On the market
Like many towns up and down the country, Doncaster in South Yorkshire has a long relationship with markets, which have been the focal point of the town since its creation. There’s the Corn Exchange indoor market alongside an outdoor equivalent, and a covered food market with fishmongers and butchers well represented.
There’s also the Wool Market, which became a backwater as trade continued to fall over the years. Despite its size and central location, it seemed to drop off the radar and became merely a memory from my childhood, a time when it thronged with people on market day.
With people largely gone from the Wool Market and other parts of the town centre, the council tried to address the issue by introducing a raft of measures including a complete overhaul of the market itself. Its Victorian riveted beams are now striking, while new glass sides and chrome ventilation and extractor systems accommodate the market’s crucial component – independent food and drink operators.
Under the guidance of former Doncaster Council chief executive Jo Miller, the town is one of seven UK authorities to have invested a combined £37m in 2017-18 to revive food markets as a way of boosting high streets and town centres. Councils are using foodservice to create destinations that bring people together and regenerate the community spirit towns have, to some extent, lost.
A healthy level of trade was building noticeably when I visited the Wool Market recently one late Saturday afternoon. Although food markets and food halls – selling goods for consumption on the premises – are becoming a feature in major cities around the UK, they are undoubtedly more of a novelty in smaller towns. However, there’s little question they are an attractive addition to any town centre.
This year’s relaunch of the Wool Market followed another catalyst for change in the town – the opening of Clam & Cork in the fish market two years ago. Self-trained chef Michael Price had travelled the world eating in Michelin-starred restaurants and believed Doncaster town centre could support a high quality but informal food proposition. He took a wet fish stand, placed stools around the counter, installed cooking equipment and started offering ultra-fresh seafood dishes.
Although Price has since left to run the well-respected Gourmet Kitchen supper club on the edge of town, this year Clam & Cork became the town’s first entry in the Good Food Guide. Passing by the stand on my visit, I spotted all the stools had gone but a tent housing tables had been erected next door, with diners enjoying quality food and a relaxed vibe.
Price told me there’s a ridiculous misconception that people in towns outside London have “limited disposable income”. He said the fact Clam & Cork sold “loads of lobsters at £25 for a half” suggested that view was misguided, while prices in Doncaster were “such good value compared with the capital, people can feel rich with only a modest amount of cash to spend”.
Value prices also relate to rent and rates and Price said business models that wouldn’t stack up in London could be economically viable in other places. He said: “Lots of restaurants are open only four days a week and turn the tables on a Friday and Saturday night. You don’t need to be packed all the time for it to work.”
With food markets leading the way, let’s hope we’re seeing a renaissance in those UK town centres that have lost their community feel – and we all know food and drink is the best antidote.
Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.