Manchester’s expanding creative and digital sectors are a magnet for new restaurants, bars and craft coffee houses. Ashley Lopez of Department of Coffee and Social Affairs explains why they chose Manchester for their latest site.

There is a feel-good factor in Manchester and the explosion in jobs and population – up 20% during 2006-16 – is reflected by growth in its hospitality offering. There’s no doubt the city loves its coffee. Thom Hetherington of Northern Restaurant & Bar, the region’s hospitality trade authority, explains, “Manchester has always had a coffee shop culture. People are becoming more demanding when visiting coffee houses. The Northern Quarter has been the main turf although business district Spinningfields, the upmarket shopping area around Deansgate and nearby Salford are all seeing a boom.” The latest to snap up the potential is Department of Coffee and Social Affairs. With 11 branches in and around London – and a site in Bristol – CEO Ashley Lopez explains why heading north was the right next move. “Manchester has great history, great culture and great people,” she says. “It’s a cool place where people really care about the quality of their food and drink. It’s exactly the kind of place where we want to be doing business.” Its new branch, on the ground floor of a city-centre office block, couldn’t be better positioned. It’s just a street away from green spot Piccadilly Gardens – a popular hang-out – and in the heart of a bustling office district with massive footfall. At almost 3,000 square feet and with seating for 120, it ought to feel big, but doesn’t. The space has been divided into regular seating areas, a lounge nook with comfy sofas and a large, airy co-working space, which Lopez refers to as the White Space. The White Space is what differentiates Department of Coffee and Social Affairs from its competition in both London and the north. Manchester’s creative and tech industries have spawned an army of freelancers and start-ups who work in cafes and hog the tables, to the annoyance of staff and customers.

According to Lopez, the members-only White Space brings those two worlds together, offering an affordable co-working space without people having to leave their desk to order coffee. “None of our London branches are big enough to provide co-working spaces, but our research confirmed Manchester was the city to offer this opportunity for workers who don’t have the budget for office space,” says Lopez. “People love coming into a coffee shop to work, but the members-only aspect means we can provide better Wi-Fi, access to printers, discounted coffee and food, table service and meeting rooms.” On the challenge of expanding north, Lopez says, “We recognised that, coming out of London, we are new to the city and that we had to earn people’s trust and respect. We made dozens of trips here for reconnaissance, getting to know the area and being flexible about where to base ourselves. We walked the city, getting a feel for the vibe, so we could be sure, and gathered everyone’s perspectives. We wanted premises big enough to hold the White Space, and proximity to the tram was really important.”

What tips would Lopez offer to other coffee shops looking to head north?  “Each coffee shop is unique to its environment. Understand what’s going on in the area and get to know the specific culture. You need to be flexible and willing to adjust when you need to – just because you did it one way in London, or elsewhere, doesn’t mean it’ll work the same way in the north. We had an agent on the ground because you can’t just think, ‘This area looks pretty’. Doing your research is important. You have to know your competition and anticipate who your regular customer base will be. You have to dig in and do your due diligence. We had a lot of discussions, but it was a unanimous decision that Manchester was the right city to get into in the north. Coffee shops here are really focused on serving great coffee.” Lopez’s comments are supported by Hetherington’s experience of the Manchester coffee scene. “Growth here is driven by local independents with discerning customers, rather than London coffee shops looking to expand northwards,” he says. “They are raising the bar in Manchester and London-based companies need to be aware of this.” Buying locally, rather than centralising suppliers, is another key factor Lopez believes is crucial. “Our manager in Manchester has sourced local suppliers for all our fruit and veg,” she says. “When you’re new to an area, it’s important to buy locally, giving more business to other businesses in your area.  The only difference is that we have a particular way of roasting our coffee so we are still doing that in London and they send supplies up twice a week.” She confirms that she is already on the hunt for more sites in Manchester, with a view to potentially expanding into other northern cities. “Manchester is big enough for it and the demand is there. We’d like to be a staple here.”

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs Faulkner House,
New York Street, Manchester M1 4DY

Copyright Boughton’s Coffee House