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Britain’s Favourite Market 2018 – the transformation of Shrewsbury Market Hall

Shrewsbury is proud of its Market Hall which has undergone a ground-breaking transformation over the last few years to earn it the national title of ‘Britain’s Favourite Market 2018’.

This was a market that was on its knees a decade or so ago. Today it’s buzzing with raved about street food restaurants and cool cafes, inspiring artisan food and drink businesses, farm-sourced fresh local produce, artists and designer-makers and boutique-style home and gift stalls that couldn’t be further from the old fashioned image of markets. There’s even an artisan gin bar!

Judges from the NABMA Great British Market Awards described Shrewsbury as an “exciting and inspirational market” that was led by a “successful concept developed around food”. Indeed you can find something delicious to eat from almost every continent. Champagne and oysters at a continental-style seafood bar, Thai and Indian street food, Spanish tapas and even Beijing dumplings in a bijou Chinese tea house.

The Bird’s Nest is considered one of the ‘coolest’ places in Shropshire to enjoy gourmet coffee and creative food, including a repertoire of vegan dishes. There are surfboards on the wall, groovy music and bandana sporting staff who serve customers beneath a ‘nesty’ canopy of willow branches. Last year The Birds Nest was voted ‘Shropshire’s Best Coffee Shop’ and is in the running for the title again this year.

Just over 10 years ago it’s fair to say that Shrewsbury Market Hall was a depressing place. It had been hit by competition from out-of-town supermarkets and the free car parking that went with them. When Market Facilities Manager Kate Gittins took on the job in 2006 occupancy levels were running at just 40 per cent.

Today the market is jointly operated by Shropshire Council and Shrewsbury Town Council. It’s home to nearly 70 businesses and has more than 400 people on a waiting list for stalls.

“Now we enjoy 100 per cent occupancy. It’s been achieved thanks to some significant turning points over the years, one of them being a champagne bar,” says Kate, who has worked to develop a modern vision for the market.

“A champagne bar in a market? That certainly aroused interest!”

This is how the market has evolved ever since – new traders bringing in new concepts and existing traders diversifying and upping their game to meet a growing public demand for quality and authenticity.

While Love Champagne didn’t last, due to its founders going separate ways, it gave fishmonger Ian Cornall, of Barkworths Seafoods, the idea for his own seafood and oyster bar, serving fine wines and champagne. Now Ian has the reputation of being one of the best seafood chefs in town!

Other game changers were the arrival of The Birds Best in 2011 and House of Yum Thai street food in 2014 and the opening of Gindifferent Bar in May last year. The gin parlour prompted the market to go forward and open for regular Saturday late nights. These attract up to 1,700 people over the course of an evening, bringing in many new faces who are amazed when they see what’s been on their doorstep all along.

It’s not only eateries that give the market its ‘foodie’ reputation. There’s a medley of interesting food and drink specialists, from traditional family butchers, wholefoods and a fantastic deli to organic wines and even a producer of gourmet spice blends.

The greengrocers are pretty special too! In a throwback to the days when farmers brought their produce to market, one of them is an organic farmer. Phil Moore sells everything he produces on his smallholding, Hopesay Glebe Farm, near Craven Arms – from vegetables grown in fields that he ploughs by horse to honey from his own bees and eggs from his free-range chickens.

Neighbouring greengrocers Maddocks also grow a large proportion of what they sell in the pesticide-free soils of their smallholding, just up the road in Nesscliffe.

There’s an endless stream of many other notable businesses too, including cool vintage clothing, vinyl records and a traditional barbershop.

 “The offer has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and we’d like to think that we’re providing what our customers want in a retail culture that has higher expectations. The emphasis now being on artisan food and drink, arts, crafts and designer makers – we’ve become a destination,” says Kate.

“Although we mustn’t forget our core offering – the butchers, fruit and veg, florist, baker – all the things that say “market”, but it’s what you weave into this that gives it the diversity and vitality.  We have another game changer in the pipeline, so watch this space!”