Glen Dinning is the 25 year old enthusiast behind Blue Collar Food, which can be found at the Butter Market on Wednesdays, the summer foodie events at the Forbury and other recent well-received markets in Henley and Guildford. In a town where a wagon-train-like huddle of feisty independent shops and cafés survive and sometimes thrive amongst a Scooby Doo background of chain coffee shops and retail, Glen is a true innovator and entrepreneur, but he’s not a bit like Del Boy or the Wolf of Wall Street. He is a friendly Reading geezer with a blue and white hooped heart who has already achieved great things with a smile on his face and a large portion of savvy and sheer bottle. He agreed to meet me over a pot of tea to give up some of his business secrets and tell of future plans (and perhaps seek investment in my toast business). He had his phone turned off and he paid for the tea.
[Matthew] At what age did you get the entrepreneurial spirit?
[Glen] It kind of just happened when I started secondary school. I don’t know why I just started to sell pens and chocolate bars and everything [laughs]. Everyone is looking for an identity at that age and there are the ones who are good at football, or the ones who were good at charming the girls and then there are the clever ones and I wasn’t really any of them. At around eleven or twelve, I realised I was good at something, and I made everyone laugh with my market trader spiel and it became a sort of identity.
Have you got any advice for younger people?
I am far from there yet, so wouldn’t want to be seen preaching but, for what it’s worth, I just think sometimes it’s about being fearless and doing something you love enough to be obsessive about.
What are your current successes?
I am really proud of the Forbury Gardens events earlier this year. The first one, at the end of March, was after a really long winter and I was thinking this is make or break. I was taking control of the bar for the first time and I needed the event to make money and prove to myself and others it could work. I have never worked harder or been under more pressure.
What sort of things go wrong?
At the larger events we’d have up to thirty different traders alongside contractors onsite and bar staff, so with that comes lots of different personalities. Sometimes an event just isn’t right for a certain trader, even if it’s heaving. Generally, they’re aiming to sell 80 – 100 portions each, so you need a lot of footfall to make the bigger events work for everyone.
Has any food been unpopular?
Just a few, but I was really surprised that pie ‘n’ mash didn’t work so well; we had a great business in with a wonderful set up but it just didn’t sell here. I love pie and mash too.
What do you think of the Forbury as a venue?
I love the fact it has the history and it’s a beautiful place to be. Someone was telling me recently there used to be a cheese fair there in the sixteenth century. It would be great to bring that back.
Have the Council have been helpful to non-chain businesses like yourself?
Luke Lloyd from the parks department at Reading Borough Council has been brilliant. I first went to him in 2015 with the ideas for Forbury events and he didn’t know me from Adam, but he took a chance on me and believed in my ideas. His continuing support has been so instrumental. We met only recently and discussed how we can improve events and I will be forever grateful to him. Perhaps there could have been more help for independents from other organisations.
If you could have free reign what would you do in Reading?
We need to show our identity more. I walk down Smelly Alley in Reading [aka Union Street] and love the different smells, it’s tight and you are brushing past people. I would love to turn that into a food alley – have proper tapas, people outside on wooden stools, wine bars, cheeses, meats and shopping too; it could be like Madrid. It would tie in to our history as a market town with quality small traders. An independent hub, make it wooden, make it rustic, like another Borough Market; that would be brilliant.
I think a permanently moored barge on the river with a bar and street food could work well. Chestnut Walk would be a good place especially when the Abbey ruins open again, and Jackson’s Corner has a lot of potential too. The Broad Street Mall could be amazing with the right sort of modernisation along with the Hosier Street Market. The quality independent shops in Harris Arcade are a bit of a benchmark but could do with more footfall. We need to celebrate our independent shops, but it doesn’t mean we get an under-armed ball; we need to show their quality and make people feel good about using them. The Georgian Feast is a great example; not only is their food delicious and makes you feel happy, I have seen them feeding the homeless for free at the end of the working day. Jacobs the Jewellers are an example of a long-standing quality business who tell their story well and keep good regular custom.
Do you like lardy cake?
Yes, I do like it but it’s been a while, I must say. Maybe I should get acquainted again as that kind of thing is coming back in.
What do you think of Jaap Stam?
When Brian McDermott left I was heartbroken and I have taken a long time to warm to Jaap. I can understand some of the reasons he was sacked but when I was in the stands watching, I knew that McDermott loved the club as much as I do. Coppell and McDermott had success with pure energy and tempo and that is what the present team are lacking with their tactical displays. Two of my heroes growing up were Nicky Forster and Jamie Cureton. When the team is doing well its noticeable around the town. We need to keep local kids wearing blue & white hoops.
It was always my dream to start a business and so I am already living the dream. I may as well go for it and, if it ends, at least I’ve gambled everything. That mentality of ‘keep taking risks’ is important and I want to develop and expand as quickly as possible. I am talking about getting the Forbury for a month at a time so I could improve the infrastructure and get it how I want it and add quality. The plan is ultimately to have permanent premises with various street food enterprises in it. Maybe it will happen next year or 2019.
Are you making a good living?
Yes, I am making it through the bigger events mainly – although the market is a reasonable income. The bar is the main source of income at the bigger events.
Is it the money or the buzz, or a mixture of both?
It’s the buzz. It would be nice to sit back and have a vape at one point when it’s all working well. The hours are long and the money fluctuates and you could earn a lot with a fixed income nowadays but it’s incredibly fun and satisfying when it works.
What sort of governor are you?
I want my employees to see me turning up early, working hard, and I like to show my presence. Energy and positivity are the most important things you can feed into your workforce and you need to be there. Make sure you hire the right people.
Is being in business creative?
Definitely. Everyone needs an outlet whatever they do; the chance to stand back in satisfaction after doing something well or getting stuff off your mind and on to paper or business or music whatever it is.
Why is it called ‘Blue Collar?’
A link to the football team who had blue collars and street food was there for the workers years ago. I was watching old tapes of the Huntley & Palmers factory; I was trying to celebrate Reading’s past as a working town. I would get the Palmer statue back in Broad Street. Keep a copy back at Palmer Park and bring him back to the town he helped develop and create.
Can you define what being a Reading person is?
We have a slight chip on our shoulder, but not in an obvious way; we are a bit lost nationwide as everyone thinks we are London, which we are blatantly not. We can be a bit self-deprecating and belittle our town a bit when, in fact, we have a lot to celebrate.
Do you have a duty to your customer?
Yes, because when people choose to come to an independent or to the market on a cold and rainy day, they have already taken the choice not to use a chain. They deserve a good experience and it means everything to me when people try something new and like it – that’s from a business point of view and as a food enthusiast and consumer myself.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.