Walking around Newport Market it's hard not to be impressed by how much has changed in a few short months. From deep-fried gnocchi and decadent cheesecake to organic meat and piping hot fresh Welsh cakes the sights and smells are something to behold inside a building which less than a year ago was almost empty.

Although it boasts a generous retail offering including everything from a sustainable shop to a pet shop and photography space the crown jewel in the new market – which re-opened in March after a major revamp costing between £5m and £6m – is its food court which has captured the hearts and mouths of its thousands of visitors.

A notable departure from traditional market it is a sight that for many in Newport is still taking some getting used to. But it is also the biggest sign yet that the city is slowly moving towards a new identity as a food destination. It's something few could have argued even 12 months ago but the addition of the market to the steadily growing number of independent traders has arguably given Newport a food scene to rival its neighbours in Cardiff.

Read more:Newport's changing identity: The city that always seems to take one step forward and two steps back

There's no doubt that the city's offering had grown even before the market's overhaul. Long-running venue Le Pub has been serving vegan food for years while a number of specialist eateries have also opened their doors in recent years. Newport Food Festival has been running since 2010 and has become one of the biggest annual events in the city with thousands coming to visit stalls and take part in cooking demos from top chefs in the industry. The festival did not take place in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic but returned with a bang in October with the usual stalls in High Street spilling into the market which played an integral role in the event. There are rumours it might even expand in future years.

Newport's food success has been recognised by the critics too. In October Gem42, the Italian fine dining eatery in Bridge Street, was crowned the best in Wales at the AA Hospitality Awards. Run by twins Sergio and Pasquale Cinotti the low-lit, art-covered restaurant is a labour of love which has involved years of carefully studying food techniques and science, testing dishes and refining tastes to international standards. There are even edible QR codes. You can read our mouth-watering review of Gem42 here.

The expanding food scene in Newport is a welcome remedy to some of its well-publicised struggles – like many towns and cities it has seen major changes in its high street which resulted in it being named the place in the UK with the most empty shops back in January. You can read more about that here.

Speaking to some of the traders at the heart of Newport's food scene it's clear there is a renewed sense of optimism around the city and how food can be part of its long-term future. One of those is Dirty Gnocchi. Run by husband and wife Rhys and Laura Keogh the Italian street food vendor started at the end of last year after its owners sold their previously business, The Pot in Cardiff. Inspired by the pair's own version of 'dirty' fries using fried gnocchi the business began as a mobile unit in a converted horse box travelling around to various sites including Depot and Corp Yard in Cardiff.

But it was 2022 when things really took off with Dirty Gnocchi opening its first permanent site at the newly-developed market in March – something co-owner Rhys, 40, said had always been their goal. "We rebranded The Pot just before the pandemic," he said. "That was going well but then the pandemic hit. We never recovered then – especially with the staffing. We sold the business in November 2021 and and Newport Market had come along around then asking if we were interested so we used the money from [the sale] to set up there."

Rhys said he and Laura had started serving their own version of 'dirty' fries with fried gnocchi in their old Italian restaurant as a trial but it was so popular they ended up adding it to the menu permanently. That concept – combined with offering a big cheese wheel, which they still do now – after spotting the idea on a Netflix cooking show inspired them to take the leap and start Dirty Gnocchi.

"We thought: 'Why could we not do a street food business?'" he said. "We started it and we were then never looking for business – people were constantly approaching us." After about four pop-ups at various locations Dirty Gnocchi was approached by the market ahead of its major overhaul. For the couple it was a no-brainer. "We saw the potential and always preferred to have a permanent site anyway," Rhys said.

Dirty Gnocchi has been a hit since opening in the market
Dirty Gnocchi has been a hit since opening in the market

Since the market reopened thousands of customers have flocked to taste the likes of Dirty Gnocchi alongside other hugely popular names such as Flour & Ash, Meat & Greek, and Seven Lucky Gods. The 12 traders making up the food court have reported steady trade and have pulled in some more great names in recent months with doughnut chain Whocult opening there in December.

Their popularity is such that Dirty Gnocchi is already expanding with a stall opening in Cardiff Market in early January. The market's success is something Rhys hopes will carry on although he concedes the cost of living crisis has made things more difficult this winter. "It has dropped off a bit due to the cost of living. Part of the reason we wanted to do Cardiff as well was not to put all our eggs in one basket.

"It's all self-funded really – most of the work we've done in Cardiff is paid for by money we've made in Newport. My understanding was that the market in Newport was on its knees [before it re-opened]. It has become a food hub – people are coming from the likes of Bristol to go there. We were actually surprised at how many people there were coming in when we opened. The plan is to stay in Newport and keep both that and Cardiff ticking over and do a few festivals."

The market has proven popular
The market has proven popular

A few streets over Tom Gaskell opened Smokd with friend Rob King in August 2021, becoming the only independent restaurant in Friars Walk shopping centre at the time. "Eighteen months in and it's going reasonably well," he said. "Obviously we're still building trade. Newport has never really been seen as a destination for food. Obviously the market has helped but we don't have the independent traders or the scene that there is in Cardiff or Bristol.

"When we were looking at where to open we saw Newport as an opportunity to add to the food scene. For what we offer there's nothing really comparable in Newport in terms of smoked and barbecued food. Everything is our own recipes, sauces, all of it. It's very different."

Tom, 45, who has worked for years in hospitality including running a prominent hotel in Cardiff, said having an independent restaurant in Friars Walk was an added plus for those who are passionate about good meat. "It's a great thing in our world," he said. "We've had countless people saying it's the best food they've ever eaten and people are getting to learn about our cooking processes when they come too. It's not the same as pork ribs that are cooked in a bag somewhere in England – ours are cooked in a smoker for eight, nine hours at a low temperature. People have a perception of barbecued food in the UK and we're quite different."

Tom Gaskell open Smokd restaurant in Friars Walk in August 2021
Tom Gaskell open Smokd restaurant in Friars Walk in August 2021

More than just the food though Tom said places like Smokd offered a dining atmosphere that Newport has lacked somewhat in years past. "We're a bit rustic with indie music – it's not for everyone but it's a place to have a bit of fun and have a nice Welsh beer."

Weathering the difficulties of the pandemic and the recent cost crisis has seen business face soaring costs of ingredients, raw meterials, energy bills, and more with many forced to hike their prices as a result. Tom admitted this had been a challenge. "We've maintained our pricing structure as it was in March [2022] and absorbed the food and utility costs for however long we can do that. We know that times are tough for people and our job is to keep things as reasonable as we can.

"Fundamentally we are competing with big chains in Newport with huge buying power. We want it to be affordable for the customer and make it so they want to come back. It's always about finding the balance. Hopefully going into 2023 there will be some easing of these costs."

Smokd in Newport
Smokd in Newport

Tom said he feels Newport has never been in a better position for people looking for choice and quality of food. "From a Newport point of view we've now got a situation where people can come to experience really good food outlets, whether it's the market or others, and have something to eat that's as good as if not better than in Cardiff. So people don't need to go there to get that experience. Before that you were limited to high street restaurants.

"We want to see more independent restaurants come in. We know conditions are really tough for traders at the moment but we want to see that food, that bar scene, grow and for Newport to become more of a leisure city. That's fundamentally what we think people in Newport want to see.

"It's not too different to how Cardiff was 10 or 15 years ago. These things take time and people need to support traders when they come in."

Patricia Mellor, 45, started plant-based bakery and takeaway The Green Kitchen back in August 2020. Located in Cromwell Road it quickly became a hit with its wide variety of plant-based takes on homemade pies and pastries, pizzas, cakes, and desserts.

"The fact that I'm vegan myself makes things easier. We cater for lactose intolerance and have a lot of gluten-free things too. I definitely looked at Cardiff where I live but I noticed there was nothing in Newport. It was very underserved in this area. I thought there was no chance I wouldn't thrive with the market that was there. Since I've opened I've seen so many places opening and closing. I think we have more options than ever before and perhaps more than in Cardiff.

"There's quite a high demand. I think especially for everyday foods most vegans still struggle to find something to eat if they're on a work break or if they are having a party at home having something they can serve. I still don't think that's common in Newport. That's in big demand."

Patricia Mellor runs The Green Kitchen in Cromwell Road
Patricia Mellor runs The Green Kitchen in Cromwell Road

Despite its popularity Patricia said the demand for good-quality vegan outlets in the city meant even more businesses could open without damaging her trade. "I still reckon there is a gap in the market for began food in Newport. I could open three more Green Kitchens here and we would still be busy. I don't think the market is saturated with vegan places yet. Every day I get customers who are vegan that I've never met before who pass by or read about it in an article. We're still not covering our whole niche.

"Competition is very important for my business. If you go to London you can go on a food tour. If you go to Cardiff you used to be able to find so many vegan places to eat. But in Newport you still have a limited amount on offer. The more that open the more you will attract people from outside the area, because there's more to visit, as well as locals.

"I welcome competition because I feel part of a community. I know plenty of business owners who are vegan and it's nice to be able to relate to them. I'm not just a business owner either – I'm someone who likes to go out to eat and it would be great to have more options for good-quality vegan food.

"If someone opened a vegan bakery on the same street I don't think it would take my customers. I hope they do [open] because it would continue that trend. With the changes on the housing market you have more and more people from Bristol and other places coming to Newport – that's bringing in a whole new market. They find there is very little [vegan options] in comparison.

"In Bristol there are so many places you can go for a full three-course meal with high-quality food. Obviously Bristol is bigger than Newport too. I understand Newport is smaller but it's still a pretty big city. If you go onto Newport vegan groups [online] there are thousands of people."

Simon Baston, managing director of Loft Co, which redeveloped the market, said its success would form a big part of Newport's future success. "The independent food scene is the one main commercial aspect that will bring Newport back," he said. "I went to Gem42 recently and it is such a great establishment. How it doesn't have a Michelin star I don't know. They take years finessing dishes – the knowledge they have about food is amazing.

"The street food scene which has developed into a more permanent home is without a shadow of a doubt the best mix in Wales. We've got a community of regulars that come which is a testament what the people of Newport want. We're slowly moving from a pub scene to a sort of café and continental society and the market is somewhere you can bring the dog, the grandparents, in a warm, safe environment. The pub scene was much more male-dominated – at the market we welcome everyone from one to 100. We are getting a lot of people coming over from Bristol to the market. That is something we wouldn't have expected three years ago."

The market has high hopes for 2023
The market has high hopes for 2023

Simon said the market was seeing good footfall in its first year but admitted it was not immune to the difficulties facing the hospitality industry. "Things are going really well. We can't complain – we've hit our expectations. But we can't pretend there are not some headwinds coming in 2023. We know that.

"The market has got to be affordable and flexible and allow independent traders to flourish. Our pricing structure and flexibility are key to the wider Newport town centre. We've learned a lot in nine months about changes in tastes and what people want both on the retail and the food court side of things. It needs to be experience-led.

"We aren't worried about losing tenants – it's the nature of the market and we expect that. We're 50% booked for events in 2023. The council has invested in an urban regeneration manager which is really good. We're all working together to bring more things like Easter events, markets, a three-day food festival, and things like that."