Sam's Chop House and Damson in Heaton Moor owner to open Deansgate restaurant
PUBLISHED: 16:24 18 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:56 20 February 2013
Steve Pilling. Bouyed up by his continued success at Damson in Heaton Moor - Cheshire Life's Restaurant of the Year 2011 - he's unveiling bold plans to open a large city centre eaterie WORDS BY RAY KING PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS
By all accounts we are facing the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Received wisdom is that, in such straitened circumstances, the catering industry takes a hammering as people cut back on eating out.
It takes, therefore, a bucketload of audacity, not to say chutzpah, to be investing at least 2m in a 160-cover restaurant within a listed building in the centre of Manchester, where the competition is increasingly fierce.
But Steve Pilling, one of the most popular restaurateurs in the area over the past decade, is confident he can repeat the success of previous ventures - and the advent, in late 2012 or early 2013, of Mr Pillings Roast Restaurant and Oyster Bar in the former civil court building in Deansgate is already keenly anticipated.
For the man who resurrected the citys two historic chophouses, the road is coming full circle.
After going to whats now Tameside College, Pilling, who hails from Droylsden in east Manchester, trained as a chef in the kitchen of the legendary Gilbert Lefvre at the Midland hotel, holder in the early 1980s of the city centres last Michelin star. He also worked at Gleneagles and in London, but his real ambition was to become a top squash player.
He came close, representing Lancashire for several years and winning tournaments (his sister Annette became world over-35s number one and a leading coach) while the day job starting at the market at 1am - was in green grocery. Pilling chuckles at the notion that he was the Greg Wallace of Chorlton-cum-Hardy but at one time hed opened 12 shops.
Then in 1994 a change in the law enabled the big supermarkets to open on Sundays.
I lost a minimum of 66 per cent of my business virtually overnight, he recalls. A couple of my friends in the retail business committed suicide after seeing a lifes work go down the drain in 24 hours. It was a train coming why didnt we see it? I think were too committed to look up.
After what he calls the demise of the high street, Pilling turned his attention to helping to build trade in pubs and was asked in 1996 to consider taking over Mr Thomas Chop House, now acclaimed as a jewel of Mancunian hospitality in the heart of the city, which had been moribund for years and turning over a meagre 2,000 a week.
We restored it inch by inch, says Pilling. Those wonderful Victorian tiles were painted over and the carpets were glued to the floor. Then he matched a menu of vintage British dishes to the period surroundings of a traditional chop house. What became very popular favourites like steak and kidney pudding and French onion soup take a lot of preparation. The truth is that a lot of people didnt have the patience or the will to do that sort of thing.
The transformation proved an instant hit and turnover increased 16-fold: such a success story that, when one of the citys other iconic watering holes Sams Chop House, which had been shut down by Scottish & Newcastle in 1996 after a sad decline - came up for sale, Pilling leapt at the opportunity. In partnership with former advertising high roller Roger Ward, a deal for LS Lowrys old haunt in Back Pool Fold was struck in 2000 and together they invested 450,000 in the project.
It was immediately popular, says Pilling of Sams Chop House.
In fact we were overwhelmed and had to regroup within days. But once we were prepared for how busy it was proving to be, we did very well and took Sams turnover from zero to 2m.
After six years, however, Pilling began to suffer the consequences of his earlier devotion to squash and painful hips and back forced him to take a year off for surgery and recuperation. Eventually his departure from the chophouses became permanent and two and a half years ago he reappeared by opening his new neighbourhood restaurant, Damson in Heaton Moor, with chef partner Simon Stanley whom hes known since college days and has since worked with many of the industrys stars.
The acclaim came thick and fast. Damson, pictured above and left, was named runner-up in The Independents national restaurant awards in 2009; that same year Damson won best newcomer in the Manchester Food & Drink Awards and at the end of last year it was crowned Cheshire Life Restaurant of the Year 2011.
And at the same time Pilling and Stanley have won high praise for their stewardship of The Red Lion, their gastropub in High Lane, Disley.
But the lure of the big city appears to be proving irresistible. While Pilling has an interest in Destinos, the quirky Italian restaurant in Pall Mall for which he has future plans, his magnum opus will be the project in the former Manchester civil court.
He said: We have learned a lot from our experience in 2011 and we want to keep the momentum going into 2012.
Every business has blips the trick is to recognise when a blip threatens to become a flatline and then deploy various tricks of the trade, disciplines and initiatives.
I am a 24/7 person but I am enjoying everything Im doing from a business point of view and it is very rewarding when the accolades come.