Global fame for Cork's English Market’s local charm

By John Daly

Even on a chilly midweek morning in February, the English Market is a cacophony of activity where the cheerful banter of traders mixes with the steady traffic of locals and tourists along its crowded aisles.

Orla Lannin says traders entering the English Market have found the Start Up Stall a welcome way to trial their wares for up to eight weeks.

Renowned for generations as the city’s main marketplace and an important lynchpin in the development of Cork’s food culture, the diversity of its offering ranges from local artisan produce to an array of international goods.

“Every day really is different in a job like mine, and much of how any given day unfolds is down to what might be happening in the market at that particular time,” Orla Lannin, Property Manager, English Market, explains.

“Maintenance and cleaning are continual ongoing tasks in a space of this size, and making sure budgets are balanced would also be a daily focus.”

The day-to-day operations in the English Market are managed on behalf of Cork City Council by Aramark Property, the publicly quoted company that manages more than three million sq metres of properties within Northern Europe, including shopping centres, retail parks, major office developments, business parks, residential complexes and industrial estates.

The English Market’s stallholders are local and independent food producers or retailers, many with proud family lineages going back generations — and all dedicated to the traditional ‘serve-over-counter’ trading which ensures that the service to the customer is personal and unique.

“The English Market is a unique mixture of product, people and place — as a source of fresh, quality produce, and that personal service which comes with owner-occupier stalls,” Orla explains. “It has an atmosphere all of its own and is an essential part of the city’s history, with an architectural character, colour, vibrancy and atmosphere that cannot be replicated.”

Much of Orla’s job in recent times is accommodating film crews from international cookery programmes, foreign documentaries as well as the occasional feature film.

The upward arc of the Market’s role on the big screen took a major leap in 2016 when it played a major role in the hit film, The Young Offenders.

Having garnered critical and commercial acclaim at home and abroad, the film was subsequently commissioned as a television series, which is currently running on RTÉ and BBC.

The profile of the Market has been raised even further by the well-received TV series, which has now been commissioned for a second season.

“The Young Offenders was such a huge success at home and abroad, it has generated a massive amount of interest in the Market, and certainly being part of such a much-loved film is priceless in terms of showcasing it to a potential audience of millions.”

Orla is currently well into the planning stages of a wrap party for the current series happening around the Market in March: “The Young Offenders is so much about Cork and its character, it seemed a perfect fit to have a party here to celebrate that.”

It has often been the case in other cities around Europe, however, that venerable and unique markets have become victims of their own success as hordes of tourists idly clog up their aisles and end up discouraging locals from doing their daily shop.

While visitor numbers into the English Market have clearly increased as a tourist ‘must do’ over the last decade, concerns around overcrowding and the potential for subsequent health and safety issues had become a major concern. English Market Bylaws were brought in following consistent requests of traders to remedy the situation of encroachment on the aisles.

“To better manage the traffic and footfall, we introduced new tour group protocols in March of last year, which has been really successful.”

Tour guides who wish to bring in groups must register on an annual basis with Market management, and be approved to operate within its confines.

“Groups of all sizes are, of course, welcome, but to help deal with health and safety issues and the problem of overcrowding, those in excess of eight people are required to be split into smaller groups as they move through the market. Smaller numbers allows not just for better crowd management, but also has the effect of visitors spending more as they linger at the stalls — rather than being herded in large groups with no real time to browse.”

With its 46 trader stalls currently fully occupied, the English Market has undergone a significant transformation, with over 60% of traders having undertaken renovations and refurbishments, and more intending to do so in the near future.

“The English Market has been such an iconic location in Cork for centuries, all the traders take an enormous pride in maintaining their stalls to the highest possible standards.”

The Market officially launched the Start-Up Stall in July 2016, allowing small food businesses the chance to test the market. The Start Up Stall gives local food-based business start-ups the chance to trade on short-term lets, of up to eight weeks — an initiative by the English Market and Cork City Council aimed at start-up businesses retailing products or produce that will complement, rather than duplicate, that of the Market’s current offering.

“New traders come in periodically, and over the last four months three have come in — and it’s great to have new people with different products, but chosen carefully to fit the existing mix and not detract from the food ethos.

"It is important to maintain a mix of traders that works to everybody’s benefit, and in recent times they start on shorter leases, which works better for all concerned.”

Coming into an established ‘family’ of traders can be a daunting proposition for any kind of start-up enterprise — but one that is quickly dispelled within the historic aisles of that iconic place.

“There is a great feeling of community amongst all of the traders here, and anyone new is always made to feel at home with many older hands offering advice and mentoring on the ways of the Market. At the end of the day, we all mind each other in here, there’s a great sense of being protected.”

In recent years, much emphasis has gone into developing a professional marketing strategy for the English Market, to include brand development, public relations, communications and marketing plans.

The Market’s logo was also updated with a more contemporary design during 2015, and which is now being used to further enhance the brand. The Grand Parade façade of the Market underwent a total revamp in 2017 and was awarded winner of the ‘Best Commercial Business Frontage 2017’ by Cork Better Building Awards.

“The English Market’s 230th birthday on August 1st is obviously a major occasion, and certainly there will be events planned around that — but we are keeping a lid of those for the present,” says Orla. “Given how central a part of the city it is and how dear people hold it, this is one English Market birthday party we’re determined will be one to remember.”

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