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Business & Economy

Interview: Neill Winch, STACK

Stack Attack

Newcastle United has announced plans to create a fans’ zone in Strawberry Place, which will see the area across the road from St James’ Park finally embraced by the club’s owners, rather than sold to the highest bidder for flats and offices. However, the development also marks the return of another big player to Newcastle. STACK will be back after a short hiatus following the end of its tenure off Northumberland Street last year. The innovative project, converting industrial containers into two-storey restaurants, bars and street food vendors, complete with live entertainment, has also gone down a storm on Seaburn seafront. And those containers are now becoming familiar sights across the country, with units primed to crop up in Durham, Bishop Auckland, Whitley Bay, Middlesbrough, Carlisle, Lincoln and Northampton. And, as Neill Winch, chief executive of STACK’s parent company Danieli Leisure Group tells Colin Young, the expansion is set to continue across the UK.

Neill Winch takes in the view from the second floor of STACK Seaburn.

To his left, beyond the main road, a stunning view of white sands, a shiny North Sea and blue horizons; to his right, restaurants and bars coming to life in a village of 20 stacked containers wrapped in equally shiny blue.

This is the beating heart of Seaburn seafront’s revival.

It is mid-morning and relatively quiet.

Above the hum of music, the many vendors across the two storeys are preparing for lunch.

In the middle of the floor, high above seats, tables and the main stage, painter Mick applies a fresh coat of metallic aquamarine.

Like the Forth Road Bridge, STACK exteriors and interiors require daily upkeep and attention.

And they will soon be applying paints on these unique metal emporiums across the country, as STACK rolls out expansion plans.

Neill says: “The opening night, I remember standing here, by the side, on my own.

“It was full, everyone was having an amazing time, and I looked down and thought, ‘what a great job we’ve done’.

“You just get a buzz out of giving people a great time; that’s what it’s all about.

“If they are enjoying it, we’ll do well.

“I can’t tell you how many people said Seaburn would never work; when I was going through negotiations, so many told me that.

“But it made me even more determined.

“It has worked, and it has gone way beyond our expectations.”

Neill adds: “It was the same feeling on opening night in Newcastle; that was a £2.4 million investment and a brand new concept, but would it work?

“I had to go with my gut that it would – and it did.

“I know the brand and the model are unbelievable, and I have absolute faith.

“We could lift this, put it anywhere and fill it.

“It’s not easy, but we’re giving people what they want.”

Born in Sunderland, brought up in Newcastle and educated in Washington, Neill has worked in London, South Africa and Israel.

He’s also been involved in businesses across the North East for three decades, with his CV including an accountancy practice, flower shops, a coffee shop, a security business, property development, leisure, a care business, a nursing home and providing domiciliary care for 27 years in Newcastle.

STACK evolved in 2017 after a successful three-month stint serving warm drinks, mulled wine and beers over fire pits outside Newcastle’s Central Station in Hadrian’s Tipi.

Plans to make the cosy tent permanent were thrown out, but the popular tipi returned for a couple of the city’s Christmas markets before becoming a central component of Containerland when STACK opened.

Neill says: “We had one bar in a container and a bar in the tipi, and it evolved from that.

“We had a gin garden, tipi, street food and a stage, and when the live performances and stage were put in, STACK went like that,” says Neill, sending his right hand skyward.

“People love live entertainment.

“It was not just me, other people contributed, and by luck and good judgement we ended up with a format that really worked.

“We massaged the model until we got it right.

“The last bit was the live music.

“We have to have that at every venue, 52 weeks of the year.

“That was the ‘light came on’ moment.

“When we put the stage in, it was a different animal.

“The location was the worst end of town; the old Odeon cinema. Nobody went, there was no day or night-time economy.

“We changed the flow and footfall from Bigg Market and Grey Street, moving them over to us.

“We had to work hard – it took six months but, once we went through that, it gathered momentum.

“We had 1.3 million visitors in that first year.”

Newcastle’s soon-to-be HMRC office block put an end to STACK in Newcastle, but the familiar containers will return in the new Strawberry Place development, and are certain to be centre of attention.

Despite the sceptics, STACK Seaburn has also been a phenomenal success, and has not gone unnoticed elsewhere.

Neill says: “Newcastle was very successful, and Seaburn has been as successful in a very different way.

“This is not the city centre, but it is very much a destination and we have to drive footfall, whereas in Newcastle it was more organic and people came because it was the city centre.

“But you have to work really hard here, and we do work really hard, but people only come back if they like what you do.

“If it’s crap, they won’t come back.

“Kids entertainment, quality of food, quality of service, social media, digital marketing – it isn’t just a case of rocking up, opening up and people just turning up.

“I have an unbelievable team behind me – the best – who are very, very good at what they do.

“Unless you have everything right, things don’t happen. It’s a massive operation behind the scenes.

“You’d be amazed how many people know STACK and are looking at it; people all over the country know what we have achieved in Newcastle, in particular.

“It’s pretty spectacular for what we do. We’re a huge success story.”

The team behind the scenes is expanding as STACK branches out, taking enquiries from cities keen to develop an abandoned Argos or Debenhams store, while also adding to the portfolio across the region.

It’s a diverse list of permanents and pop-ups; the old Marks & Spencer building in Durham, underneath the A66 in Middlesbrough, a new-build scheme in Bishop Auckland, an old shed behind Spanish City, in Whitley Bay, and a car park in Carlisle.

And, as North East Times Magazine was going to print, Neill and the team were signing off on a site in Northampton, which will become STACK’s first venue in the Midlands.

And, as in Newcastle and Seaburn, local chefs will have the opportunity to test the tastebuds of the public and follow in the footsteps of Sushi Me Rollin’, a small joint launched in STACK that is now serving some of the best Japanese food in town from its Grey Street base.

Neill says: “That’s a success story.

“I was disappointed when they left, but also really pleased because they did an amazing job for me and the STACK brand.

“It feels a bit like one of your kids leaving home. They are good guys.

“The quality has to be right, and we encourage people to get on the ladder and develop their product with us.

“As long as the food is great and they are passionate, why not?

“We want them to be local, so they might have a similar feel.

“The independent street food will have that local touch and it’s the same with entertainment, so each STACK should be a slightly different experience.

“The ethos is the same, but they all have characters local to their environment.

“It adds kudos as well because they drive footfall.

“It’s like a family.”