The 3 Years that Changed Manchester's Café Culture Forever

"It started with coffee being roasted in a shed in Stockport and sourdough being baked under a tree in a park in Stretford..."

By Ben Brown | 16 February 2021

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Oxford Road – home to ‘Nicks Snack Bar’ for years..

Prior to 2011, many would have scoffed at the idea of a serious café ‘culture’ in Manchester and, in fact, it was still a relatively new concept anywhere in the UK as we trailed years behind our continental cousins and indeed our friends ‘Down Under’.

For centuries, cafes have been part of the very fabric of European cities, places where writers, thinkers and creatives have mused, sipped coffee and scoffed cake. In the UK though, it wasn’t until the temperance movement of the mid-1830’s that people started to shift from pubs and ale houses, but even then – it has been slow. Very slow.

The legendary greasy spoon – Antonio’s

In fact, apart from the odd greasy spoon and huge multinational chain, Manchester itself was almost entirely devoid of any form of ‘modern’ cafe that we recognise today. Tea was pale, limp sandwiches were stuffed with cheap sausages and interiors were bland, cold and full of tabard-wearing dinner ladies whose idea of good service was not flicking cigarette ash onto your beans.

Words like kombucha, sourdough, artisan, mocha and ‘fair trade’ would never have been heard of – never mind part of day-to-day life – so what happened? How did the city go from a barren landscape dotted with greasy spoons to the continental, forward-thinking and exciting cafe scene that we see today?

Baked goodies at Pollen

Well, it all started in somewhat ‘underground’ circles, with coffee being roasted in a shed in Stockport, sourdough being baked under a tree in a park in Stretford, and a whole who’s who of tinkerers, pioneers and people who just wanted to experiment with something new.

It’s safe to say though that the whole cafe culture that we know and love here in Manchester started with two places – Coffee Fix in Gatley and North Tea Power on Tib Street.

Coffee Fix turned heads and hearts in the South of Manchester, and was not just a big hit with cyclists who would stop off for a cuppa and a cake on a Sunday ride, but also would see people flock from all over the city week-in, week-out.

Coffee Fix in Gatley

Family owned and run, Coffee Fix served up excellent cakes, a top-notch breakfast and had a frequently-changing lunch menu – with everything made in-house on the premises. This was something that Manchester had never really seen before – and I’ve not even started talking about their coffee yet!

You see, James Guard (who now owns Heart & Graft Coffee Roastery) had just started roasting his own coffee beans in his shed in Stockport – and it was making waves in and around the city.

He’d created Coffee Circle, his makeshift roasting operation in his shed, after working in a dreary high-street cafe through the mid-90s, and then having his eyes opened to the potential of coffee when sampling at London’s Borough Market.

Heart & Graft Coffee

Seven miles away on Tib Street, North Tea Power were doing something similar, pioneering with their very own coffee blend, over 20 loose-leaf teas, beers, freshly baked cakes and pastries and everything else we take for granted nowadays when we pop into a cafe.

By this point there were also a few notable ‘stars’ shining through – progressing the scene with a range of products and concepts that were revolutionary at the time. Food and drink had started to become ‘rock n roll’ – where youngsters had stopped forming bands and were instead starting cafes and street food pop-ups.

Hot on the heels of North Tea Power were a couple of stars themselves; husband and wife duo Phil and Claire Howells – co-creators of Caffeine & Co.

Opened up in 2011, Caffeine & Co was a tiny 5-seater espresso bar in the city centre, just down the road from North Tea Power that managed to stay under the radar with a philosophy that centred on “great food, plain and simple” – using the best quality ingredients, with as much as possible being created from scratch on a daily basis.

Caffeine & Co.

This concept was highly revolutionary at the time, and it’s something that Phil & Claire picked up during visits to Melbourne and indeed living down in London. Melbourne’s coffee shop scene has long been the envy of many a European contemporary, and before a move up to Manchester, businesses such as Caravan Coffee were slowly influencing trend setters on the streets of London.

Initially opening up Caffeine & Co in the city centre, the duo quickly expanded, taking over the cafe in Longford Park in Stretford and continuing to innovate and introduce something new to the cafe scene in Manchester. One such thing was Sourdough Bread – something which we see all the bloody time these days – but back in 2013 – only a select few had heard of it, never mind made their own.

Sourdough at Longford Cafe

Back in 2013 Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall (remember him!?) wrote in the Guardian that “a sourdough loaf is very different from what mostly passes as bread these days…. with immense character, with presence – bread with a point.”

And indeed, Phil & Claire knew this and started baking their very own sourdough down in the tiny cafe in the middle of Longford Park, to huge success. People flocked to try their ‘new’ creation, a process that still continues to this day at their Altrincham bakery and cafe – BLANCHFLOWER.

Full English Brekkie at Blanchflower

As the city’s coffee shop firework grew and expanded around what they’d set a match to, the city has been inundated with top-quality cafes and bakeries, from Pollen to Grindsmith, Pot Kettle Black to Another Heart to Feed.

All of them owe a debt to the original pioneers of the coffee scene in Manchester, the people who first brought top-notch coffee, home-baked bread, pastries and cakes, and high-end restaurant quality food to the world of cafes.

Another Heart to Feed in the NQ

Speak to Phil now and you’ll find someone who is always modest with regards to his impact on the city, but also keen to let you know that his venues are still providing the best coffee in the whole of Manchester, unbeatable bread and some truly outstanding lunch dishes day-in, day-out.

Head on down to Blanchflower or Longford Cafe in Stretford to see whether this is still the case – you might even get a chance to grab him (or Claire) to thank them for what they’ve done.