From the quirky Breaking Bad rock candy to the legendary Danny Radman Pancakes, Penelope’s Kitchen has taken Media City by storm. But the story behind the creation of such an eccentric café is a tale of adventure, heartbreak and lots of yummy food!
Much to everyone’s disbelief, Penelope’s is only the name of the kitchen, not the owner. Carla, the owner, lived in New York for 3 years, where many of her inspirations for Penelope’s blossomed. She would go to work and have coffee and her breakfast every morning in a café called Penelope’s, hence the name. It was here that she used to dream of one day opening her own catering business. “It just reminds me of home. But everybody calls me Penelope now!”
It’s like stepping into a little New York café with the communal counters signed by passers-by, a reading corner and fairy lights, clinging to the ceiling. ‘It’s such an interesting place here and I’ve never seen anywhere like this,’ says Carla Tomlinson, creator of Penelope’s Kitchen.
Carla, a Manchester-born girl, has led a very spontaneous lifestyle fuelled her passion to create such a great hang out. A place where students, media employees, actors and directors can enjoy fantastic culinary delights in a relaxed, chilled atmosphere.
From an early age, Carla had an interest in media and music, however, as all of us budding media moguls know it’s hard to find someone who will take you seriously when asking for a job. Frustrated by constantly being ignored or rejected, Carla had something else in mind to grab employers’ attentions. “I screwed my CV into a ball and then put it in a wicker bin, I posted it to Galaxy FM with a note saying ‘You’re probably going to put my CV in the bin anyway I may as well save you the effort,’ and then they gave me the job!”
She then continued to work in radio, doing promotion, until the age of 25, when she felt as though she was going around in circles, and that there was nothing challenging her. With a hunger to be more creative, she requested three months off work and backpacked around Asia. It was here that she took courses in how to make Thai food. She had always had an interest in cooking, claiming the cooking channels on TV would captivate her for hours on end.
After learning about different types of foods in different countries, feeling more refreshed, she headed back to Manchester. Six months went by; she felt she was slipping back into the same routines as before. One night, dancing away in the middle of a nightclub, she happened to hear the song ‘I’m Moving To New York’ by The Wombats, and in a mad moments decision screamed ‘That’s it! I’m moving to New York.’ “I booked a one way ticket to New York and I was gone in four weeks.”
With a friend by her side and only three days in a hostel to find a job, Carla was living on the edge, clinging to a dream. “We’d been walking block after block and were lost, I didn’t have a clue where I was all I could see was the Empire State Building so I knew I was still in New York.” She had only been to New York once before in her life “I went when I was 21 for 3 days, I hated it! The people were rude and it was cold and wet!”
After entering a bar to question the staff on which coins meant what (dimes, nickels etc.) the pair were offered a place to rent. They had landed on their feet in the Big Apple, managing to both get jobs in bars. Carla had to work for free for 2 weeks before being employed, to prove she was good enough, this is where she learnt all about service.
While waitressing, Carla made friends with the chefs where she worked and they allowed her to come in on her days off to learn how to cook. But working 15 hour shifts, sometimes 12 times in a row, didn’t stop Carla from enjoying the New York nightlife.
After a year of being in New York, she went back to Manchester due to her visa running out. “When my next visa came through I flew right back as I wasn’t enjoying being home as I missed the New York City lifestyle.” In the month she was back she fell in love with her friend from college Scott. Carla gave him an ultimatum, if he wanted to be with her he had to move back to New York with her. “He sold everything he owned to be with me.”
After a great time together living in New York, but feeling burnt out from the hectic lifestyle, Carla wanted to share other life experiences with Scott, her now fiancé. So they went backpacking around Asia, before heading back to England to plan their next move.
Soon after being back in England, to Carla and Scott’s delight, they found out they were going to be having a baby. Unfortunately, despite a straightforward birth, there were complications and an unprepared Carla and fiancé Scott learnt their son had a perforated bowel. Leo was diagnosed with necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), a condition that causes parts of the intestines to become inflamed and then die.
After her life had been turned upside down and spending nearly a year of her life with Leo in the children’s hospital, Carla then decided it was time for something new. She decided if there was ever going to be a time to change her career, this was it, it was time to do something that made her happy. Penelope’s ice cream was then born. Working alongside a café in Castlefield, Carla sold her ice cream in many delicious flavours and it soon became clear how popular it was, with sales booming and the demand increasing. Soon enough someone in Spinningfields got in contact and Penelope’s ice cream bloomed into Penelope’s kitchen, where burgers were also put on the menu.
However the entrepreneur soon had her sights set higher in a bid to develop the company, and found out about a shipping container in Media City. “That is the coolest shipping container in the world, I want it!” She screamed when she saw it, determined to find the owner and approach them. “I know I’m only a small acorn, but small acorns grow into big trees, someone please get back to me!” After many failed attempts, someone finally got back to Carla, allowing her to sell burgers and ice cream from the shipping container in the piazza of Media City. Along with the help of the Prince’s Trust, Dock Grill began. A great summer shone for Carla’s new culinary trade with a continuous demand for their delicious juicy burgers.
She was then offered a place in Media City, a more practical solution as the cooler months were creeping in. When first seeing the room however, Carla was less than impressed. “I remember thinking if I was working in media still and I came in here not a chance would I have wanted to eat here.” With a loose instruction to give the place a ‘Northern Quarter’ feel, Carla and her team from Dock Grill set to work transforming the place.
“We learnt what people wanted from Dock Grill, they like their salads and they like to know where their ingredients comes from so I was kind of building it for them really. It’s more their space than mine.”
Despite all of the hard work, impulsive as always Carla visited New York a week before Penelope’s Kitchen was due to open, and came back ordering “We’re changing it, we’re changing all of it!” The individual seating was scrapped and communal benches were fitted instead, along with free coffee refills and an offer of free fries with every burger. “It just reminded me of back home in New York and what standards should be like.”
Perhaps shockingly, Carla revealed that she used to be a vegetarian. This was until she cracked one day in McDonalds, ordering 6 cheeseburgers and eating them one after the other! This is one of the many reasons she insists on the best quality ingredients from the best farms. “I have to know the animals are being looked after and fed well.” The Penelope’s ethos is that they use independent, local, real suppliers from Manchester, so you know exactly where your food’s coming from – great to know we’re not eating horse meat!
Penelope’s has been doing great since opening in October last year, with big media productions now booking their catering in large quantities. A cool, chilled and calm atmosphere can be felt as soon as you enter Penelope’s kitchen and catch that first sniff of their famous burgers. Carla recalled, “Someone said to me earlier ‘I feel so welcome here I even come in on my own’ and I was like, that’s the nicest thing ever, that’s exactly what we wanted. Service is key here.”
“I love the whole communal sense of being here; it’s like a little island. I felt some places in Media City are on the pricey side so I wanted something that wasn’t. If you spill something here we don’t mind, it’s so beautiful in Media City we need somewhere a bit more casual.”
Other businesses are welcomed by Carla, who doesn’t believe they are competitive or even need to compete. “The more people that come here the more businesses open and the better it is, it makes it more of a destination. Everybody sees it as the bigger picture.”
“It’s mad how things map out from working in the kitchen in New York to working here. I guess fate does work like that.”