One of the first bars to open in the redeveloped Northern Quarter, Common has been a staple of the area since 2004. In the words of General Manager, Jonny, “the area had a lot of residents but nowhere to drink and hang out. Common wasn’t trying to be a city bar but just a nice, reliable neighbourhood place to drink”.
A lot has changed in the last twelve years. The Northern Quarter has flourished and, during that time, Common has been torn down and rebuilt with an expansion and a refined offering.
“We bought more space, expanded the seating area… we completely ripped it apart and started again. We originally set it up on a tight budget — it was rough and ready, you know? We just kind of outgrew it and we couldn’t keep up with demand. We wanted something more efficient, to allow us to carry on serving food and drink to a high standard”.
The revamp wasn’t popular with everyone, but Jonny is confident that they have retained most of their regulars and won back most of the people they lost.
“Everyone who was vocally hating it, they started coming back once they saw it was the same team, the same philosophy and that we’ve just grown up a bit.”
This is a regular theme in conversations with café owners and operators; adapt or die. Lots of cafés that outgrow themselves don’t update or aren’t able to, for one reason or another. Aside from how customers may feel about this, it can cause real strain amongst staff members who are working in inefficient ways or with outdated equipment, and it can negatively impact the quality of the offering. So what was it about the original Common that, ten years later, was dragging its heels?
“It’s the same thing anyone in the Northern Quarter will tell you: we get incredibly, incredibly busy in very concentrated times, so it’s hard to maintain standards and quality in those conditions. We always want to keep ahead with new ideas, new and exciting things, not just rest on our laurels. It’s not pretentious though, we find stuff we like and we’re excited so we get behind it, and we want to share that”.
Common is in a constant battle to stay relevant to their neighbourhood, but it’s a labour of love and it allows Jonny and his team a certain amount of freedom to try to jump ahead of the curve. “We feel we have to take risks. We tore the place down and built it back up. You know, people don’t like change, but we felt we had to.”
Common 2.0 is ambitious without over-reaching. The offering is broad yet considered, and the team is keeping up with the changing demands and tastes of the neighbourhood whilst showcasing what they themselves enjoy, rather than bowing blindly to gentrification. Common hasn’t sold out. It’s grown up. There is utilitarian yet comfortable furniture, it’s light and airy (even more so in the Summer as some of the outer walls retract and open up the space), but it’s lively. The decor may be slightly Scandi-chic, but the buzzing atmosphere is full on Manchester - the pebbledash bar in the centre is a nice nod to Common’s roots, and a wink that lets you know you’re welcome.
Common has also refined the food offering (the salt and pepper squid and Korean fried chicken are great bar snacks), but they are still serving up their crowd-pleasing burgers and sandwiches. “We’re probably most famous for our burgers, the maple bacon burger is the most popular”, says Jonny.
The coffee scene in Manchester has grown tremendously in recent years, with events such as The Manchester Coffee Festival (formerly Cup North) putting Northern roasters and cafés on the map, and allowing local businesses access to roasters from other areas. “Since we re-opened we’ve seen much more of a push on day trade. The coffee side has really taken off, we’ve invested a lot in that and it’s blown up. Our coffee sales are up by about 400%.
When we visited we drank a bright and sweet brew of Marimira AA, a Kenyan coffee currently in our range. “People come down to try the latest filter, and we keep it on constant rotation. The people who like it get into it, they come back and try the different beans. The staff too — they love the filter.”
Originally coming from a craft beer background, the team at Common had a love of and appreciation for good coffee, but none of its staff were trained baristas. “We worked closely with friends from other cafes like North Tea Power and Idle Hands. They did some training with us and got the staff on board. It’s the same with anything we buy: wine, beer, gin — we apply the same thought behind it all in terms of taste.”.
It’s important to look at venues like Common who take stock of their position, decide what can be achieved, and then reach for it. In a time when so many new openings seem to be guided by the same rulebook, adhering to an accepted aesthetic, Common are “still here, still pushing forward. That’s about it really”. If you’re in the Manchester area you can drop by Common any day except Monday, and check out their sister venues Port Street Beer House, The Beagle, and recent addition The Pilcrow, close to Victoria train station. The latter is a pub built by hand with help from the local community in the NOMA neighbourhood, operated by All Our Yesterdays, a new partnership between Common owner Jonathan Heyes and Paul Jones, the co-founder of Cloudwater Brew Co.
Address: 39 Edge St, Manchester M4 1HW