Frozen assets: Manchester independent Browton's profiled

Drinks shops with the ability to provide customers with suggested pairings for their  evening meal are legion.  But there aren’t many that will actually sell them the meal as well.

Simon Browton opened the doors of Browton’s in the centre of the south Manchester suburb of Ashton-under-Lyne in December 2012, adjacent to the town’s market and 1960s shopping centre.

The concept brings together premium wines, craft beers, a selection of ambient deli products – and frozen Cook ready meals. Along with New Zealand Pinot Noir and a locally brewed Double IPA, customers can take home a top-quality Beef Stroganoff, Moroccan Harissa Chicken, Lamb Dupiaza, or one of 40 other ready-to-heat dishes.

“On the other side of the market was a fairly large Marks & Spencer which was always busy,” says Browton. “But they announced they were moving and going to an out-of-town retail park. I’d always loved food, beer and wine and, when M&S went, it meant there would be nowhere to go in the town centre where you could pick up a decent ready meal and a bottle of wine, without necessarily having to navigate a big shop.”

He opted for a concession from the Cook chain, which operates 70 of its own and franchised frozen ready meal stores, as well as supplying a small band of independent retailers on the same basis as Browton’s.

“I’d been eating the Cook meals when I visited my mum on the south coast,” Browton says. “There was a Cook shop nearby and a couple of farm shops sold them. When I started the nearest one to here was in Ilkley [West Yorkshire], but they've now opened in Wilmslow [about three miles away] and are being stocked by Booths in Media City in Salford.

"Lots of farm shops and garden centres have Cook freezers alongside Field Fare, which is a frozen vegetables and fruit brand. I wanted to sell stuff that you couldn’t get in the market here. There’s a small off-licence there, but nowhere you can buy a prepared meal of decent quality.”

Overcoming red tape

It’s not been an easy ride for Browton, whose earlier career was spent with the Revolution bar chain, variously as a bar manager, DJ and in an office job clearing up customer injury claims.

The recent history of Ashton’s nightlife is a troubled one, which has made the conditions attached to licences tough. Browton’s alcohol range has to be vetted by the police and the council and, until April, drinks had to be displayed behind an imaginary line about two-thirds of the way down the shop.

“I made sure I had a watertight licence application and they were happy with what I was doing, but they were concerned about what might happen if I moved on in five years and left the shop licensed, and a discount booze shop moved in,” Browton says.

“I thought if I could trade without any trouble for six months or so, I’d be in a better position to apply for a variation, which we got in April.

“I’ve had two conditions removed, including the one on where I can display alcohol, and one added, which is that I won’t sell any low-cost, high-ABV products. But that’s not including craft beers and ciders. There’s a lot of debate at the moment because there isn’t a definition of craft beer – but it’s suddenly become very important to me.”

Having overcome several hurdles of red tape, Browton is now keen to develop the concept to match his own vision rather than that of a council pen-pusher. “Now we’ve had over a year’s trade, the real interest and excitement have been around beer, so we’re heading more in that direction,” he says. “There are two types of customer: the real-ale drinkers, who tend to buy the 50cl bottles of English-style beers, and the craft-beer customer, who goes for the 33cl bottles and more adventurous stuff.”

Browton adds: “To a certain extent, the latter is younger, but you also get some older women for that kind of thing. People generally are becoming more adventurous, particularly in wanting to try something that’s brewed locally, such as Tickety Brew.”

Realising a vision

“It’s amazing to me that not only is there a brewery in Stalybridge, but one doing what it is, looking good with the labelling and making Belgian-style beers. If you’d have said five years ago that someone was going to open a Belgian-inspired brewery in Stalybridge, I’d have said you were crazy,” Browton says.

Browton’s medium-term plan includes on-premise sales and maybe giving Tickety Brew a run for its money.

“The outdoor market is getting a £2.5 million refurbishment this year, and a new college building is being built nearby. It will bring a younger demographic into the town and mean more people working locally,” Browton says.

He adds of his own shop: “There’s a lot of space a bit like a pub cellar, with good ventilation, so you could build a microbrewery to make beer you couldn’t buy anywhere else – but that’s quite far down the line.”

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