'When people come to a restaurant like this they expect the best and if you're making a considerable amount of profit, you're probably not making it the best it can be'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Simon Martin is the chef and owner of Manchester's only Michelin-starred restaurant, Mana. 

When he left Noma, the chef knew that he was ready to work for himself. And so, he started working on Mana as soon as he got back.

"The way I did it - it was extremely risky - but I came and did everything and acted as if I had the money, created a logo, created social media accounts." 

"We did everything as though we had the money" - all £1.2m of it, he laughed, when, in fact "all I had was a few hundred in the bank just to pay for my petrol to get to Manchester for meetings." 

He sought investors left right and centre, until one day, his two business partners reached out to him. 

Banks tomato, broad beans, caviar

Restaurant Mana

The wide-open space is less than half filled with minimalistic decor ("I don't really like busy spaces, I can't really concentrate in them"), and though the design is Nordic-inspired, the chef clarifies that this was not influenced by his time over there but because he is in fact of Norwegian descent.

All 26 guests are thus sat at a 'chef's table' - no walls, no counter.

"People can see our feet. It's great and it's brilliant for the chefs and I think it's something that a lot of chefs really appreciate - being able to be out there, being seen and being able to communicate with the people that they're cooking for, because it doesn't make sense for them not to."

Giving everything, and then some

Creating an exciting, progressive working environment, where a brigade of 15 chefs works for a maximum of four and a half days a week (and the half-day only happens once a month, to get ahead of fermentations and infusions).

"I always say to staff: working here is a sprint, it's not a marathon."

As one might expect, things haven't been run this way forever at Mana - the current approach was built on the foundations of its success, progressing from a £95 a head menu which barely covered costs to being able to afford to invest in the team's wellbeing. 

One of the ways they have managed to get ahead of the game, he said is to be as efficient and organised as possible.

Cornish oyster, chicken fat, English wasabi

"Whenever we face a problem, we just organise our way out of it - that's always what we've done." 

And, 18 months in, rather than a radical, steep curve, the team is now looking to improve steadily.

Ranking no 3 in Harden's in its first year, and earning a much-coveted Michelin star, the chef was by no means expecting to reach the ranks the restaurant has found itself in. 

"But that was a massive push. I don't think I've ever slept as little before in my life."

How to turn a fruitless business into a profitable one

Having a good team - including a skilful sommelier who can upsell wine, has been crucial to putting money in the drawer at Mana. The food side of things operates with an extremely low GP, the chef explained, "because we want to work with the best ingredients and we want to do it everyday."

"I don't like mediocre things. I like luxury ingredients because I didn't grow up with those things - I was never massively into food growing up until I started working in kitchens." 

"I want white truffle, good caviar on the menu, langoustines, wagyu beef, because that just reflects my personality." 

"For that, yeah we need to put the prices up, but I don't want people to suffer - financially - from my personality - so we always do it at a price where it sustains it, we have to have a safety net of course but we're not making a lot and that was never the plan." 

"Maybe that might come in 10 years time when I want to go and open a bistro." 

How to make a restaurant stand out 

For Simon, striving for excellence primes over generating big margins - especially so while a restaurant is still in its nascent stages.

"Really enabling people to be at the top of their game, that for me is what this sector is about, it's not to make money." 

"Too many people open restaurants and try and have too much of a safety net in the sector and they end up ultimately failing, because when people come to a restaurant like this they expect the best and if you're making a considerable amount of profit, you're probably not making it the best it can be." 

However, getting recognition and having a successful business isn't a pass for plane sailing.

"I work harder than ever before because I've got a reputation to keep and a standard to not only aspire to but to keep driving upwards." 

Breaking Manchester's Michelin curse

The chef doesn't believe the myth that Michelin had been avoiding the city of Manchester. Rather, he thinks that nobody "was willing to commit to the sector". 

"I don't want to piss anyone off - but Michelin look for something and if that's not there, they're not going to award a star, and that's the reason why I respect the guide so much, it's because they have high standards and they look for specific things in the cooking and the chef and how he interacts with the restaurant." 

"In my mind, if you're going to do this, you might as well do it full on."


In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 2nd April 2020

'When people come to a restaurant like this they expect the best and if you're making a considerable amount of profit, you're probably not making it the best it can be'