Meet the Manchester cultural hub… in a pub! Tucked away behind Manchester Science Park in Hulme, The Old Abbey Taphouse (TOAT) even looks like a classic old pub from the outside, but inside it has been developing fast-thinking new responses to the times in which we live. This has included teaming up with other community organisations during the Covid-19 pandemic to support local people with delivered pay-as-you-feel hot meals – Taphouse TV Dinners, as well as a new 'Family Meal Time on Tuesdays'.

This highlights TOAT’s crucial work as a social enterprise, committed to supporting the local community, including the Aquarius and Monton estates close to Manchester Science Park, and was re-opened as a ‘STEAM’ hub back in 2016. This means it is committed to supporting Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths (STEAM), as well as making connections between the universities, the local community and businesses in the area, celebrating a more integrated approach.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana Salles

And this innovative pub doesn’t just talk about social action, it puts it into effect too. TOAT supports people of all backgrounds, and has long provided a space, activities and opportunities for local residents, including its commitment to employing people from the community and listening to the input from people of various ages. TOAT is after all one of the ‘last locals’ in Hulme, following the extensive development of the area over the past 30 years, which saw many local pubs – meeting places for people of all ages – closed.  A number of Hulme’s elderly residents, for example, have since come to the Taphouse and shared memories of what was the Greenheys Estate, the area Manchester Science Park now occupies. Their conversation has highlighted social tensions, feelings of dislocation and a lack of connection with new developments as they have changed the local landscape over time.

Adopting an integrated approach, TOAT takes these views into account, and has long been a space dedicated to supporting women’s organisations, people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, non-for-profit initiatives and LGBT+ groups; with inclusive nights such as Alt Femme taking place (prior to Covid-19) and previously featured by Haunt Manchester here.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana Salles

Well-known for its alternative gigs and innovative events before covid-19, the pub showed quick-thinking innovation in its response to the pandemic too. With the objective of creating local meals for local people, they have partnered up with three other community organisations: Gaskell Garden Project, ACORN and Geeks For Social Change… leading to Taphouse TV Dinners! Together, by combining their various skills, this allows for effective community engagement, addressing food waste issues and technological innovation, all in one go! TOAT also created a new board of directors just before lockdown; the team that is helping to make these dinners happen. It consists of TOAT Co-founders Rachele Evaroa and Craig Thomas, as well as Ella Marshall - who has supported people who need help throughout this time with phone check-ins, cards and art packs, and Frankie Coker - whose efficient marketing of Taphouse TV Dinners and running of the Crowdfunder has helped ensure its reach. There is also been a team of hard-working volunteers. 

So what are Taphouse TV Dinners? These are ready-meals with a radical difference to those shop-bought options… instead made by the community, for the community, with nutritious ingredients! Operating as a food and support initiative, Taphouse TV Dinners connects some of the most under-served residents in inner city Manchester with hearty pay-as-you-feel meals, created in the five-star hygiene rated Old Abbey Taphouse kitchen. This project takes individual needs into account and is determined to make every recipient feel valued and listened to, something that is emphasized in their attention to detail; right down to catering to a range of dietary needs (including vegan-friendly options, for example), people can pay what they can afford (with no pressure for a donation if not possible), and providing the food already heated for those who may not have a microwave at home. They have already distributed well over 100 meals and 1,000 Easter eggs to those in need, frontline workers and their families, with examples of nutritious meals including sausage and mash, lasagne and quinoa salad. There are also plans to include art and activity packs as part of the Taphouse TV Dinners provision.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana Salles

How does it work? Whilst The Old Abbey Taphouse team provides the project co-ordination and the kitchen space, the produce going into the meals is co-ordinated by the innovative Gaskell Garden Project. Founded in 2014, Gaskell Garden Project is a social justice and environmental project. It has worked from its onset to involve people throughout the local community – including supporting refugees and asylum seekers - in permaculture and the process of collecting surplus produce from farms/allotments, resulting in less food waste and plenty of healthy options! Hence, being a partner in the Taphouse TV Dinners initiative means they can be on-hand to collect harvested food and food donations, whilst the TOAT kitchen turns it into hearty dinners!

The dinners are then delivered thanks to Delivery Co-ordination from ACORN, a community-based union bringing together a range of working class people - including residents, workers and tenants – with the aim of empowering and supporting those on a low-income across the country. As part of the Taphouse TV Dinners initiative, they help to connect the food with the people in most need, which has included their efforts to flyer local areas and create a database recording resident needs. The final Taphouse TV Dinners partner, Geeks For Social Change, then provide the Logistics Co-ordination; helping to contact residents, collate orders and pass on relevant information such as allergens to the teams in the kitchen. In turn, The ‘TV Dinners’ have meant that people in need in the community have had a means of getting fresh, healthy meals to their door.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana SallesDuring much of the lockdown, the pub was closed to the general public and running its delivery service from 5-11pm, though since public health guidelines have been relaxed, it has gone on to open to the public for takeaways (see the picture above) and to provide a community space in their innovative outdoor seating area. An example of a group now using this space is the Hulme Writers Group (a section of the group are pictured below), set up by Tina Cribbin (author of the poetry collection Clasphemy), Anne Finnegan and members of the local community, to share and document their stories and creative writing. Previously meeting at the Hulme Acquarius Centre – which is still closed due to pandemic measures – Hulme Writers Group is now using the TOAT space for their creative meetings and they are even putting together their second book A Great Big Dollop Of Hope (following on from the first, Thirsty Scholars, which Haunt wrote about here), devised during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The striking outdoor area is certainly worth a mention in its own right. Created thanks to funding from One Mcr, draped in a marquee structure that conveniently makes it rain-proof too, the space is capable of holding up to 150 people (usual capacity, numbers will be different in terms of Covid-19 measures - pictured below) and features a stage and lighting, as well as seating. TOAT have continued to uphold their commitment to providing it as an area where local community groups and initiatives can meet for free, and as lockdown restrictions have eased, have extended this offering through their new, free ‘Family Meal Time on Tuesdays’ initiative.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana Salles

During the school summer holidays (July 21st-August 25th), The Old Abbey Taphouse will set aside seven tables in their outdoor marquee space each Tuesday night, dedicating them as a place where local families can have a socially-distanced evening out together complete with homemade food from TOAT kitchen, table service and entertainment for the children. All without the additional pressure of a bill at the end! Intended to be for local families only, this free  service – supported by funding from One Mcr – is intended to  make the whole family feel special; a consideration that often seems to fall outside government provisions. No alcohol will be served during this time and people are encouraged to bring any games or activities they like. Priority will also be given to those in highest need (though this is not means-tested, people are welcome to provide any details they feel comfortable sharing) and children who are having birthdays that week, with more details and the booking link available online. The first Family Meal Time on Tuesday (21st July) even featured party bags!

According to The Old Abbey Taphouse Co-founder Rachele Evaroa:

 “We made preparations well ahead of time for the pandemic… Craig’s sister lives in Denmark, our chef is Italian, and there were massive international reports of Covid-19 a couple of weeks before lockdown; we saw it coming. Being responsive was important. After all, we had a meeting with local councillors literally a day before the lockdown – but then community officers were furloughed, meaning that local people faced even less support! In addition, the legislature regarding who needed to self-isolate kept changing, meaning that a number of people who were actually entitled to help such as food deliveries, did not receive it. Addressing this was crucial.

“I’ve been banging on for years about how we need community hubs, training and supporting local people, especially when it is needed most. The Old Abbey after all functions not only as a pub but is a hub when people need it – providing decent jobs to local people and supporting the community on a social enterprise basis. It has been hard to get to this point… I hate the way funding is set up – because we don’t cater for a specific group, we cater for everybody – we often fall outside financial help. There seems to be very little for those supporting white working class people, for example, and people facing poverty… as many do in the city. We welcome everyone, of all backgrounds and ages, we are all part of the community.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana Salles

“Our approach considers feeling as important. From my lived experience, it’s nothing to do with accessing services, it is about how you feel. Community based projects need to take that into account – the feelings of the people they are working with. For example, by working with the Gaskell Garden project we are creating tasty meals using perfectly good food from supermarkets that would otherwise be thrown away; addressing the issue of food waste, something that often frustrates people, as well as providing the type of food that makes them feel good. Sharing a meal as a community can have that effect too. That’s how the ‘Tuesday Family Meal Time’ concept came about. By listening to the thoughts and feelings of the community, what became apparent is that families needed time and space, somewhere to relax… it’s about more than just food. After all, during the pandemic many parents have had to be at home without childcare, often in a restricted space, down on money – government guidelines don’t often take the experience of that , the feelings involved, into account. That’s why we are offering the mealtimes in our covered outdoor seating area, with table service and even entertainment for the children. It is an opportunity for people to feel special, and that feeling matters.

“Neoliberalism on the other hand, the model which seems to dominate society, is very different – it cuts feelings out, makes everything a transaction. And yet, businesses as part of it are failing left, right and centre. That’s why I’d urge anyone with a small enterprise to dare to be different. We are a social enterprise, though we had to fight for it. I hope that more people start considering hyperlocal models too, especially in relation to cities. In cities such as Manchester, so much has been designed around catering to the universities and office workers. Take the abundance of luxury gated student accommodation here; it means students are ‘separated’ from the local community rather than contributing to it. And yet the pandemic has additionally highlighted that areas cannot sustainably rely on specific groups of people, as this can be so changeable. What persists and supports everyone is community, and therefore having a place for that matters. We want The Old Abbey Taphouse to be one of those places.

The Old Abbey Taphouse By Joana Salles

“Yet pandemic measures have hit community services hard, as I mentioned before. Many staff have been, quite rightly, furloughed… but people in the community still need those services, still need help. The same goes for The Old Abbey Taphouse, we only get a bit of funding and it is not fair to rely solely on volunteers, as much as I am so grateful to them, we need our trained professional staff as well. Joined-up thinking matters going forward too. Lots of charities have one specific aim, such as focusing on just mental health or just alcoholism… yet if poverty is ignored, as it often is in this country, these issues are going to continue to persist too. In this country, what I’ve really noticed, is that poverty makes people feel alone. Growing up I lived in places such as India, Yemen, Gabon – and although many people in these countries are living in poverty, what I experienced is that people were there for each other.

“Being there for each other makes a massive difference, especially feeling that. I’m really proud of The Old Abbey Taphouse team and they have responded, including our great volunteers. We’ve been having chats with potentially vulnerable members of local community on a regular basis on the phone, ringing 50 people for a catch-up chat. We then send the same volunteer to the same people each time, so they can have a catch-up chat but also build a relationship. This has been a real opportunity to connect with people who may not have ever come to the pub, for various reasons. For many of the potentially vulnerable older people as well, it’s an illustration to them that young people do care about them, and want to get out into the community. Models from the 1960s are also inspiring… especially for the creation of new models today. For example, the Black Panthers set up breakfast provisions for school children as well as fighting for social change. We need to provide practicalities for the community as well as creating our own alternative system, if we don’t do it, someone else will fill that gap.”

For more information, visit The Old Abbey Taphouse online here, and Taphouse TV dinners has a website including details of how to register and a link for the public to donate in support of the initative if they wish:

Photography by Joana Salles 

Article by Emily Oldfield