it’s missing oit on lots of people.

“I have a self-interest in the market being outsourced so it’s a good thing. My role is going in and working with local authorities. I appreciate the value of bringing in expertise.

“The thing is don’t lose the essence of what makes it fantastic in the first place.”

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