Dan Place is the founder of Manchester’s Northern Soul Grilled Cheese. In the nicest possible way, Northern Soul belongs in the naughtier strand of casual dining establishments. His awe-inspiring, mouth-wateringly-good grilled cheese sandwiches have been winning admirers and drawing queues around the corner since launching in 2015. They’ve already been described as a Manchester institution, count Justin Bieber as a customer, and have sparked a legion of imitators along the way. We caught up with Dan to find out how it all came about.
How would you sum up Northern Soul in a sentence?
Change from a tenner for a totally unique dining experience that will leave you smiling from ear to ear.
What did you do before launching Northern Soul?
After a few years of not knowing what to do with my life, I spent an amazing year travelling around the world with my then-girlfriend Lissie (now wife and business partner). After returning, and getting a regular job to steady the ship, I was inspired to start my first business: a milkshake bar that soon turned into a chain. This was an original idea back in 2008 and we ended up with four prime shopping centre locations, spinning milkshakes with up to 150 flavours and 1000s of unique flavour combinations.
And then came Northern Soul… how did that come about?
Grilled cheese is my favourite thing in the world to eat. I love cheese! Do something you love and you won’t go far wrong.
It didn’t immediately come to me though. I always wanted my own restaurant. I played around with a diner idea at first but soon realised I had nowhere near the money to do it. Plus there’d already been a massive burger boom in Manchester at the time.
I started writing and cooking menu ideas for friends and family who all agreed my Grilled Cheese was epic and I should just focus on this. After successfully running milkshake bars this seemed like a logical next move. Now all I had to do was tweak the model with Northern Soul Grilled Cheese.
Thinking about before you launched, how did you find the process of setting up Northern Soul?
I already had an idea of the market from my previous business and had survived the economic landslide that really should have finished a business like that off. When the time came I took a measured and sensible approach to Northern Soul. After all, I would be investing our life savings and maxing out the plastic to get it off the ground.
Two years ago the pop-up was becoming a more and more viable option to get a business off the ground. We went down that route after drawing blanks with estate agents on bigger more expensive locations. This proved to be a good move as we took a lease out on a market style building in the Northern Quarter, Manchester, and styled it on an inside out NYC food spot. The atmosphere is remarkable.
It certainly has a lot of character. Can you tell us a little more about choosing and setting up your premises?
We have a great relationship with the landlord from one of my other business’ and it came up in conversation that I was starting a new venture and going down a pop-up route. They had a small site with basic electric, no running water, drainage and had no windows or doors.
“Perfect,” I said. Because what it did have was location, location, location. After many sleepless nights, we figured a way around all these issues and starting trading. Within six months we took the unit next door and doubled in size.
Since launching, what have you found the most challenging? Has that changed over time?
The site has been the most challenging thing about Northern Soul and has required constant improvements and upgrades. As it’s such a unique site I have resigned myself to the fact there will always be issues and changes. But things can’t always be perfect and to be honest it adds to the character.
How has your business evolved since you set it up?
The business has been running for over two years now. The first thing I would like to mention is that I’ve lived, breathed and enjoyed ever minute of it but it’s been tremendously hard work. 60 hour weeks are still a minimum shift but with a great team now in place, the load has lightened.
We’ve had queues out of the door since 2015 and I hope that this continues. It shows that we’re constantly evolving our business offering with ever-changing menus. Somebody quoted us as being a new Manchester institution the other week, so that will do for me.
What achievements are you most proud of?
The thing that makes me most proud is the fact I can share all our achievements with Lissie, my wife and best friend.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy the shop, the buzz and customers most of all. We have a great team that enjoy what they do and when the shop is in full flow and the staff at the top of their game it really is the greatest feeling in the world; to know that you created something out of nothing and now have a thriving business.
At the same time don’t be the highest paid worker in the shop. That’s what staff are for. The real art is to balance the business with the not so glamorous stuff like paperwork and bills. A lesson I am still fully yet to learn.