Nestled within the industrial backdrop of Birmingham’s cultural quarter – an area that has seen some prolific development in terms of residential renovation and club space expansion – lies a concept known as Digbeth Dining Club. A forward-thinking social hub drawing on the city’s love of food, music and culture while providing support to the Birmingham agenda through the involvement of local artists, musicians and independent street food vendors.
The ever-expanding street food event is now at the forefront of independent catering and has become something of a hit, not just in Birmingham, but the UK over. From humble beginnings in a small warehouse space the brand now holds a multitude of awards and caters for an assortment of clientele both in and out of the city limits; supporting day & night parties, national food shows and festivals up and down the country.
Behind all great ideas there sits a certain idealism and a dream to achieve something truly unique. DDC provides a service that goes beyond your usual restauranteur and its meteoric rise in popularity seems more than testament to that notion. I spoke to Jack Brabant – who occupies one half of the brain behind the event alongside James Swinburne – to find out exactly what’s inspired the vision and how it relates to Birmingham and the wider alternative food market.
It all began back in 2010 following the inception of Jack’s video production company post-university and a decision to relocate back to Birmingham:
“Due to the business, I was filming all around the UK. One of these assignments led me to filming the rides at a street food event in London, an experience that really captured my imagination. My dad had lived abroad half his life which had really opened up my mind to ideas of multiculturalism and the food that comes with it – food is accessible to everyone, no matter where you’re from, and an entity we can all relate too.”
Capitalising on what was being seen in London the idea was formed to create a sort of “rave scene for food”, which set out to provide a suitable platform for the old rave heads who’d seemingly replaced their love of throwing shapes and sweat boxes for pie making and dirty burgers:
“Following from the good times had and immersive atmospheres experienced at a number of London’s street food attractions we truly believed we could do it too, build a real scene with the best food right here in Birmingham. At first, the idea of a street food nightclub was lost on many people but with the inception of Spotlight, an intimate rave space aimed at true music heads with a left-field vision, we finally had access to a venue suited to our agenda.”
DDC presents itself as an ethical beacon of progress, fundamentally driven by a desire to action economic growth and wider cultural interaction within Birmingham. It highlights the underlying importance of the street food wave, which stands to put the interests of the people ahead of the usual profit margins, business fisticuffs and corporate hierarchy:
“I’ve been in this industry for nearly 8 years now, working closely with NCASS (The UK’s leading association for independent catering businesses) and the positive effects street food can bring are numerous; it’s a great way to regenerate an area, it brings people down and they begin to enjoy the other local amenities too; it also offers people a platform to start their own small businesses, an affordable way on a small scale to start their dreams. Some may think this is easy business but it’s long hard hours and only the exceptional will be good enough to nurture and make the business a success.”
Although inspired by the growth and popularity of street food in London, I wondered what set the movement in Birmingham apart from it’s densely populated capital cousin:
“Birmingham could without a doubt be the food capital of the country and even hosted last years British Street Food awards. London is so far removed from reality and can’t really see beyond itself, we want to make our own impact not just in Birmingham but across the UK and internationally! The city is now in a period of growth, abandoning the old “we’re shit” attitude and adopting a more positive direction. The new generation have had enough of the old views and are quickly shaping the youngest city in Europe into the best location to set up a business.
This is a brilliant and affordable city that rewards those who work hard to build their dreams and Digbeth Dining Club is now considered one of the cities best places to eat.”
Community and cultural diversity are integral to the DDC idealism; though it’s growth a strong democratic attitude has emerged and despite ties with popular independents like the Original Patty Men and Pietanic at their fingertips, repeat line-ups are often avoided to ensure a system of fairness and variety are maintained:
“All the stalls that we hire come from really different backgrounds and have all made it on their own merit, they deserve the chance to shout about their food! Even with some of the best street vendors in the UK working at DDC we try our best not to duplicate what we have to merely satisfy popularity and trade. We hire not just on business savvy but on personality too – we all have to work across the UK together and maintaining a friendly, easy-going atmosphere is essential. We’re all just mates hanging out really, we’re just so happy to be providing the venue while they provide the food… it’s not a job, it’s fun!”
With so much competition already present in a city that’s been dubbed “the food capital of the UK” I wondered how the brand saw itself standing above the rest:
“We stand alongside the top restaurants but we’re also an alternative to them. We provide a democratic environment where all walks of life can come down and feel comfortable, we cater to all demographics. Digbeth can now be seen to suit all your needs, not just an industrial space but somewhere to socialise, enjoy yourself and love the food.”
Over the years Digbeth has often come under fire from critics proposing that it’s not doing enough to support itself as a cultural quarter, with spaces like the Custard Factory being the centre of controversy as many of the ex-store and venue owners have confronted issues around poor footfall and lack of vision:
“It is still a bit of a curse and it’s difficult to pull people down from the centre but with that being said it’s hard to pass blame. People are hard to persuade. Of course, we always want to see more people coming to Digbeth and with the new proposed housing and residential plans, we figure soon they’ll have less of an excuse if they live in the area. We just need to keep cultivating, we work hard every day and even after 5 years we’re still dragging people out of their homes but despite hardship, we’ve still turned all of this into a success.”
There is no doubt in the brand’s success with most nights seeing a venue packed to the rafters with eager foodies and beer connoisseurs. It seems as though the only way is up at this point as Jack highlights some of the plans in the pipeline:
“Our real focus now is Saturdays in Digbeth, we want to provide something completely different to the usual weekend antics with live bands, comedy, late night food and a vibe of all-round entertainment. There is a market for events like this to succeed outside of the city centre. Last year really tested this idea as we took the brand across the Midlands and to various festivals… seeing it succeed has proven to ourselves that we’re ready to take it to the next level.”
The love and devotion behind the cause is rather humbling and the end goals far surpass that of your everyday business, there’s a warming sense of altruism in everything they do and a will to nurture the rising potential within the street food community as opposed to being threatened by it:
“We want to see street food vendors on every corner. It helps young people in the food industry and gives them a place to learn a trade and start up a business, we can help create a whole new generation of passionate food vendors and business owners hopefully aided by more dining clubs across the UK. Birmingham too has seen a lot of investment lately but many areas still remain underdeveloped… we’d love to regenerate these places as we’ve done here in Digbeth. We’re tired of seeing empty shops hand them over to pop-up stalls and food vendors, the city needs to put more faith in the people and offer up all the creative spaces it can.”
As brand popularity continues to grow, however, I wondered if there was any concern over losing the alternative edge that the DDC concept was founded upon, a fear of becoming too mainstream:
“Digbeth Dining Club will always revel in its original form, remaining cutting and quirky in a warehouse space. Our Sunday events are more family orientated but we don’t mind being popular with them even if it’s a bit of a departure from where we are usually. Street food is popular right now and the scene is growing, so as long as we can still cater and keep the people happy without compromising our values too much, then that’s what we will continue to do!”
Following the January 2017 relaunch, Digbeth Dining Club now operates every Friday & Saturday night, open from 5pm till late, with lots of other large scale events and one-off shows scheduled throughout the year. The food on offer is always innovative and constantly shifting so no two visits will ever be the same; expect bespoke pie making, freshly prepped stone baked pizzas, uber-indulgent desserts, tender smorgasbords of slow-cooked meats, mad amounts of craft ales & ciders, pioneering vegan and vegetarian creations and burgers so good that even Drake reps the craft of the OPM – and all of this don’t even scratch the surface.
A truly unique eating experience filled with character, ambition and an overwhelming sense of community. A socially conscious business venture with a beating heart at its core and without doubt a leading force in street food culture.