As Greater Manchester starts its third calendar year with coronavirus, traders and cafes in one market town are hoping for better times to come.
Back in March 2019, Ashton-under-Lyne’s flagship £48 million Tameside One building opened its doors for the first time – bringing hundreds of council staff, Tameside College and other public sector services all under one roof.
The idea was to drive up footfall in the town centre, with both workers and visitors flocking to the building before spending their money at the nearby market, cafes and shops.
Twelve months later, the arrival of coronavirus turned that vision on its head, and the way many people live their lives has changed.
Many who once filled office corridors have worked from home during the pandemic, while some who are more vulnerable to Covid have spent less time in public spaces to help protect themselves.
The pandemic is not the only issue facing traders either – with costs rising in the past year and further energy price increases expected to follow in 2022.
Nat Mistry is owner of Nat’s Bombay Kitchen, which has been running at Ashton Market for nine years.
He says around 35 per cent of his business has been lost over the past couple of years.
Nat told the Manchester Evening News : “Business is still down. We’ve not got back to normal – what we used to do.
“We lost a lot of elderly customers at the start [of the pandemic] due to Covid regulations. Council staff, office workers, they’ve all gone – we don’t see them anymore.
“I think it’s just going to stay like this and we have got to live with it as best we can.”
Nat says that while footfall is down, the costs of ingredients and items such as takeaway cartons are rising, and it’s not just his business being affected by rising prices.
“We still have to pay our mortgage and our bills at home, as well as all the costs of the business,” he added.
“You’ve just got to tighten your belt and cut your expenses – but that’s what customers are doing as well. It’s going to affect everybody.”
On another stall nearby, Carl Matundan has spent three years running Tarp’s Filipino Fusion.
He told the M.E.N. that his business has also felt the pinch thanks to rising costs – which led to him putting some prices up.
Carl said: “Obviously I understand it’s a pandemic, everybody has to raise their prices.
“Some meat and veg are imports, and with the Brexit thing, it did have a significant rise.
“I’ve had to raise prices – I had no choice, otherwise it becomes a charity. But I don’t overly raise prices.”
Carl’s stall was relatively young when Covid first arrived in Tameside, and after a tough start to the pandemic, it didn’t take long before the business was able to grow again.
He says the stall’s unique selling point – its fresh Filipino cuisine, which isn’t widely available in Greater Manchester – means Tarp’s has fared better than many other businesses who have struggled in the same situation.
Carl added: “When the pandemic started, it went quiet. At first it was challenging, but it started picking up after four months. When we got tables back, obviously we were busier.
“Our main advantage is there’s no Filipino food here – we are the only ones doing it. So during the pandemic we’ve been busy.
“People had no idea about this food, they hadn’t seen it before. It was word of mouth – if a friend tells you to check out a restaurant, you will most likely do it because it’s more personal.
“This year I’ve got a strong feeling that we will be busier. Each year we have been busier than the last so far, and that tells me I’m doing the right thing.”
For over 20 years, Wendy and Mandy’s cafe has been serving food and drink to shoppers at Ashton Market.
Like Carl at Tarp’s, co-owner Wendy Mitchell is starting the new year with optimism for her business.
She said: “We’ve got to be [optimistic]. What do you do? There are people who are a lot worse off.
“This is just the new normal now. We accept what we have got. It’s just the way of life now – the way of shopping, everything – but we are still here.”
Wendy admits that the cafe is quieter now than it was before the pandemic, and the lack of office workers has hit weekly ‘big orders’.
She thinks the quieter footfall could be due to ‘lifestyle changes’ seen over the past two years.
“Obviously people are working from home so there’s no footfall in town,” said Wendy.
“But having said that, we’ve just done the toy appeal and we have had the most donations ever this year.
“If one person shops here in the morning, on a break, it makes a difference. Then more people will come and get something – whether it’s drinks, tea, flowers, the butchers, breakfast, dinner. There’s everything in here [Ashton Market].”
Outside the market, Bow Street Cafe owner Mike Barlow says ‘people are still wanting to come out’ and enjoy food and drink at his business.
However, he says many office workers from nearby who were regulars before the pandemic have ‘not come back’.
His main concern is if another lockdown does eventually follow – and whether his business will get the support it needs.
Mike said: “In regards to the future – it’s kind of ominous what’s going on.
“What will things look like if we are left on our own? We’re fine but we never know what’s going to happen in the next month or two.
“The worry is if we are put into another lockdown and we are left on our own.”
Away from the town’s market square, Lily’s Indian Vegetarian Cuisine is a much-loved Ashton institution.
While many restaurants in Manchester reported widespread December cancellations when omicron began to take hold, Lily’s only lost ‘the odd few Christmas parties’.
Ritesh Sachdev, one of the restaurant’s managers, is hopeful more people will be able to visit in the year ahead.
He said: “Our regular customers have supported us throughout Covid, they are back here and we are happy to have them back. Covid was a difficult time for every business.
“We have to be optimistic. I think the key thing is, it is not going away, we just need to work with it to keep both customers and staff safe.
“Our staff all take lateral flow tests on a regular basis, we do all we can.
“People feel safe here. Evenings are usually fully booked, it’s nice to see that we are getting that custom back.”
After workplaces were given the go-ahead to reopen in July, Tameside Council asked its staff to continue to work from home if they can, while infection rates remained high in the borough.
A spokesperson said this was ‘in the interest of [staff] health and safety and to best maintain the continuity of our services’.
Workers who needed to work in the office could do, while the council said it had a ‘planned, phased approach to bringing staff back into the building with Covid measures in place’, while some staff would be ‘working from Tameside One on a hybrid basis’.
The council had also tried to lease out part of Tameside One as office space, but a meeting last November heard that companies did not want to move in.
Coun Ged Cooney, cabinet member for employment, housing and planning, told the meeting: “We’ve got the lease out of Tameside One office floor, £300k and that’s not going to happen, I accept it’s not anyone’s fault that it’s not going to happen.
“Covid has meant there are not many people going into many buildings.”
In December, the Government began to advise that people should again work from home rather than in offices where possible, amid the spread of the omicron variant – meaning more workplaces have since emptied.
Over the weeks that have followed, coronavirus cases have continued to surge in all Greater Manchester boroughs, and the Government’s ‘plan B’ measures – including working from home guidance – remain in place.