We went to Wigan’s Sainsbury’s café and saw why it’s left people ‘devastated’

Supermarket cafes are quite hard to judge objectively. The food is generally decent, neither ground-breaking cuisine or the bottom of the barrel, and the price is pretty average for what it is – but something about them being there is really important for local people.

When news broke earlier this week that Sainsbury’s was closing all but three of their cafes in Greater Manchester, people in Wigan were gutted, tagging friends in social media posts about the closures and lamenting about the loss of “a damn good breakfast”. On Friday, the cafe’s final day, I headed down to see what all the fuss was about.

First up, we need to appreciate the coffee itself. It’s tucked away on the first floor of the superstore, in the front corner by the entrance, and all the outer walls are massive windows, letting in reams of light to make it a very welcoming and pleasant space.

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It was pretty clear the café was winding down, with displays half-full or completely empty when I got there about two hours before the final closing time. The menu appeared to be reduced too, offering sandwiches, soup, and sausage rolls – a far cry from the wonderful meals I’d heard people reminiscing about.

My eyes were instantly drawn to a row of thank you cards lined up on the counter, with messages of love and support to all the staff from loyal customers. I later watched one member of staff, not working at the time, came into the cafe to see her colleagues de ella-tearing up when she read the heartfelt messages and was handed a personalized gift one customer had left behind the counter for her.

It only took a few minutes to get served, and I handed over a packaged bacon roll from the fridge to be warmed up, and ordered a vanilla latte, which set me back £6.20. One of the staff very kindly offered to bring my coffee over to my table to save me waiting, so I grabbed a pack of ketchup and sat down to enjoy my lunch.

Thank you cards were left on the counter for staff

The food was pretty good – it was a very tasty roll with three good-sized pieces of bacon inside, and the latte was very good, with the vanilla flavoring stirred through really well. Yes, I could have gotten a very similar meal from the McDonalds in the store’s car park for slightly less, but the best part about the meal was the atmosphere.

With the sun shining through the massive windows, the café really did offer up a slice of respite, taking you away from the traffic below and just offering up a spot to sit and enjoy a moment to yourself. Watching the staff and the way they interacted with each other and the customers they’d been serving for years was also really pleasant, helping to put you in a little bubble away from everything else which is exactly what I want when I sit down in a supermarket cafe.

‘I’m devastated – the place is great’

When I’d finished off my lunch, I headed over to chat with some of the other people there and it reinforced the idea that this place was about far more than just the food. Marie Knowles has been coming to the café for years, as she lives down a road just opposite the store, and is so well-known by staff that her friend of hers says they have her drink order ready before she even reaches the counter.

“I’m devastated,” she said. “I love sitting her and watching the world go by. There’s nothing up this end café wise. I’m here all the time. I guess I’ll just try and find somewhere else to go.

“There’s the McDonalds but that’s really not the same. I’ll probably just go shopping at Tesco’s instead. There’s nowhere around here you can just sit and watch people.

“This place is great, you can meet up with friends, we’ve got the crafting group, and the staff are wonderful. I always wanted to change my hair and surprise them sometime but I guess it’s too late now.”

Marie was quite sad the cafe was closing

The local Knit and Natter group were also out, with eight ladies gathered around one of the bigger tables crafting away. Some of the members spoke about the café and how kind staff had been to them all over the last few years

“The current manager put on a Christmas spread for us,” said Joan Simpson. “I only met him today but I really wanted to meet him and shake his hand to thank him for all he’s done. We’re going to miss it really, there’s drinks, snacks, it’s a nice place.”

Anne Atherton added: “It’s also a nice light room with all the windows, and the staff are so nice and so friendly.”

Christine Thorpe, another one of the group’s members, has managed to sort out a free room for the group after a lot of stressful inquiries in Primrose Farm – the carvery restaurant just a few minutes down the road.

Wigan is one of 200 Sainsbury’s cafes closing across the country

The group does a lot of charity knitting, making hats for premature babies and crafting to help the local hospital, dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, and even carrying out a yarn bomb in the local area.

Having a light space so they can see their projects, and a table big enough to fit them all round so they can sit and have a chat whilst knitting is really important for them all, helping make the weekly sessions something to look forward to.

Although Sainsbury’s said staff from the cafes that were closing would be “prioritised” for alternative jobs within the company, several workers from the café in Wigan had told customers they were leaving the company, as there were no suitable roles for them.

Linda Harrison added: “Two of the girls here have worked here 26 years, and they’ve told us they’re being made redundant. I can’t believe Sainsbury’s can’t find jobs for them. One of my friends is retiring from the store in June and even offered to bring her retirement forward so one of the girls could have her job.”

It’s not just groups that will struggle to find meeting points now either, as family members living apart often choose supermarket cafes as convenient locations to meet for a coffee and a catch-up. Mum and daughter pair Caren Taylor and Barbara MacDonald have been coming to the café fairly regularly for quite a while now, and now have to find a new place to meet.

Caren Taylor and mum Barbara MacDonald use the cafe every week

“We like it here,” Caren explained. “But obviously it has to go. We’re devastated. My mum lives the other side of Wigan so we come here at least once a week and do some shopping too.

Barbara added: “I was quite shocked when they stopped doing the meals. It wasn’t until I came in one day for my dinner before meeting Caren that I realized they were gone, clearly just phasing them out to get ready for it going. We’ll probably go to Tesco now, the café in Asda isn’t very good so I wouldn’t want to go there.”

The light and airy space is another reason the pair like visiting the café, as the sunlight helps Caren – and is something she struggles to find as much of in other café spaces nearby.

Only three Sainsbury’s cafes will remain open in Greater Manchester, Hazel Grove, Cheadle, and Denton, meaning all the other cafes have now closed. There are plans to open “restaurant hubs” or Starbucks sites at the former cafes according to Sainsbury’s, but it’s unclear when this might come into effect, and it could take months or even years before the new sites are looking for staff once again.

Until then, friends, family, and community groups enjoying the Sainsbury’s cafes in Greater Manchester will need to find a new home – and they might struggle to find one that ticks all the boxes they’re benefiting from now.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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