Blue Collar Street Food has arguably revitalised lunch times in Reading. Since launching in September 2016, with a one-off weekend food festival in Forbury Gardens, Blue Collar has grown to almost iconic status. Its welcoming Wednesday markets and buzzing, summer food events in Forbury Gardens have brought innovative food vendors, a community feel, creative flavours, daytime drinking and a sense of fun to our town.
The man behind it all is 25-year-old Glen Dinning, who founded Blue Collar in 2016 in order to bring his passion for street food and exciting events to Reading. Originally from Didcot, Glen’s now been a Reading resident for the past 5 years and is an enthusiastic advocate for our town. In his own words: “Reading feels like my proper hometown really, because I was here so much as a kid.”
Ahead of this month’s food market in Forbury Gardens, I caught up with Glen over a pot of Assam tea at Cup to talk about Feastival 2018, our growing street food scene, the search for the Reading identity and his plans for a permanent indoor street food market.
How did Blue Collar Street Food get started?
I’d always been entrepreneurial. I started out by selling things like chocolate bars and pens at school. And it went from there. I ran my first comedy event when I was 17 in a horrible Labour club in Didcot, and had to figure out how to promote it and sell tickets.
I left a sales job to set up Blue Collar. I just missed running a business, the creative side and being able to do my own thing. So, I started talking with Reading Borough Council about hiring an area for an event in September 2015 and then my first food festival happened in Forbury Gardens in September 2016. It took a long time, but they didn’t really know my track record, and they were willing to take the chance. I think they liked that someone living in Reading was willing to put on an event and do something for the town.
The name Blue Collar is a nod to Reading’s industrial workers at Huntley and Palmers, but also the blue collar of our football team. It’s a subtle thing, but I love that sense of storytelling.
What inspired you to get in to markets and street food?
It was born out of a frustration really. I saw that London had this fantastic street food scene going on. It just felt revolutionary and so different to going to a normal bar or pub. I came back to Reading and we didn’t have anything like that. The aim was to get that Shoreditch-y, Dinerama feel, but in my hometown.
What do you think sets Blue Collar apart from other street food markets and big events in Reading?
I always work really hard on the quality of food traders. But one thing I care about a lot is the atmosphere. My bar staff laugh at me because I’ll spend hours moving a chair a few centimetres to the left. But I live and breathe the events and really want to make sure the setting is perfect, there’s a sense of community and everyone can enjoy their time at the market. Across the weekends you see a big mix of people, young professionals and families. And that’s important to me.
Also, my events have quite a local theme to them. I live in Reading, my business was born in Reading and I’ll try to favour local food traders where I can. There’s always nods to the town. At Cheese Feast last month, there was a big Reading sign from the old Elm Park football stadium, which I got from Fanny’s Antiques, that’s coming back for Feastival too. So, hopefully the events are nice places to be, there’s a fun Reading theme and it’s consistently high quality. Which I think, all rolled into one, makes for something really unique.
For a long time, street food in the UK was pretty cheap and cheerful. Why do you think the street food scene has become so vibrant and popular in the past few years?
I think it’s largely a cultural thing. In the UK generally we’ve been influenced by new people, new cultures and new flavours. Street food has always been about having something different, quirky and tasty for a reasonable price. And I think, as those new flavours came in, people realised that for the same price as an old-school burger, you could get something really good, something new that would taste better and make you feel better as well.
Look at the rise of avocados. We didn’t eat this many avocados 15 years ago. As a country we’re changing and I think one benefit of that is our growing street food culture.
How do you get the right mix of food traders for your markets?
At the start, I didn’t really know which traders to approach. I’d seen a few out and about in Reading, but I didn’t know who was good. Now that Blue Collar’s more established, traders tend to get in touch with me. Over time I’ve learnt who does good food, who’s reliable and who’s popular.
It feels like at this stage, my most popular vendors are really synonymous with Blue Collar: Peru Sabor generates a crowd, John the Greek and Georgian Feast have a cult following now and are always popular. Newcomers like Rad Burger have just smashed it, they always sell out. And the Crispy Squid guy always goes down well at Feastival.
How do you think Reading’s street food scene has grown since you first started?
I have seen it change a lot. I think Reading’s street food scene was more cautious when it first started, gourmet burgers and burritos. There’s still a place for those, but over time I’ve seen things that I didn’t think would work take over, like the rise of the vegan food traders.
I wanted to try and make my Wednesday market a bit different to what was already there on a Friday at Chow. So that’s why I brought in Peru Sabor. Those different flavours and concepts are getting more popular. I think people are also more interested in the health side of food as well as time goes on. And of course, through elimination over time we’ve gotten better quality vendors in Reading generally.
Do you think there’s a growing appetite for more big events like Feastival in Reading?
In terms of footfall, Cheese Feast (in April) has been the most popular of any of the events I’ve done. I think Reading is really searching for our own identity at the moment. Oxford has its own identity, Bristol has a really strong one. But Reading hasn’t quite got there yet.
But what I think is really exciting about Reading at the moment is our independent scene. Businesses like Cup Cafe , The Lyndhurst, 58 Barbershop. Because of them, there’s a growing appetite for more quirky and interesting places and events in Reading. And I think some of the success of Cheese Feast and Feastival last year, stems from that.
Outside your market, what’s the best street food dish you’ve ever eaten?
I’d probably have to say Mother Clucker fried chicken, which I had in Camden Market. It’s made with all their own spices and I’d never had something so simple, done so well, or so differently. I also loved The Rib Man on Brick Lane. Both were just new and interesting flavours. Also, not strictly a street food as they’re now inside, but Bleek Street Burger is fantastic and the best burger I’ve ever had.
So, what can we expect at Feastival this month?
This year I’m really keen to make it the biggest event I’d ever done. So Feastival is running for nearly four weeks, all in one go. There’ll be a staged two-tier structure in the middle, which will basically create a rooftop in Forbury Gardens, inspired by the ruined bars in Budapest.
On the food side, there’ll be rotating traders throughout the three weeks showcasing the best of Blue Collar. So the Crispy Squid guy will be back along with some of the favourites from the markets last year. There’ll be a Pimm’s bar and live acoustic music as well.
I want to create something that becomes a staple in the Reading calendar and hopefully keeps coming back. I think people love the look and feel of Blue Collar, but I think this year will take that wow factor feeling to the next level.
And what’s coming up at Meat Feast in October?
I’m really excited that it will be held in the Abbey Ruins, which is full of soul and culture and history. I wanted to do an event that had a link to the story of the Abbey and, barbecuing meat, I think, reminds you of days gone by, where you’d catch an animal and eat it. That, in a way, fits in with the ruins. There’ll be lots of variety, from Brazilian and Argentinian meats to gourmet burgers and slow-cooked lamb. There will also be vegetarian, vegan and plant-based options as well.
What do you think Reading is missing?
In the food scene, I’d like to see a really good independent breakfast place, like Yolk, but in the town centre. I also think we’re lacking a vegetarian restaurant. I think that area is growing and we have great options at the Wednesday market and the vegan market, but a purpose-built restaurant would be good.
I’d love to see a tap room coming to Reading too. Tap Social in Oxford, who provided the beer for Cheese Feast, have a really good little tap room that’s a bit off the beaten track and a great spot. I’d like somewhere like that.
Outside that, I like to see the continued rise of the independent scene, and I think an arts cinema would be a good addition. I’d love to see the prison be turned into a theatre. I know it’s being campaigned for, and quite right too. That would be fantastic for Reading.
We also need more events that celebrate our town, rather than just generic promotions. We’ve got so much to celebrate, from Oscar Wilde to Huntley and Palmers, the football club, Kate Winslet even.
I know from running events in Henley that their town is really protective of the businesses and the people that live there and working together with them. It can make it hard for someone like me from Reading to put on events there, but as tough as it is, I think we should take a leaf out of their book and celebrate our own a little bit more than perhaps we do.
Where do you love to eat and drink in Reading?
I love it in The Lyndhurst. I think the food in there is inventive and creative and something we hadn’t seen in Reading before. They’ve done it out really nicely in there as well.
To drink, I love The Nag’s Head. It’s homely and warm and it’s got a great beer selection, of course. You can tell that it’s run by people that care and it’s what we need more of in terms of our Reading identity. Also the Purple Turtle. It’s obviously got its reputation but it’s just a proper Reading place and an iconic venue.
What plans do you have coming up for Blue Collar in the future?
I hope to open a permanent Blue Collar street food restaurant to house 5 or 6 street food operators, like an indoor version of what we do in Forbury Gardens. It’s inspired by the great food halls in Europe, and starting to happen here in London as well.
Ultimately, I want it to be a space where people can set up camp for the day, try lots of different foods, have a drink, enjoy themselves. And it’ll be a really nice, quirky, independent place celebrating Reading.
It will involve a new story and a new concept for Blue Collar. I’ve always loved the storytelling of London restaurateurs Corbin and King, who run places like The Wolseley and The Delauney. All their venues have a backstory. Brasserie Zédel’s is based around a Frenchman who got thrown out of his Parisian cafe for seducing the owner’s daughter and he fled to London to open the bistro. That’s obviously completely made up, but I love that sense of fun and soul about it.
I don’t know where that permanent site will be yet, but I’m actively looking at locations and investment right now to make that happen and it will hopefully be in the town centre.
Feastival runs from Friday 25 May – Sunday 17 June in Forbury Gardens. (Closed Mondays and Tuesdays, apart from Bank Holidays) Read more.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.