The story of Manjit’s Kitchen is a real testament to hard work, community and what happens when you create a genuinely fantastic product
What started as a home delivery service in 2010, harnessing the emerging power of social network Twitter, has now become legendary in the gastronomic scene in Leeds, serving extraordinarily in-demand vegetarian Punjabi street food from premises in the city’s Kirkgate Market and, since last year, their new restaurant on Kirkstall Road.
At the helm of this foodie phenomenon are Leeds born-andbred Manjit Kaur and her husband Michael Jameson who, although he hails from the other side of the Pennines, is an honorary Leodensian thanks (at least partially) to his role in the Manjit’s Kitchen tale.
I caught up with Michael to find out how they built the business, what happened when coronavirus hit and where they go from here.
“It started with a kitchen, a car, a Twitter account and £200” he recalls, “we set up the business based on the resources that we had. It was the start of the Twitter thing and we set up an account and started delivering food prepared in a home kitchen. People
ordered it by Direct Message on Twitter and it quickly grew into something that we couldn’t cope with from home!”
He credits the sense of online community that flourished in the early days of Twitter. What is now seen as a combative space on the internet was initially far more informative and supportive. It was less cluttered than today and if a friend shared something, you were much less likely to miss it back then. Michael credits people sharing pictures of their food through the medium with helping to create a buzz behind their business.
The next step, based on recommendations from friends, was to try selling at farmers’ markets. However, the big issue there was that they started so early in the morning that the potential audience for food at that time was minimal. “We were standing there thinking ‘we need to do this in the evening – we need to do this when it is dark’” Michael laughs.
Just as their timing with Twitter had been perfect, this revelation came along fortuitously too. British diners were beginning to latch onto the street food revolution. No longer was the concept of picking up convenient and delicious takeaway meals cooked at stalls and in trucks just the reserve of exotic foreign holidays. It was becoming a popular choice with customers across the UK and it gave a host of artisan foodies the chance to sell directly to the public without having to lease expensive commercial space.
Manjit and Michael started to organise street food events, selling their own wares from the back of a converted horsebox and inviting other traders from around the country to join them. They were a roaring success, but the inconsistent nature of running a business reliant on specific events led the couple to make a leap of faith and rent a unit in the famous Leeds market four years ago. “We wanted to put down roots, get a permanent prep kitchen and also to get some stability to what we were doing.” says Michael.
The company’s reputation continued to grow, with 2018 bringing them a big boost in terms of publicity when they came first in the Best Street Food/Takeaway category at the BBC Food and Farming Awards. “We didn’t think we would win it, but we did” Michael admits.
From there, the next step was to find more premises in the city so they could launch a restaurant that would allow them to open later than Kirkgate Market’s trading hours allowed. “We crowdfunded a restaurant on Kirkstall Road” recalls Michael, “and I guess a lot of the people who backed the new restaurant were people we had met on Twitter in the early days delivering food. We raised £40,000 in just over a week to fit out a new restaurant which we opened a year ago. And then a global pandemic happened.”
Manjit and Michael shut down both premises and sent staff home as soon as the government began to warn the public not to visit pubs and restaurants due to coronavirus. And then the reality hit. This was before the Chancellor put into place schemes to encourage businesses to keep on staff and at a time when only about three people in the entire UK could have told you what the word ‘furlough’ meant. Simpler times. “We thought ‘what are we going to do?’” he says, “with two commercial leases on our backs and a staff team of 12 we wondered how we were going to keep going. So, we went back to a Twitter account, a car and a kitchen!”
They delivered all over the city in those early days of lockdown, linking up with other businesses to deliver their own food as well as beer and bread to customers across Leeds. “Some were shielding,” says Michael, “some were old, some just wanted to support local businesses and that carried us through. We’re still here, with two businesses just about, and we’re slowly starting to bring staff back from furlough and see what the future holds.”
Although no one can predict what will happen next, Michael says that there are encouraging signs that lockdown has shown people what value independent businesses bring to towns and cities. “While places like Wagamama and McDonalds shut down” he says, “your local businesses have been there for you. These are the businesses that make you want to come to cities. If anyone asks online, ‘I’m coming to Leeds this week, where should I go?’ it’s the independent businesses that people are recommending.”
However, he is concerned that these local independents may struggle unless there is a change to the way leases work. “When you look at these leases in the cold light of coronavirus, you realise they are ridiculous” he remarks, “you pay three months in advance, I can’t think of another service you pay in advance for. You don’t pay and they come and take all your things. These leases are so stacked in favour of the landlord, now is the time to rebalance some of these things.
“The landlords hold the power and the money, and the land and they’ll do all they can to protect it. Which is why city centres look like they do. You need a massive overhaul of the lease system – turnover rents or maybe more of a partnership between the landlord and tenants about how business might work – landlords are going to end up with a lot of empty properties in the next two to three months unless something happens on rent.”
Although he is pessimistic about change happening, if there is anything the last year has taught us, it is to expect the unexpected. And with a business that has already proved adept at rolling with the punches and coming out the other side stronger, you get the feeling that Manjit’s Kitchen is one Yorkshire independent that is here to stay.