Last week, The Koffee Pot, the Northern Quarter’s most storied greasy spoon, was packed out on the occasion of its 45th birthday. But then that’s not unusual.
“It’s an organised explosion,” says Sam Dunwoodie, who with friend and co-owner Chris Devlin have been providing hangover cures (and causing a few along the way) since they moved the famous caff from its original location on Stevenson Square.
Prior to that, the Koffee Pot opened its doors under its first owner in 1978. It was a rather different proposition then.
“It was an easy life,” says Sam. “No card machine. Not even toilets.” Hang on, no toilets? “No toilets. It was so old, it predated the regs. We had staff toilets, but no toilet for customers. Simpler times.”
Simpler indeed. Chris had previously worked at the Bluebird in Chelsea (where presumably there were toilets), as well as for renowned restaurateur and Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton.
Meanwhile Sam had worked for the likes of the Michelin-starred Clove Club in London, and joined Chris at the Stevenson Square cafe in the mid-noughties, making this a little more than your average greasy spoon.
When they were turfed out by their landlord in 2014, they went into business together, and moved the Pot to Oldham Street, opening in 2015. The rest is history, the plan to emulate the vibes of the famous Katz’s Deli in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“Even then, there was nothing up this way, it was really grotty,” says Sam. “It was literally an empty shell, with like four tables in. I can’t believe we ever opened like that. Zero interior design.”
Since then, it’s become an institution, notably a destination for bands, either locals or those passing through the city on tour. When James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem played in Manchester, they used the place for their aftershow party.
“Stuff just seemed to happen to us,” says Sam. “Looking back, you think ‘how come that ever happened’. But we kept in touch (with LCD). When they played the arena before lockdown, we did all their catering.”
“There were a few nights where you’d be going until six in the morning, then lift the shutters and smile at everyone,” says Chris.
“Then we had Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch come in. He shouted his order at me from the front door, which I’d normally frown upon, but it was Huggy Bear. So I was like ‘cool, sit down’.”
Things haven’t always been easy, of course. Covid was, as for all hospitality businesses, a near fatal blow for them.
Not to mention the general downturn in favour of the humble cafe serving breakfast which then closes at 3pm, while everyone else stays open all day long and into the night.
So they stayed agile, and diversified. During the pandemic, they launched a burger pop-up, when people weren’t allowed inside, and then their ‘Birria Brothers’ taco pop-up too. Both smashed it.
“Tacos saved our bacon,” says Chris, who’d got the idea from researching the various birria taco joints (birria literally means ‘mess’ in Spanish) in New York on Instagram.
“It just seemed like a traditional stew, just hipstered up a bit. I thought ‘we could do that’.” Adds Sam: “We were panicking, thinking ‘shit, we need to keep the engine running’. So we took a chance.”
They scored themselves a four-hour queue running from the top of Oldham Street all the way down to Piccadilly Gardens.
“The police came to cordon off the line,” adds Sam. “We thought ‘well, we might be onto something’. People just had nothing to do. They’d turn up dressed up, like for a night out.”
So they kept at it, and now it’s just as successful, if not more than the breakfast fare at the Koffee Pot, and is a permanent fixture in the adjoining dining space, the front now adorned with the simple legend ‘Tacos’ in tiles, just finished a few days ago.
“The tacos have given me a new lease of life,” says Chris. “I’m planning a trip to Mexico, reading books, changing the menu. It’s exciting, and people are into it.”
But breakfast will always be in Chris and Sam’s DNA. They serve up a traditional fry-up, alongside Irish and Scottish frys too (the latter with black and white pudding, haggis, square sausage, tattie scones, the works).
Then there’s stacks of fluffy American-style pancakes, layered up with bacon and maple syrup, and ‘bennies’, their take on the classic eggs benedict, but loaded up with good things like salt beef, smoked salmon and chunky slabs of ham.
Their MancMuffins (see what they’re done there) are also becoming the stuff of breakfast legend, sausage patties with American cheese, a crisp rosti and a bloody mary ketchup.
For the hair of the dog, their actual Bloody Mary is a piece of work, hot with Srircha and horseradish, and their Bloody Michelada – Bloody Mary mix, topped with a bottle of Mexican Modelo lager, and a squeeze of lime – might sound insane, but it works, godamnit.
Of course, they don’t mind the ‘institution’ tag. “We’ll take it,” laughs Chris. “Not going to disagree, and it’s nice to have that bandied around. We’ve been going a long time. And there are always new people popping up. People putting pea shoots on your breakfast. We just thought ‘no, let’s keep it traditional’. At the end of the day, nothing can beat a good fry up when you’re hungover.”
The Koffee Pot, 84-86 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LE