Empty shop units in Chester cause understandable, quick-fire distress across social media. More recently, we’ve seen The Hat Place and Back Alley Music leave Northgate Street; two long-standing businesses. The eager anticipation for what they’d be replaced by didn’t last long. The new kids on the block have swiftly arrived. It seems that the demand for foodie businesses is thriving and we’re increasingly going online and away from the high street for physical products.
We’re interviewing Sweet Elements, a patisserie taking over the unit previously inhabited by The Hat Place this week. But first, we’re zooming in on Back Alley Music’s replacement – PicNic – a delightful medley of deli, café and wine bar from Matthew Morgan.
I meet up with Matt in Bean & Cole (we both consider it one of the best options for coffee and cake) to hear more about his venture.
‘I’m a local lad; I grew up in Tarporley. I worked in Oliver and Co solicitors, after my law degree for 8-9 years. It’s a great place with great people – some friends from there are actually helping me with PicNic. But I increasingly hated just sitting in an office quietly – it wasn’t for me.’
Matt’s background working in bars, restaurants and hotels led him to the possibility of starting his own business. ‘I wanted to do my own thing. Following a chat in Harkers about going for it, this site came up. It started a while ago; November 2017. I think the Northgate Development confused things for a while, but the Backalley Music guys decided to lease it to me – they’re my landlords.’
The Northgate Development is no doubt a hot topic for existing Northgate Street businesses and those considering moving in. For Matt, Storyhouse, a key part of the development, was a big draw. ‘Being just opposite it is perfect, as is the street itself. It’s the next one become something and a great opportunity. Look at Joseph Benjamin, Porta, Covino, Jaunty…you can see it building.’
Matt is keen to replicate his experiences during city breaks in Europe. ‘You go into these nice little cafes that stay open into the evening, offering fresh Mediterranean, simple dishes. You can have a glass of wine, have a coffee – it’s versatile; these relaxing spaces where people want to meet up and chat. We’ve got some cracking places here and great wine bars, but I wanted something that isn’t quite a wine bar or a café – something different, that can be everything.’
With such an all-round experience as the aim, I ask if any aspect, in particular, will take centre stage. ‘I want to incorporate everything, including the retail side. I’m going for a modern deli, light and not overwhelming, featuring interesting ingredients. I want to link it all together with the shop element- you can try and buy.’
Whitmore and White in Godstall Lane closed this year and left a gap in the city centre for a good quality deli. Matt has clearly put a lot of thought into how he can integrate PicNic into Chester and the local community. ‘I’ve just been to the Cheese Shop to talk about stocking their cheeses, and Francis Thomas the greengrocers, also Chris at Covino for the wine. I said to Chris, you can say no, but I know you supply Chef’s Table, which I love. If we can work together and help one another, why wouldn’t we?’
Independents supporting other independents – he’s certainly impressing us, and that’s before the doors are even open. ‘I’ve also been speaking to a local bakery, to see if we can use their bread. I’m hoping that I’m adding to these businesses, rather than taking away. I’d like to do events with them in the future. There’s more than enough space for all of us and they’ve all been lovely. I’ve also had a positive meeting with Storyhouse, seeing how we can work together.’
It seems smart business; firstly to have your supply chain on your doorstep, secondly to be a regular customer; having tried and tested the products for years, and thirdly to contribute a business to the local area, which immediately bolsters and shouts about its neighbours. All for one and one for all.
‘Our coffee is from Crosby in North Liverpool – we tried a lot, but really like their range. They have three different beans and are doing really well in the Merseyside area. We want to introduce them to Chester.’
Matt would love to open his dog-friendly business in time for Easter, but admits the week after is probably more likely. He doesn’t want to kick off before it’s completely ready. One thing’s for sure, PicNic will be in full swing before summer starts, and they’ll no doubt be a popular pitstop en route to Grosvenor Park and the Riverside. ‘It’s in the business plan to help people enjoy the park, local venues, nibbles with tickets and takeaway options. I also want to do deli boards for people to take home to dinner parties – all just ideas at the moment. Hopefully, the deli will evolve and keep on expanding – a lot of the Italian/Mediterranean food is long-lasting too.’
Above – the renovation underway!
He’s working hard on building the PicNic team, and keen to hear from anyone with personality. ‘We want people who want to grow with us and get excited. It’s going to be a relaxed place where you can have a laugh with customers. We’d like to bring the personal touch – get to know our customers and look after regulars.’
We’ll let you know once the opening is confirmed. In the meantime, why not check out some of Matt’s favourite haunts. ‘‘I like Bean & Cole a lot. At the moment, the team and I are regularly fuelling ourselves in Jaunty, which is great and so close. I also really enjoy Paysan and Cavern of the Curious Gnome – love the idea of two different nights. I spend too much time in Liquor & Co and Craft & Co; Craft seems to be the trade bar at the moment. Sergio is an old fave for dinner – my Italian go to.’