This new venture in Sheffield is the largest food hall in the North of England. Nina and her partner Matt Bigland have long been involved in the hospitality industry in the city. As the people behind the Milestone Group, they run and operate several businesses in the city, varying from the gastro pub, The Milestone, to the craft beer and pizza specialists, Craft & Dough.
However, their latest venture – a two-floor, 300 capacity food hall with twelve independent traders – was an undertaking like no other. The pair were inspired by overseas trips and seeing the relaxed style of dining taking place out there.
“When we went abroad to eat out we saw how communal people were when dining together,” Matt says. “There was this sense of coming together. Then you have the fact that maybe I fancy some Asian food and Nina might want a burger, it was about not being restricted to one cuisine.”
It was also about shifting the mood and tone of dining. Removing the formality – and in some instances stuffiness – of eating out, and making it more open.
“We have a three year-old,” says Nina. “And we wanted somewhere to eat that was less formal.” Matt adds: “we wanted casual dining but with the same quality of food.”
Next came finding a building. A search that went on for many months and almost ended in failure. “We looked at a lot of buildings and some of them were in really horrific condition,” Matt says.
“Also, trying to find out who owned them could be quite a nightmare. Seeing this building was the last throw of the dice. The guy we were using was like, ‘I’ve found another one’. We came in and walked upstairs and all the light was pouring in and we were just blown away, it was stunning.”
The building, as the name suggests was a former Cutlery Works. Today, the cleaned-up exposed brickwork, subtle lighting and relaxing music is a far cry from the state it was in just a few years ago. “There was an abandoned car in the building downstairs, there was trees growing in it, there was no roof,” says Matt. There are original features that remain: the giant windows that let light through to where people would have once been grinding the knives remain and in the floor you can still see the grooves from where the water would run out and straight into the Don.
The undertaking of the project financially was enough that if it failed, the consequences would be severe. “If it went wrong we were screwed, basically,” he says. “It was that much of a risk that I didn’t drink any alcohol for four months so that I could stay focused. I lost two belt sizes during the process. We had to nail this but now we’ve come out the other side and I can put some weight back on.”
The finished project is clearly a success and the pair both beam that it’s better than they could wish for. Now open for several weeks, it’s busy daily. Opening from 8am Wednesday-Sunday, it takes in morning coffee drinkers through to post-work drink outings. The 12 independent traders that make up Cutlery Works were carefully selected too. Even “stalked” Matt says of his hopes to convince Sheffield coffee roasters, Foundry, to open a second location. “It’s the best coffee in the city, easily.” The first person that signed up to the project was Bullion Chocolate, an award-winning bean to batch craft chocolate company. “His product and his branding is world class, he just needs to showcase it,” Nina says. “He’s launching a chocolate factory, he’s going to make it all downstairs. He’ll be the Willy Wonka of Sheffield.”
More companies followed. Some handpicked, others who expressed an interest, but all needing to pass the quality test with the pair. It was also key to make sure proper variety was offered. “We didn’t want to cannibalise on a particular brand either.
“We wanted each one to have a unique position to offer real variety in the building. Everyone has a bite of the same apple. It’s about getting the mix right. So we have Edo doing amazing sushi, Five Rivers doing Vietnamese food. Everyone is a specialist in what they do and stick to what they are doing – rather than everyone have a huge menu.”
The variety is indeed plentiful. There’s Indian street food, homemade pies, craft beer, vegan food, Italian street food, poutine and many others. Matt says this range of food represents the shifting trends and desires from the modern diner. “Sheffield has changed massively. It used to very much be, ‘I want meat and two veg and lots of it and extra gravy’. That’s what Sunday lunches were very much like at the Milestone. People now not only want diversity but they want regional cooking too. Downstairs we have Ma-Ba which is specific cooking from the Gujarat region of India.”
As well as offering a great deal of variety in the cuisine presented, the pair are also keen for this to be something that supports local independent business. “All the people here are independent. There’s no massive chains. It’s all independent businesses working together,” says Nina. Matt adds: “The aim is to showcase the talent of the people behind these stalls. A lot of them have their head down working and making these amazing products but promoting them and the likes is a full time job itself, so they aren’t able to broadcast fully what they are doing.”
Promoting independent Sheffield is also as important as working together with the pre-existing independents of Sheffield. Kelham Island has undergone huge transformations over the last decade. It’s gone from being known as a red light district to a thriving food and drink hub. Matt doesn’t see any of it as competition though. “Sheffield really massively supports independent businesses,” he says. “Having ran businesses in the past, sometimes you see bars and restaurants open nearby and you think ‘oh, no’ but actually your sales increase because more people are coming to the area and people like to circulate and move around. The opening weekend, the guy who runs the local pub, The Garder’s Rest, came in and said ‘thank you, that was amazing. We’ve had the best weekend ever’. That’s a local community pub and they came in to personally thank us and ask if it was going to continue to be that way because they might need to employ some extra staff.”
It’s also important for the pair that Cutlery Works remains as open and accessible to all as possible. Prices are kept at levels they believe to be affordable and reasonable, while dogs and children are welcome at all times.
“It’s not lost on the pair that as demand for hip food rises amongst some people, other people are struggling more than ever and so on New Year’s Eve they hosted a ticketed event with all proceeds going to the local food bank.
Despite the weight loss, no booze and potential financial ruin that Cutlery Works posed, Matt has no hesitations about taking on another similar project. “I’d like to do another one of these. The vibe is amazing. I see this as a way forward for dining. It’s casual but it’s amazing quality. You can come in either with trainers on and your dog, or come in dolled up. It works both ways.”