It’s Monday afternoon and as the main lunchtime trade dies away, Malcolm Leary is doing his best to whip up some business. Outside the butchers unit he runs in Leeds Kirkgate Market, he’s shouting out the latest offers to anyone willing to listen. Today it’s half price pork chops. Tomorrow it might be burgers or sausages, but there will always be bargains to be had. “Everyone likes to feel like they’ve got a good deal,” says Malcolm, who opened the butchers with his uncle some 30-odd years ago.
“When we first started there was a real rhythm to the working week. Tuesdays and Thursdays were market days and then Saturday was when you got the real crowds. Those peaks and troughs are gone. People don’t shop like they used to. Now it’s pretty steady right throughout the week.”
Other things are changing too. The market, which first opened its doors back in 1857 in response to the growing demand for food halls, is undergoing a major renovation costing some £13m. The first phase, which is due to be completed next month, will see the market’s existing butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers move into a revamped trading space. The hope is that the development will attract a raft of other businesses from speciality cheesemakers to artisan bakers, turning the market into a bit of an upmarket foodie hub.
“We will still have the lamb chops and the braising steak that our regulars want, but it’s also a chance for us to do something a little bit different,” says Malcolm. “The new unit is much, much bigger, so we will be able to sell a bigger range of speciality burgers and sausages, we’ll be able to stock game in season and we will have a fully stocked deli.
“This isn’t us completely changing what we do, but it is a new chapter and that has to be a good thing. You know, all our staff began as Saturday boys and they’ve been with us for years. Our customers like the fact that they see the same faces week in week out, but we also have to move with the times. Plans to breathe a bit of new life into the market have been talked about for a long, long time and it’s just great that we are all now moving in the right direction.”
Kirkgate, which lays claim to being the biggest indoor market in Europe, was recently named Britain’s favourite at the Great British Market Awards. The plaudit couldn’t have come at a better time for the traders. While everyone recognises the Victorian architecture is historically important, in recent years the market has suffered from a bit of an identity crisis.
“When I first began trading 27 years ago, as well as the food stalls, the market was where you came if you wanted to cheap clothes and household goods,” says Stephen Myers, who runs a fishmongers business next to Malcolm’s butchers shop. “These were the days before Primark and discount shops like we know them today just didn’t exist. Retail changed massively, but the market stayed the same. This isn’t just a chance to get all these great food businesses in one area, it’s also a chance to attract a different type of customer.”
Stephen means the type of customer who shops at John Lewis, which is due to open its first department store in the city in September. Just a stone’s throw from the market, if Leeds City Council gets it right there is no reason why those buying Orla Keily tableware shouldn’t stop off to buy their dinner at stalls run by the likes of Stephen and Malcolm.
“If you look at somewhere like Borough Market in London, that’s what Leeds needs,” says Stephen. “It’s a real destination. People go there to shop, but they also go there for something to drink and eat. There’s no reason why we can’t do that here. When I first opened, probably the most exotic fish I sold was salmon, but people’s tastes have changed and we’ve all had to move to reflect those. Now fresh tuna and sea bass sit alongside the smoked haddock and I honestly believe that there is an untapped market out there. We just need to get them through the doors.”
The most recent figures show that nine million people visit the market each year. However, if Kirkgate can capitalise on the John Lewis effect, not only should that figure rise, but the amount each of those customers spends should also increase.
One of the newest businesses to open is Tarbett’s Fishmongers, the brainchild of Liam Tarbett, who began working on a fish stall while at university in the city. He realised that there was money to be had in selling high quality produce, not just to individuals, but also to Leeds’s burgeoning restaurant scene. It’s two and a half years since Tarbett’s began trading and he now regularly supplies to 40-plus restaurants.
“I studied for a degree in media, but when I graduated there wasn’t much work around and that’s when I got the idea for a fishmongers,” he says. “Some people would have said it was a bit of a risk because there were already a number of well-established fish businesses in the market, but if I hadn’t have thought there was room for us all I wouldn’t have gone ahead.”
Since the main redevelopment work began in June, Liam has had to move from his stall, which was modelled on a French boutique, and into a temporary unit. However, trade has remained brisk, so much so that seven months ago Liam opened his first shop just a few miles up the road in Chapel Allerton. He knows that a few people think the move is a back-up plan in case the new-look market doesn’t take off. Far from it, he says.
“North Leeds, with its large Jewish population, is a good fit for what we do, but there’s no way I would leave the market. This is a core part of the business and the redevelopment is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. Leeds is a thriving place and it has developed a real city living culture. At the moment we don’t get as many office workers stopping off to buy their tea here and we don’t attract as many of those who live in the city centre apartments as we should.
“Some of that is about image, they don’t see the market as being somewhere for them, but some simply don’t know we are here. We are never going to be the cheapest fishmongers on the block, but from the reaction we’ve had so far there is a definite appetite for what we are doing. People not only want to be able to buy a piece of fish, but they want to ask your advice about how to cook it, what it goes well with. It’s the kind of service you rarely get in a supermarket and if you treat your customers right, they will keep coming back.”
Over the last 160 years, Kirkgate market has witnessed many chapters in its long history, from being the base for the Ministry of Food during the Second World War to the major redevelopment of the 1970s, in part the result of a fire which swept through place just a few days before Christmas 1975. Each new decade has brought challenges and opportunities for the traders of Kirkgate and the successful ones have learnt a few lessons on the way.
“We are part of people’s family,” adds Stephen. “We have seen their children grow up, we have shared the good times – and the bad – with them. That’s what makes this place special.”
• Leeds City Council is keen to introduce homemade pies, speciality cheeses, organic produce, artisan breads, wine and beer, homemade chocolates, smoothies and patisseries to Kirkgate Market. Council officers will be holding information sessions on Monday, February 15, from 5.15-6.30pm and Wednesday, February 17, from 7.15-9pm. Places are limited but can be booked via kirk1.eventbrite.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Those who can’t make either session, but would like to find out more can call 0113 378 1950 or email email@example.com