What’s wrong with Leicester?

I’ve been honoured to write about Leicester for more than 10 years on this blog. In that time I’ve seen a definite increase in the quality and quantity of food and drink businesses in the city. It’s been a pleasure to ride the wave. But I know it’s not easy for the small businesses out there. So what’s wrong with Leicester?

Compared to decades past, the city is much prettier and more vibrant. The crime rate is about average for a UK city. We have benefited from millions in EU funding and private investment. PPL PRS alone brought 200 new jobs to the city when it landed in 2018. £50m of private money is building a hotel and office complex on Vaughan Way. Our population grows at a rate of around 3% each year.

food businesses in Leicester

Trouble at mill

Leicester has its problems like anywhere else. But you could point to all of these factors as potential benefits for local foodies. However, small food and drink businesses are struggling. And struggling more than they should. A decrease in footfall in June this year has been widely reported across the country. The Guardian reports a 4.5% slump on the high street and 2.4% decrease in shopping centres.

These numbers are big news, and difficult for any business to cope with. However, for small food and drink businesses in Leicester, I am hearing that they are anything around 10-15% down on last year. These kind of numbers are enough to put businesses under.

Consumers are buying experiences, not things. I get that. So great food experiences should be doing well? We have lost a number of high profile casual dining chains in recent times. They expanded too fast, and they lost the spark that made their original venue unique. But we have lost even higher numbers of independents.

Half pint of ale sitting on a bar

It’s a Leicester thing

I often hear that Nottingham and Birmingham are more protective of their foodie gems, and that independent bars and restaurants are flourishing. That the street food scene is stronger. That the bar scene is better.

Delilah is a great example. A fantastic deli, an incredible building. It was so exciting when it opened. Voted best deli in the country. I loved having lunch there. Their wine selection was great. And now closed. They can make their Nottingham branch work, but they couldn’t make it happen in Leicester.

But I know Leicester has amazing bartenders. They win national competitions all the time. I know that the likes of Canteen and Last Friday provide heck of good street food events. Admittedly, most of the traders are coming in from outside – but they are coming here. We have a network of amazing local producers and Leicestershire has a serious food pedigree. I visit cafes and eateries that provide beautiful quality food, impeccable service and great value for money. I write about them all the time. So why are these businesses and ventures struggling so much?

Is it broken?

Sadly I don’t have an answer. I now see the exodus of people leaving the city after 5pm and heading straight home. There are empty streets and closed venues, particularly on Mondays when so much of the city seems to simply shut its doors as the footfall is so low it would cost them money to remain open. I hear people who are unwilling to visit the city centre in the evening because of parking, perceptions of safety and a general lack of interest.

I come across old blog posts all the time for venues that have closed. And I have to put a sad little edit at the top to let readers know they can no longer be visited. It’s bound to happen in 10 years, but it feels like I have to do it a lot.

#SupportLeicesterLocal

The #SupportLeicesterLocal hashtag has been a great way for businesses to build up their profiles on social media. But we need more than a hashtag to help our city centre to work. There are success stories out there. And there is so, so much potential. So, I challenge every person who reads this to start living the hashtag. #SupportLeicesterLocal when you buy your lunch. Bring a friend out to dinner. Arrange to meet colleagues at a street food event. Nurture your independent food and drink producers – actively seek them out. It’s easy to drive to town, park in the Highcross and never set foot outside of the mall. But it isn’t that much effort to walk a little further and support great quality products made by people with a passion.

I wish it was as easy as writing a blog post to understand the problems and to wave a magic wand that fixes them. I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Is there a problem with Leicester? Maybe I’ve got it wrong! I hope so… Also, let me know your foodie gems. What can you eat and drink in Leicester that you don’t find anywhere else? Where do you eat that makes our city great?

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16 Responses

  1. @LeicesterNige says:

    A really great, thought provoking piece Laura- I like your work.

    I’ve been perturbed by this for a good while too especially in the context of music- why does a city with two universities not feature on tour itineraries as regularly as Nottingham for example? (To be fair the promoters at The Cookie are doing a great job with up and coming acts however DMH in my opinion is woeful at getting more established bands).

    Some observations/ thoughts in no particular order on the issues raised in your piece:

    1. Demographic- Leicester has an extremely diverse, multi cultural population, apparently now with a White-British minority. Perhaps this has an impact due to cultural differences/ traditions on use of recreation time/ dining out/ entertainment? (I present this point without prejudice btw don’t worry!)

    2. Wealth- I think Leicester is quite a poor city. Who are the big employers/ earners? What are our main industries? I don’t think many people have a surfeit of disposable income.

    3. Mentality of the localities- I’ve always perceived that people often stick to their part of the city/ county (Groby, Desford, Narborough etc) and use pubs/ restaurants on their doorstep. This definitely links to…

    4. Public transport/ traffic/ parking- all bad. I think the city and outlying areas could be better connected. Trams could help. But also getting people out of their bloody cars! (Well done to your family for not having one. I live on Glenfield Road and walk everywhere)

    5. Attitude- I’m a proud Chisit but I just don’t think we’re a particularly outgoing/ social/ adventurous/ dynamic bunch really. I spend a lot of time in Liverpool and people there are just different- you sense it in the vibe in the streets and pubs/ restaurants… whereas we’re miserable sods. Why else would the term ‘mardy’ originate here?

    That’s off the top of my head. I think blogs like you and Cool As Leicester are doing a great job promoting the city.

    I drink in the WEB and would love a chat about all this one day.

    Cheers- Nige

    • Laura says:

      Thanks Nige. With live music The Boy and I pretty much solely go to see local bands now. He’s in a band himself and we like supporting his friends. Plus there are some great bands on the circuit right now. Another way to #SupportLeicesterLocal I suppose!!

      I’m not sure demographics explains it. All of the Midlands cities are diverse, and we have a range of recreational options to suit different people with different lifestyles – I think of Gelato Village for an alcohol free, late night option, or the wide range of shows put on by the Curve with different target markets for example.

      Lack of disposable income has come up elsewhere, and while I certainly agree that we have major issues with people who just can’t afford to go out, I’m also thinking of how we can encourage people to spend what they have with independents. Your lunchtime sandwich, your groceries, your clothes shopping. No matter what people have, the majority have to make a spend somewhere, so its about how those choices could perhaps be informed maybe? I’m not even going to start on the impact of austerity in Leicester…

      With the concept of localities I think you are really on to something. I have my feeling that people (particularly people with less disposable income) go back to their estate/village/suburb after work and then are reticent to leave. For me there is a disconnect with what the city has to offer, and this wraps up all the issues surrounding public transport and attitude quite neatly. But I don’t know how to solve it.

      I’m in the WEB periodically – ask Josh or Russ to point me out to you!

  2. Tom says:

    I don’t live in Leicester now, but am planning to move back at some stage. I remember talking to colleague and a lot of the reason they didn’t stay behind after work for some food or a casual drink would be that the park and ride would lock it’s gates at 8pm sharp so you couldn’t get your car out… They were always too worried they would miss the cut off and be stranded. It never made sense to me, but maybe it’s changed now…

    It would mean that everyone using the park and ride would have to PLAN to have food after work and then drive in to the city centre that morning or get public transport (which invariably would take them longer) instead of just being able to do.something spontaneously.

    • Laura says:

      Oh that really is off putting. And makes the park & ride practically useless for the evening economy. I’ll look it up now…

      *A short Google later* – yes the sites close after the passengers on the last bus to arrive, around 7.25pm, so the gates are locked around 8pm. That IS rubbish! The last buses to each of the three sites leave at 7pm-7.04pm!! Hardly great if you want to have dinner or catch a show!

  3. I’ve pondered this for many years. The slightly glib answer I always used to fall back on was that “money” in Leicester always went back out into the county at 5.30pm. If there was a foodie and dining community it was predominantly in the Eastern side of the county and they would go to pubs and restaurants in Rutland but not in the city. I always hoped that as the city centre mills started getting converted to residential that would start to change, and to a degree it has but not enough. I’m not convinced parking or signage (signage? really?) has that much of a role – parking in Nottingham is ruinous but it has always seemed to support city centre restaurants I can’t quite imagine in Leicester (World Service, Harts, Iberico, Chino Latino – and I suppose of course Delilah). Not being in work I struggle to eat out as much as I would like, but I struggle to get wealthier friends to eat out too – maybe something to do with perceptions of value, certainly when I was a restaurant critic it was far too easy to spend £35 a head for food that was just, meh. But I’m not sure Leicester can be so different to other cities in this respect. It’s great that are openings such as Tandem in the pipeline and there are lovely places in Leicester at most levels in the market – I had a Mithaas samosa chaat midweek and a Crafty burger tonight, both of which rate as first-class food experiences – and ultimately I suppose you are dead right and it behoves all of us who love food and restaurant culture to take the steps you describe above and promote the best

    • Laura says:

      I very much agree that the lack of city centre residents has a bearing, but equally have not seen a slow improvement as you might expect. I wonder how the improved hotel offering in the city will impact on things going forward?

      Agree about signage. If you want to go to town it’s not that difficult. But the will does not seem to be there.

  4. Pratik says:

    Very thought provoking

  5. John says:

    Maybe if public transport was more accessible, cheaper and more frequent, people could leave the car and explore the city – and have a sociable drink. I’ve also found some restaurants in Leicester unwelcoming, or simply don’t do anything to attract trade. And finally, many restaurants close way too early.

    • Laura says:

      Interesting John. Mine is a no car family so we find public transport to be adequate, although I know that is not the case for people in the county and it could certainly be cheaper. I’d be interested to know more about where you find unwelcoming, or how businesses could attract more trade – with examples this is how we all learn.

  6. Business Rates are high- that hits new food businesses as do high utility bills
    Maybe also some people in Leicester see their city as a “poor cousin” compared to Birmingham or Nottingham- whereas infact there are amazing things going on here
    But @2funkystreetkitchen we are trying to revitalise Leicester’s Street Food/After work scene- come and check us out?
    The 2Funky Street Kitchen on New Park Street-a few minutes walk from Jubilee Square

    • Laura says:

      Yes, I wanted to come to the press launch but wasn’t able to make it – I definitely need to get this in my diary. I’ve been to many gigs at the Music Cafe in the past!

  7. Kathy R says:

    I’ll tell you, the council could do two things to change the popularity of Leicester overnight. Make sure the road signage is sensible. Lived nearby for 28 years, still get lost in the city. And free parking, anywhere near a place you’d want to get to,is nowhere to be found. That’s what makes Leicester such an undesirable venue for a fun time.

    • Laura says:

      An interesting perspective Kathy – do you think it’s mainly about roads and parking then, and not to do with the quality of businesses or the offer once you are here?

  8. Liz robson says:

    A thought provoking article

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