Football’s Cafe of Dreams
Manchester’s Café Football is not your average sports bar. Since opening earlier this year it has become a destination venue where you can watch sports in stylish surroundings in the shadow of Old Trafford.
Situated just a short Juan Mata reverse pass from Man United’s Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Hotel Football was a venue for die-hard Red Devils fans only. Aside from the hotel’s location, two of the owners are United’s assistant manager Ryan Giggs and his former team-mate Gary Neville. In addition, their fellow ‘Class of 92’ members Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville are also involved.
Hotel Football is designed for everyone and anyone who loves the Beautiful Game. The ground floor restaurant, Café Football, is living, breathing testimony to this. Mentions of United’s illustrious history are nowhere to be seen in the menu’s subtle and unbiased football references.
Following the opening of the first branch of Café Football in London in 2013 (in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium — soon to be home to West Ham United), Manchester’s version has also won rave reviews. But this is more than just a restaurant with the odd nod to football. This is a first class venue to watch live football on one of the venue’s 21 screens while eating superb food and sampling a top-notch drinks menu.
We spoke to hotel manager Stewart Davies to discover how Café Football had secured the second holy trinity — football, food and drink — on Matt Busby Way, following the original trio of Best, Law and Charlton.
Manager: Stewart Davies
Number of screens: 21
The importance of showing sport: “Café Football is football-themed but we show all sports. We’ve been showing a lot of rugby recently due to the World Cup and that has had a big impact upon business. So, yes, we show all major sports and major sporting events. We certainly see a spike in business when sport is being shown.”
Does football take precedence? “It depends on the occasion. When the cricket was on in the summer, we showed that. The Ashes was very popular. I guess football does take precedence, but we do show everything: golf – the Ryder Cup to the Open; Rugby League, Rugby Union, we showed the Women’s Netball World Cup.”
It’s not a Manchester United establishment: “Not at all. We’ve got branding in London. We’re a universal football establishment. We show all games. People come here because there’s football on the TV, not necessarily because it’s Man United. Because of the location our busiest times are always going to be when Man United are on TV, certainly when they’re playing live across the way, but we are Café Football. It’s football for everyone, and football for all teams, and all divisions.”
It’s a destination to watch football: “Definitely. We have a mix of all sorts of supporters and all sorts of sports fans that will come and watch the live football. They know that they can have something to eat and something to drink and watch the live sport as well.”
It’s not a sports bar: “I don’t think there’s ever been anywhere like it: a restaurant that also shows the games as well. There are subtle references to football in the menu and in the décor. There’s an emphasis on great service and being able to watch live sporting occasions while having a great meal and a great service experience as well.”
A day in the life: “In terms of the restaurant it peaks when Man United are at home. There’s a sustained service period before the game and after. When Man United are playing on TV or away we will be very busy when the game is on, rather than before or afterwards.”
Midweek European nights: “We can show three or four different games. The Champions League is a classic example. The other week Man United and Man City played on the same day so it was a real mix in here.”
Football tourists: “A lot of fans choose us not just for the location, but because of the football theme. We have opposition fans staying here too and they really see it as part of their experience. Foreign fans too. Particularly from Scandinavia, other parts of Europe, America, South Africa, Malaysia — we get them coming from all over.”
Social media: “It’s vitally important. Through Café Football and Hotel Football’s social media channels we advertise what we’re screening the morning before the games, the day before, even the week before — it was the Rugby League Grand Final a few weeks ago [at Old Trafford] so we were advertising it the week before. We want people to come here, sample the atmosphere, become part of it. The same with the cricket [when England play at Old Trafford Cricket Ground]. We’re obviously extremely fortunate in that we have an owner [Gary Neville] who has a huge following on Twitter and he supports us with that. When we tweet out the games we’re showing in Café Football on a daily basis, a retweet from him certainly helps with engagement.”
Who runs the account? “We do part of it ourselves – we do a lot of the reactive stuff through here. The more structured social media — when the games are happening and such like — we use an agency.”
It’s important to engage with users: “There’s a number of us, myself included, who look after the reactive side of things on Twitter. It’s really important to get back to people as soon as you can because someone else will and they might potentially go there instead. We do use it as a vehicle to push live sports and you have to react quickly.”
Are venues that don’t use social media or a website missing a trick? “I think so. People will tweet that they’re coming here; they’ll tweet the food, and it’s great to see. We like to get involved. It’s also hugely important in rectifying any negative situations. If someone has been here and hasn’t had a pleasant experience we know that we can be on top of it before they’ve left the restaurant. We can try and ensure that they leave a loyal customer and want to come back. I think that’s hugely important.”
The importance of TripAdvisor: “It’s a huge decision-making tool. We react quickly if there’s anything negative on there — we have to. The most important thing is getting back to customers, rectifying matters and learning from it. It has to play a huge significance in the business because it’s such a big decision-making tool for the customer and future customers.”
The audio/visual set-up: “We went through an extensive period of checking whether there were any blind spots — and if we felt there was an area that needed more we would certainly add them. We put a lot of emphasis on audio — at the weekends we lose the music when there’s live sport on and turn the sound up because it helps the immersive experience for the fans.”
Atmosphere: “It depends on the game. The European games are fun. Especially as you’ll have fans watching different games in different sections — all of a sudden you’ll get a pocket of fans cheering. It’s a really social atmosphere in here. It’s about the banter; it’s about the fun. It’s about transferring some of the atmosphere into here and when you add in the food it’s great. I think we’ve got the balance right. When Man United are playing at home, the atmosphere is buzzing. It’s loud and energetic. Afterwards everyone wants to talk about the game, about what happened. Even before the game the atmosphere is great. And we encourage that. We encourage that interaction.”
The food is a point of difference: “We’re not a sports bar, we’re a football-themed restaurant so there is an emphasis on good, social, fun food and good, social, fun drinks. The cocktail menu is fun — it’s designed with references to football again. The food is hugely important for us. We put a lot of emphasis on wine too. It’s not just beer culture here. They’re all of equal importance really.”
It’s a social occasion: “We have businessmen and women coming in here for a meeting and then they’ll watch some sport. It breaks it up. Single diners will come down and watch the sport — rather than sitting in their room on their own they can come down as single traveller, business or leisure, male or female, and sit and watch the sport and enjoy a meal. If you want to chat to people close by the atmosphere is conducive to that.”
Female friendly: “It’s very important. There’s a huge emphasis on women’s sport at the moment, from the netball team to the football. We hosted the national women’s football team for their last game before they went to the World Cup (in the summer). We have the ladies from Man City come down a lot and they must enjoy what we do here because they keep coming back. It’s hugely important that we appeal to female customers.”
Memorable nights: “The Man United home games are always great affairs. There’s a real buzz about the place. I guess the Liverpool game was huge because of the result [United won 3-1] and we’re fortunate to have a lot of the owners in amongst the crowd, they’re legends of the game. It helps the atmosphere — hugely. They support us every game and it does make a difference for the customer.”
Café Football opened in February 2015 as part of Hotel Football. Café Football is non-partisan. Downstairs is the Old Trafford Supporters Club — open for match-going Manchester United fans (admission £1 with revenue going to local charities).