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Northern cities lead fight back against chains with independent restaurant boom

  • Leeds, home of IFDA and Leeds Indie Food festival, reaps benefits with top placing.

  • North and other regional cities offer entrepreneurs more affordability than London.

  • Manchester reaches restaurant maturity as indie operators move to the suburbs.

Despite consumers’ fears of increasingly homogenised high streets and the march of the chains the last three years have seen a boom in the numbers of independent restaurants around the UK. New research commissioned by hospitality trade show, Northern Restaurant & Bar, has shown cities in the North such as Newcastle and Leeds leading the way with growth rates far outstripping traditional restaurant hotspots such as London and Edinburgh.

Research commissioned by Northern Restaurant & Bar (NRB), the region’s largest hospitality exhibition, has tracked the number of independent restaurants – those having only one or two sites - in the UK’s major city centres over the last three years and produced unexpectedly upbeat results.

Thom Hetherington, CEO of NRB, said “Despite high streets having a torrid time the figures clearly show consumers are hungry to support smaller local restaurant operators, with the North performing particularly well. Visitor registration to NRB is at record levels, demonstrating the confidence and ambition of operators in the regions.”

Three Year Growth in Number of Independent* Restaurants in Major** UK Cities

  • Leeds 12.8%

  • Newcastle 12.8%

  • Nottingham 12.5%

  • Cardiff 11.6%

  • Leicester 11.3%

  • Birmingham 8.7%

  • Sheffield 8.5%

  • Glasgow 8.2%

  • London 7.4%

  • Bristol 7.2%

  • Liverpool 6.5%

  • Manchester 3.1%

  • Southampton 2.5%

  • Edinburgh 1.6%

  • York 0.9%

*Operators with <3 sites **Cities with >100 independent operator sites each year

The research, produced in partnership with CGA, the leading hospitality data and insight company, classed independents as ‘operators having less than three sites’, and focused on cities with ‘over 100 independent restaurant sites’. The study showed Leeds and Newcastle leading the way with a 12.8% increase in the number of independent restaurants. Both cities have retained strong business communities and have thriving universities and Leeds, in particular, has actively nurtured its start-up restaurant scene with the Independent Food and Drink Academy offering support and advice and the successful Leeds Indie Food festival giving entrepreneurs a platform to promote themselves.

Matt Dix, Director of the Leeds Indie Food festival, says “Leeds has always had a strong independent food and drink scene, and we started Leeds Indie Food because we thought that needed celebrating. We're seeing diverse and unique new openings all the time, and we get a real buzz from being able to show off new independent talent.” Hetherington continues “London still stands apart in terms of the scale and depth of its restaurant scene, but escalating costs mean the regions and the North in particular now offers genuine opportunity for ambitious operators.” This is echoed by Gary Usher, Chef-Patron of Hispi in South Manchester, “I couldn’t have opened restaurants in London as I have in the North of England. The economics and audiences are different, and that gave me the opportunity.”

Sheffield, less affected by an influx of national chains, also performed well with 8.5% growth, beating London’s 7.4%, with Liverpool close behind on 6.5%, Although not included in this specific survey smaller Northern cities also performed well, with Sunderland and Hull topping the overall national charts with incredible growth rates of 23.4% and 17.2% respectively, the latter benefiting from the interest generated by its recent “UK City of Culture” award.

Hetherington says “Every corner of the UK now seems to be attracting and retaining a new generation of foodie entrepreneurs, and it’s pleasing to note that leading national critics like Jay Rayner or Marina O’Loughlin are spending a huge amount of time travelling the length and breadth of the country and are uncovering some real gems.”

The relatively mature restaurant scenes in Edinburgh and Manchester offered less opportunity for independents with only 1.6% and 3.1% growth respectively, though the two cities had the largest independent restaurant scenes outside London, with almost twice as many sites as the other largest provincial cities. Jamie Campbell, Director of CGA Peach, notes “Manchester is interesting, in that its city centre restaurant scene, covered by this survey, has surged hugely in the last decade. The scene is still incredibly dynamic and many ‘independent’ operators have now grown to encompass five or more sites, and increased costs and a lack of available sites mean the current generation of entrepreneurial chefs and restaurateurs are looking to the suburbs for affordable opportunities.”

The continued boom in ambitious, independent restaurants and bars across the North of England is driving Northern Restaurant & Bar, the North’s biggest hospitality show, to record-breaking levels. The exhibition returns to Manchester Central on 21-22 March for its 17th year. The show welcomes 300 exhibitors, 7,500 industry professionals and includes the NRB Debate (Tues 21 March), the prestigious NRB Top Fifty Awards and a programme of events hosted by organisations including pro-manchester, Action Against Hunger and CityCo. Hospitality professionals can register now for free tickets online at

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