Manchester’s Indie Supermarkets Are More Important Than Ever

The big ASDA, the small Sainsbury’s, the LIDL bakery and the mind bending alternate universe that is the ALDI middle aisle. Supermarkets, for better or worse, are intrinsically always going to be part of our culture. Their sprawling convenience, competitive pricing and three quid meal deals a surefire way to convince us back through their automatic doors time and again.

But away from the strip lighting, Gala Pie and chicken satay laden deli counters and those rogue American sections where all the sweets and snacks are priced a couple of quid higher than they have any right to be, there are the independents – smaller in stature but exponentially bigger in community spirit and importance – who are continuing to help the city through one of the most traumatic periods in history.

Manchester is fortunate enough to have been blessed with a litany of indie supermarkets and delis populating the city centre and suburbs, making fraught times that little bit more manageable. And local communities have been beyond appreciative for their services.

Whether it’s the bare necessities of bread and toilet roll, a basket full of baked goods and booze or exotic ingredients that are nowhere near the radar of even the biggest of big ASDA’s, the city’s Indies have you more than covered. And they don’t come with the grim, dystopian ‘queuing for an hour in the rain to claim the last tin of spaghetti hoops’ vibes that have accompanied so many trips to Tesco and Sainsbury’s over the last 10 months.

From Fruit and Veg to Craft Casks and Natty Wines…

“It’s certainly a challenge, predicting what’s next and having to adapt on short notice has been difficult. But we’ve found ways to combat it, we’ve added on delivery services and set up our website for takeaways, so it’s been positive in a lot of ways.”

As Operations Manager for Store Retail Group, Alex Rice knows all too well the minefield of uncertainty that has had to be navigated since March of 2020, with General Store on Ancoats and Stretford Food Hall traversing the shit show masterfully, with the Ancoats pillar a particular bastion of city centre community, keeping countless apartment dwelling residents fed, watered and sane during quarantine.

General Store has been a godsend for the residents of Ancoats and beyond over the past 10 months

“The emphasis on shopping local and supporting local independents has been huge. Where we are with our six stores across Manchester, in Ancoats, Sale, Stretford and a few that people don’t necessarily associate with our brands such as Moss Side, Salford and Castlefield, they are all based within areas that have a real community spirit.

“Ancoats, obviously there’s a huge, huge demographic of people round there, a very broad spectrum of people, whether it’s those who live in the apartments behind the store or in Miles Platting, all the way to the Etihad and the customers we’ve had in have just been amazing.

“Obviously we’ve had the same issues a few places have had where people have had to queue outside but everyone’s been so supportive. It’s been so great to see communities band together and support local businesses.

In 2021, General Store, not content with their sterling reputation as an East Manchester cornucopia, are now levelling up after partnering with carnivorous queenpins Meatco to offer up an absurdly premium steak selection, while also collaborating with healthy bev connoisseurs Le Social Wine on natural wine offerings, even hinting that their own label may be on the way. And if top tier, local steak and natty wine pairings aren’t enough to entice you through the doors of General’s physical or online store, we don’t know what is.

Across town, Chorlton Co-op Unicorn Grocery is entering it’s 25th year of serving the south Manchester suburb fresh, wholesome, organic produce. For a quarter of a century Unicorn have been cultivating stronger connections between their food, its producers, and everyone who eats it. It’s this level of dedication, knowledge, passion and care that has seen the worker’s co-operative scoop the 2019 Manchester Food & Drink Festival Retailer of The Year award along with the Radio 4 Food and Farming Awards Best Food Retailer gong in 2017.

The team at Unicorn’s fresh produce game is next level. Image: @unicorngrocery

But even with almost three decades of trade and prizes under their ethically sourced belts, Unicorn have found the going tough as they entered uncharted waters during the Covid-19 pandemic, having to rethink and reshape the way they operate, as Co-Operative Grocer Kellie Bubble explained.

“It’s been fairly challenging and has shone a light on our strengths and weaknesses big time.

“We were over capacity before, so limiting customer numbers led to big queues so we made a few changes to help with this including opening Mondays, making a bit more space on the shop floor to help with the flow and making sure there was an ease to shopping for those who were high risk or vulnerable. 

“We are pretty proud of our response, it was quick, we put in robust measures and we have kept our practices consistent.  We have had some beautiful feedback from our customers.”

Not only are Unicorn experts in sourcing superior produce, their phenomenal team are always on hand to offer any advice or help that is needed when it comes to preparation and putting their ingredients to their best use. And, with over two hundred different cereals, pulses, grains, flours, nuts, dried fruits and spices packed in Unicorn’s small production facility attached to the shop, you’re more than likely to need a few pointers when it comes to recipe ideas.

Oh, and if Börek pastries, fresh falafel and Middle Eastern wraps are your bag, Unicorn have got you covered thanks to their hook up with the outrageously gifted Ottomen, with Black Cat Bakery laying on the flapjacks and brownies while some of the finest samosas and bhajis in the North West are available from  the award-winning Lily’s in Ashton.

Beyond The Bright Lights of Chinatown…

For many of us over the last 10 months, experimentation has become a focal point of our home cooking, ever since we lost our rags on a failed Sourdough starter or tired of banana bread. Chances are, the hastily put together ‘world food’ sections of the mainstream supermarkets will only get you so far. An extra couple of interesting looking hot sauces and a few flatbread variations aren’t going to cut it. You need the real stuff. You want to go native if that Mapo Tofu is going to slap as hard as it really needs to. So where do you go when you’re in desperate need of Sichuan peppercorns? What about properly fermented kimchi to sit alongside that Korean fried chicken you’ve been dying to perfect? Or can you not rest until your cupboard is stocked with Indonesian shrimp paste, banana sauce and a packet of tea plant mushrooms?

Trust me when I tell you, Manchester more than has you covered for establishments where this sort of fare is completely commonplace.

Wing Yip, while not exclusive to the city (the Chinese wholesalers also have sites in Birmingham, Croydon and Cricklewood) has achieved a cult status over the years, with it’s faux temple roof of terracotta and emerald green looming large over Oldham Road. Inside it’s cavernous walls you immediately realise you are not in fucking Kansas any more. Beancurd as far as the eye can see. Dumplings, Matcha and Jasmine Teas piled sky high and a thousand different chilli oils and pastes peak your curiosity at every turn. Fucking hell, how many types of Sriracha are there? Of course, for Manchester’s Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese communities in particular, a saunter round Wing Yip is a regular, uneventful occurrence. But for the city’s wider population it’s a more immersive and diverse experience when compared to the monotonous routine of the ASDA big shop or the emergency dash to Tesco Express. You can’t help but feel wonderfully liberated by the amount of choice here. Maybe you will pick your own live lobster to take home from the tank in the back, after all, you think as you excitedly try to decide between five spice beef jerky and Korean Kimchi crackers (just sling both in your basket).

The sheer scale of choice is enough to swipe the energy from your legs and cause you to need a sit down, right there in the midst of the vermicelli section. Where to even begin with it all? The Wing Yip experience is as exhilarating as it is terrifying. And it is this exact feeling as to why Manchester’s Chinese supermarket scene is so vital to the city. Whether it be Wing Yip or smaller scaled alternatives such as Faulkner St’s Wing Fat or George St duo Woo Sang and Hang Won Hong. One step inside and for all you know, outside lies Shanghai or Beijing. You immediately become immersed in the products and atmosphere that a simple chain supermarket will never be able to replicate. And you also realise you need to try ALL the Kit Kat flavours the Asian market has to offer.

But the Asian supermarket experience isn’t strictly Chinese in Manchester, with Ca Phe Viet‘s grocery offering up a sublime little selection of Vietnamese goods while you wait for your Banh Mi and Cà Phê Dá to take away. Elsewhere, the legendary Siam Smiles isn’t only serving up perhaps the best Thai food in the city, but is also stocked to the gills with South East Asian delicacies to fill your kitchen with. Meanwhile, Oseyo on Oxford Road holds it down for anyone looking for a Korean fix of hot pepper japchae dumplings with a side of K-Pop.

Desperate Times Call For Delicious Measures…

Local relationships between traders have been developed for years and years, but are now more vital than ever, providing custom when it otherwise would have been lost. Portuguese tart aficionados Just Natas, unfazed by a reduced footfall in their newfound Arndale Market location, have found homes for their flaky custard delights via Federal’s al fresco Altrincham Market digs, Cuckoo’s constantly swamped hatch in Prestwich and at the aforementioned General Stores and Stretford Foodhall. Likewise, sandwich alchemists SanSan have sent crowds flocking to The Crooked Man in Prestwich, a godsend for the North Manchester pub when substantial meals were in short supply and a bombastic new delivery option for the M25 area. And did I mention Shindigger now have Rudy’s bake-at-home options to sit alongside their cavalcade of craft goodness? Well they have and it’s perhaps the finest partnership since someone introduced crisps to sandwiches.

This level of camaraderie doesn’t exist between multi billion pound supermarket chains. The ‘little guy’ doesn’t exist to them. You peruse the wine aisle or fruit and veg section of your nearest ASDA or Tesco and any attention you receive will likely be from a horrendously overworked shelf stacker, replenishing stocks for the fourteenth time that day while weaving in and out of fraught customers at as close to two metres distance as they possibly can do. You’ll then either self serve your way out of the store or be greeted by a shattered checkout assistant for whom customers have become a procession of blurs.

The personal touches aren’t there, mainly because there’s no time for them to be. The volume of the task at hand is simply too enormous. You’re only in-store because home delivery and click-and-collect are booked solid for the next three weeks. You’ve a nagging suspicion that everything you’ve laid your hands on is laced with Covid and you just want to get the fuck out of dodge.

Now transport yourself to a local neighbourhood co-operative, corner shop or maybe a deli such as Salvi’s or Barbakan. Yes, the staff are just as exhausted, but their job isn’t simply to get you in and out of the shop, it’s to help, whether it’s with product knowledge or even a touch of friendly counselling as you extol the myriad of stresses that you’ve attempted to traverse prior to your visit that day. That sense that someone’s listening hits home a little harder because you know the owners of these establishments are dealing with interminable uncertainty every day regarding the livelihoods of themselves and their staff. That cannoli collection you depart Salvi’s with means a whole lot more than dropping a quid on a couple of apple turnovers at Tesco. It’s rent. It’s wages. It’s utility bills. It’s local charm and character. It’s community.

Do yourselves and your neighbours a favour and, wherever and whenever possible, keep it local and keep it independent.

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