If you live in a metropolis like Birmingham, or even town larger than the little one I live in, you’ll most likely be blessed with an array of independent food and drink businesses, all doing wonderfully creative things generally acing it. Places serving up dishes or drinks that you can’t get anywhere else, winning over people who think they know about this stuff who in turn tell us less knowledgeable people where we should go.
Of course, just because they’re in a big city or town, it doesn’t make it any easier for these independent foodie people to make it work. We hear over and over again how hard it is to make a restaurant, bar or cafe successful in tough economic times where business rates are high, produce is pricey and customers sometimes seem to be the enemy, either not showing up for bookings or embarking on their own keyboard campaigns if something goes wrong (or sometimes even if it doesn’t).
Despite that, as hard as it is, it seems to me that the bigger, more cosmopolitan place you’re in, the more likely you are to get a bigger selection of independent places doing their thang. Come to a small town like mine (Rugby, if this is the first time you’ve read this blog) and there are far fewer. Independents open to great fanfare and within months they’re gone again, leaving an eerily empty unit behind as the memorial to their broken dreams. Sometimes it can be even quicker – one recent cafe lasted a matter of weeks. I’ve lost count of how many places I’ve written about on this blog – many in my own town – that I’ve then had to remove when they closed down.
In the meantime, others plough on but will openly admit it’s tough and they’re not sure how long they can continue the slog. For some of them, you watch them come up with idea after idea to lure customers in, yet it still seems to be an uphill struggle. It’s surprising really, given that one of many people’s biggest asks of the food and drink industry is choice – they want an abundance of it, yet when they have it, they often ignore some of the selection and stick to the tried and tested.
Don’t get me wrong, we all like a bit of what we know. That’s the beauty of chains. Think about when you’re offered a ‘unique’ bed and breakfast versus a Premier Inn. With one you’re taking a gamble that could result in chintzy curtains, an uncomfortable bed and one of those funny dolls over the spare loo roll. With the other, you know exactly what you’re going to get.
That’s no different with chain restaurants – whether it’s Prezzo, Carluccio’s or Byron Burger, people generally know what they’re going to get. There’s no disappointment, no feeling cheated. They’re easy and sometimes they’re just what you need. I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone who eats in them, and I’ve eaten in them myself. It’s about consistency and comfort.
But while you’re reducing your chances of having something that’s slightly off the mark, you may also be missing out on something that’s triple-jumped right past that mark and is offering something fabulous in quality, execution, service or atmosphere. That’s what you often get with independents – a bit of an adventure by someone who is finding their way without being told by head office what to serve, where to get it from, how to present it and who to employ. Yes, sometimes they don’t get it quite right. And I imagine that there are at least some of the ones that didn’t make it work who would admit they made some fundamental errors.
But the biggest things that irk me when it comes to struggling independents isn’t their own downfalls, it’s ours as customers. Firstly,it’s our lack of support and willingness to just give it a go. How many times have you heard someone say they haven’t tried somewhere yet – despite the fact it opened six months ago. I’ve been guilty of it myself and while it’s understandable in a big city where there are a billion new openings a week, when you’ve only got a handful of places to get a bite to eat or a drink in a small town, how can you not have tried the new guy in town? How do they even stand a chance when those of us who profess to want more choice don’t at least try out what they’re doing?
And then there are those among us who refuse to forgive. Yes, there’s a creativity unleashed when someone isn’t being bossed about by head office or handed a tried and tested formula, but that lack of prescription when it comes to menu, presentation and service brings the risks that sometimes it goes a bit awry. You may remember I reviewed Pharmasea a few months ago on this blog – somewhere that I’d heard mixed reviews about and had had my own mixed experiences. But are we fair to hold a mistake against a place, or should be give them the benefit of the doubt and try again?
Of course, if you’re willing to accept a lack of choice and are happy with Pizza Express, Costa and Cafe Rouge for your eating choices, then this is all fine. You won’t be sad or narked when you can’t find anywhere for a bite to eat that’s a bit different or are fed up with the same meal week in, week out. But for those of you who want choice, competition and to not have to get on a train or in the car to get a new experience, the message is simple. Use it or lose it.
This isn’t just a rallying cry to my fellow townsfolk as I’m sure it applies to you busy city-dwellers. Quite frankly, you have no right to complain about a lack of choice when it comes to food and drink if you’re not willing to back the people who are giving it a go. Next time you complain about a place closing down before you could try their signature dish or throw one of their cocktails down your neck, think about how many times you went to that place in its short lifetime. And then don’t do the same thing with the next one.
That’s why I’ve been on a bit of a mission to try more independents recently, from restaurants and cafes to some of the great traders at places like Digbeth Dining Club and those who will be at the Independent Birmingham Festival in July. I also write this as Rugby is enjoying the opening of not one, but two, new places – something that’s relatively unusual in our little town. A new micro pub, the Crafty Banker, has been open for a few weeks serving crafts ales, beers and gin, and a wine shop that I have got worryingly excited about, Gallachers, is opening TODAY.
I’ll be trying both and am worryingly excited. Not, not just because they will sell me booze after a tough week, but because these guys opening means that people haven’t given up on our town and on those of us who want it to be filled with independent food and drink businesses. It means they’re bringing their own dream to life instead of leaving those empty units behind for us all to mourn over. It means choice, it means competition, and it means a town centre with a bit of atmosphere.
So next time you’re thinking about where to go for that meal, snack, cake, coffee or cocktail, take a second or two to think about whether you could be trying out somewhere you haven’t tried before but ‘keep meaning to’. Somewhere that’s the product of someone’s dream and hard graft rather than another pin on the map of a huge corporation where the dream has been buried under spreadsheets showing profit margins and bottom lines. Yes, we all get to those sometimes, but let’s be a bit more adventurous. Who knows, you might end up finding that one of these independents knocks your socks off.
Let me know if there are any independents you’d recommend and for more independents, there are plenty of websites out there like Great Food Club and Independent Birmingham for some good recommendations.
Also, if you like this blog, I’ve been shortlisted for an award! I can’t win without your help so check out the badge on the sidebar of this blog and it will take you to the voting page – I’m in category 17!