Can you remember life before Digbeth Dining Club? Thought not. We caught up with Jack Brabant five years after the event’s inception to get a handle on how Brum became the centre of the UK’s street food universe
Imagine a Friday night in Digbeth before the vibrant DDC rolled into town. It would have been cool and edgy, no question, but things got a whole lot more interesting in 2012 when a few drunken conversations between Jack Brabant and his pals became a reality. An event like no other in Brum exploded onto the scene with its focus on top-drawer inventive street food teamed with great music in an environment that’s inclusive and celebratory. Brummies had a unique place to hang out after work and stay all night. So popular was Friday night, that a Saturday has been added catering for a different weekend crowd and there’s more expansion on the cards.
In just five years the street food scene in the city has exploded exponentially thanks to Jack and fellow founder James Swinburne, who is also part owner of Spotlight, a venue central to DDC. Jack’s vision was born out of frustration when he came back to Brum after a stint in London. Having witnessed the rise of street food in the capital around areas like Brick Lane where traders were operating out of side streets selling amazing food, Jack was staggered that there was no scene to speak of in Birmingham at all. “There was a smattering of Midlands-based traders serving fantastic food, but their outlet was the region’s farmers’ markets. There was nothing more than that,” explained Jack.
Digbeth was an obvious choice because of its space and edgy vibe that could potentially replicate the Brick Lane set-up that had so impressed Jack. He met James and already knew the people behind Rainbow Venues, so it all clicked into place. Finding traders was easy, in fact the pair now turn down 75 per cent of applications that just don’t cut the mustard. Clearly the quality of the food is the number one priority as well as marketing and various other aspects. It’s not a prerequisite that traders are Midlands-based although it leans towards that. The focus is absolutely on the best. Jack said: “They’ve got to be the best. We’re going through applications every week. It’s like the X-Factor of street food!”
DDC stalwarts Original Patty Men were on board from the get-go when their foodie venture was still a labour of love. Jack’s not taking credit for their rise or any other trader’s success, but we reckon DDC has played a massive part in helping independents thrive by giving them a platform from which to shine. People like Buddha Belly, Meatshack and Low ‘n’ Slow have featured regularly over the years.
There were mistakes in the early days although never food related. Initially, the choice of music was a bit leftfield for punters. Jack clocked early on that the techno and deep house needed to go. “We realised a 50-year-old looking for some incredible street food didn’t want to listen to Ibiza Classics!” There’s now live music, house bands and a much more laid-back vibe.
Seriously hands on, Jack and James run DDC like a well-oiled feel-good machine every weekend, plus their involvement in other events across the country meant that in 2016 they were involved in 80 events. Jack missed only three. Either James or Jack attends Digbeth every weekend to ensure things run smoothly. “It’s important that we’re present from a logistical point of view, plus it gives us a sense of pride.” The duo is looking at expanding with the possibility of increased units on Lower Trinity Street and more live music. More activity in Coventry is in the pipeline too.
Winning awards like Best UK Street Food Event at the British Street Food Awards two years on the bounce in 2013 and 2014 helped put the event and Birmingham on the map, so much so that the city actually hosted the awards last year – something that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Rainbow Venues got the gig which was a massive success and a coup for the city. To give you some idea, the previous year’s awards were held at the O2 London. Of the award-winning streak Jack said: “Awards are a nice thing and we certainly wouldn’t turn them down, but they’re not the focus. We focus on being the best we can be.”