Q&A – Thom Hetherington

Neil Tague | 22 February 2016

Thom Hetherington galleryThe North of England’s largest hospitality event, Northern Restaurant and Bar 2016 (NRB) will take place over 15th and 16th of March at Manchester Central. Director Thom Hetherington talks us through why this is a big deal for Manchester.

How long have you been doing NRB? How has it grown and what are the numbers like for this year?

We acquired NRB is 2004 so this will be the eleventh time we have run the show. Theoretically it should get easier, but unfortunately we insist on innovation and fresh thinking every year so it keeps us on our toes! The numbers look great this year, with almost 300 exhibitors and nearly 8,000 trade visitors through the doors.

What special stuff have you got planned for the 2016 edition? 

The features at the show are full to bursting again with over 50 demos, talks and tastings– Simon Rogan (of L’Enclume and the French at the Midland) will be cooking in Chef Live and there is a cocktail competition with la Casco Viejo Tequila to win a trip to Mexico – but personally I’m really excited about this year’s NRB Debate. We have Jay Rayner headlining, and have pulled together a class panel to discuss food entrepreneurism which includes Gary Usher from Sticky Walnut, a brilliant chef who has also developed a business in a very creative and contemporary way, cleverly using social media and crowdfunding.

We have also extended the “NRB Fringe” of associated events which happen around the city during the week of NRB. It’s a rich and varied selection, starting with Action Against Hunger’s famous “Too Many Critics” charity dinner at Fazenda, and ending with Restaurant Magazine’s R200 conference. There are plenty of visitor discounts at leading restaurants and bars too.

We can’t forget though that people are fundamentally coming to NRB to spec products and services for their hospitality businesses. On that front we have a record-breaking number of exhibitors that seem to be previewing or launching more new and exclusive products than we’ve ever seen. We want to send exhibitors away with a return on investment and visitors away with a headful of new ideas and inspiration.

Can people still book tickets?

It’s a trade event so as long as you are a hospitality operator or a supplier to the trade then it is free to attend. You can register online at www.northernrestaurantandbar.co.uk which makes it all quite seamless when you arrive on site, or can you risk a bit of a queue and sign up on the day.

Do you think Manchester’s properly established itself as a food city now? Some critics have sneered a little in the past.

I’m not sure it was sneered at so much as under-appreciated or ignored. We’d had a good dining scene for a long time but it’s profile was overshadowed by the city’s reputation for sport and partying. Now though, after an explosion of ambitious openings, the balance has tipped and the breadth, depth and vibrancy of Manchester’s current dining scene is unprecedented. It’s become a selling point for the city, and it’s recognized as a serious destination for ambitious chefs and restaurateurs and as a magnet for gastro-tourism. I believe this is only just the start.

What could improve Manchester as a restaurant destination?

We need more chef-patron led restaurants. It is great for Mancunians and tourists to see names that they recognise and brands that they trust, but we need the unique restaurants that bring people to the city. Aiden Byrne at Manchester House and Adam Reid at the Midland do this, but I think we need at least one more really high profile name to crack the high-value overnight stay tourists.

And there is of course the eternal question of Michelin stars. People underestimate or misunderstand the value a star would bring to Manchester. It wouldn’t immediately make a restaurant like The French better, but it would put Manchester on a radar of high spending foodie travellers, particularly international visitors, who are still very influenced by that little red book.

What are you most excited about in terms of the food and drink scene in 2016?

There are rumours that something very akin to the Market House in Altrincham could happen at the long-vacant Mackie Mayor building in the Northern Quarter – imagine a food and drink motherlode with communal seating, constant bustle and a carefully selected line-up of top-notch entrepreneurial food businesses. Hopefully it can accelerate the establishment of a sustainable indie food retail scene at end of town. Several big name chefs are still eyeing the city for opportunities and there will be some very interesting hotel announcements made this year. As I say, I think this is just the start for Manchester.

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