Leeds Kirkgate Market - is a focus on food breathing new life into it

Four years ago, Anna Shindler went travelling in South America. Only rather than exploring the whole continent she found herself beguiled by Colombia’s food, people and culture.
Beth (left) and Anna Shindler at Kanassa Kitchen.Beth (left) and Anna Shindler at Kanassa Kitchen.
Beth (left) and Anna Shindler at Kanassa Kitchen.

Inspired by the array of arepa (corn cakes) stands and ‘‘Tejo’’ bars, when she returned home to Leeds she and her sister, Beth, set up Kanassa – specialising in Colombian street food.

Beth already ran a street food business and Anna enjoyed cooking so it seemed to make sense to combine their skills.

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They started out running Kanassa as a pop-up, doing weddings and food festivals, before being contacted “out of the blue” by Kirkgate Market in Leeds, asking if they were interested in setting up there. They moved into the market’s bustling food court area last August. “It’s such a great place because there’s a real sense of community here. It’s not the same as opening a restaurant, it feels like you’re part of something bigger and that really appeals to us,” says Anna.

Liz Cottam in the Owl pub - the first pub in the market.Liz Cottam in the Owl pub - the first pub in the market.
Liz Cottam in the Owl pub - the first pub in the market.
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“We weren’t sure how we were going to be welcomed because it’s such different food and it’s all vegetarian, but we’ve been welcomed with open arms,” adds Beth. “We get as much of our produce as we can from the market because it’s on our doorstep. It means if we run out of coriander we can just nip up there,” she says pointing towards one of the fruit and veg stalls at the top end of the market. And business, they say, is flourishing. “It’s been better than we ever expected, and talking to people they say it’s the busiest the market’s been for a long time.”

Kanassa is next door to one of the market’s big success stories – Manjit’s Kitchen, which won best Street Food/Takeaway 2018 at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards. It’s one of a string of new businesses that have moved into the market in the past 12 months including Coles Gallery (the market’s first art gallery), The Fisherman’s Wife, a new fish and chip shop, and Cargo Crêpe, which Joe McDermott opened last September.

As well as crêpes, Joe makes pancakes and galettes. He says the market is an ideal base for him. “It’s an affordable place to start a small business like this and being here in a food court means people can come along and decide what to eat when they get here.”

Kirkgate Market is part of the fabric of life in Leeds.Kirkgate Market is part of the fabric of life in Leeds.
Kirkgate Market is part of the fabric of life in Leeds.
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Such sights and smells would have been alien to those folk who first set foot in the market when it opened its doors back in 1857. Built in the Gothic style of the famous Crystal Palace in London, the iron and glass structure cost £14,000 (the price tag today would be astronomical). It was here at Kirkgate that Michael Marks opened his Penny Bazaar in 1884 that led to the creation of Marks and Spencer six years later.

The market, though, has endured its fair share of trials and tribulations. In 1975, two-thirds of the building was destroyed by fire, but it was quickly rebuilt and extended by the following year. Another blaze in the early 90s damaged an Edwardian dome on the roof of the frontage, and this, too, needed to be restored.

In the 1980s, a controversial modernisation plan, in which many of the stalls would have been put in an underground complex, sparked widespread opposition and the proposals were abandoned.

The market has long been a place where you can find everything from fashion and flowers, to hardware and haberdashery. Now, the old-school stallholders have been joined by a new generation of vendors helping to make it more diverse, multicultural and ethical.

Joe McDermott at Cargo Crpe.Joe McDermott at Cargo Crpe.
Joe McDermott at Cargo Crpe.
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When the plush, multi-million pound Victoria Gate complex opened next door in 2016, it coincided with the market’s logos and signage being spruced up and gave well-heeled shoppers, who previously had little to entice them across Vicar Lane, a reason to venture into this vast labyrinth of the mundane and the exotic.

“The market” – as locals call it – is still a work in progress, some of the stalls are empty or undergoing repairs, but Leeds Council, which runs it, says footfall for January was up more than six per cent on the corresponding period in 2019.

Arguably the biggest coup was the arrival (in November) of The Owl – the market’s first ever pub. The driving force behind it is local businesswoman and restaurateur Liz Cottam who, along with chef Mark Owens, set up Home – a high end restaurant just a stone’s throw from the market.

The Owl has been open for only four months during which time it’s pulled in discerning Leeds diners and earned a glowing review from, among others, the Guardian’s food critic Grace Dent.

Prince Charles chats to a greengrocer in Kirkgate Market during his visit in 1975.Prince Charles chats to a greengrocer in Kirkgate Market during his visit in 1975.
Prince Charles chats to a greengrocer in Kirkgate Market during his visit in 1975.
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Cottam grew up in Leeds and knows the market, what she calls a “sleeping giant” like the back of her hand. “My mum and dad owned pubs and they bought all their produce from here and things like shoes, or a carpet. So on a daily basis as a child I was dragged around with my mum, who would stop and talk to all the traders – I got lost in here a million times,” she says. “I watched it go from a thriving place in the 80s to something far removed from that. It was never a place where you’d buy artisanal products, but it wasn’t somewhere you bought tat.”

Cottam would like to see it follow in the footsteps of places like London’s popular Borough Market and Barcelona’s famous Boqueria, both renowned for the quality of their food produce.

She felt that Kirkgate was under utilised and decided to put her money where her mouth is. “There are several reasons not to have a business here, but there was this one reason that outweighed all the others and that was because my heart wanted to do it and I really believed in it.” And while it’s still early days, she says so far it’s been a roaring success. “I’ve been in business over 20 years and we had ambitious targets for this place and we’ve exceeded them all.”

The pub’s first floor has just been renovated to help meet demand and Cottam has ambitious plans to open other foodie places in Kirkgate.

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However, there are still challenges facing the market. Many vendors feel hampered by the opening hours (it doesn’t open on evenings) and the fact it’s closed on Sundays. Others, particularly sole traders, don’t want this to change as it will mean working longer hours.

There are concerns, too, regarding the adjacent outside market which is in decline, raising questions over its long-term future.

Lack of affordable city centre parking is also cited as a problem, and a valid one given the well publicised plight of our high streets.

Some long standing also stallholders feel the rents in the indoor market are too high, though the council says these haven’t been increased since 2008. It is a balancing act, though, and Cottam feels a lot of the criticism aimed at the council is unjustified. “When I came to them with my ideas they were the first to say ‘let’s look at how we can do it’ rather than looking for reasons not to.

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“I feel we’re on the right track. There’s been a huge investment made and real inroads in terms of bringing people to the market.”

And she bristles at the suggestion that the market is being ‘‘gentrified’’. “Cultures thrive when there’s diversity and if you look back at some of the original drawings of the market, there are as many flat caps as top hats. So there was diversity back then and there needs to be diversity today.

“This is a historic building and I want it around forever and to do that you’ve got to have a sustainable business model behind it, and that means there needs to be something for people looking for good value and people looking for premium products.”

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