Exclusive Joe ‘Independent Birmingham’ Interview

In our last Q&A session we spoke with Adam Regan on his endeavours in dance music, and a successful interview it was too. With over 160 social media shares, reaching nearly 5,000 people on Facebook alone, and many more visits to the review on Grapevine itself, we are happy to announce an exclusive interview with Independent Birmingham founder Joe Schuppler.

Independent Birmingham is a fantastic online encyclopedia of Brum’s coolest independent businesses. It covers events, businesses, promotional articles and much more in a unique and engaging fashion. Jo took a few moments out of his busy schedule to kindly answer some questions, shedding a bit more light on his background and why Independent Birmingham works so well:

 Joe Schuppler Interview

Hello Joe, thanks for taking the time for this Q&A for Grapevine Brum, I know we discussed this a while ago now so it’s great to finally put pen to paper so to speak. Please could you explain what Independent Birmingham is, a few words on its ethos, history, and how you became involved.

“Independent Birmingham is an award-winning website, and a movement, which champions and celebrates the city of Birmingham and it’s marvellous independent businesses. From the quirky bars to the quaint cafes, epic eateries to cinemas, theatres and even barbers, see it as a one-stop guide to all things independent in Birmingham – with the website helping, and encouraging you, to explore the lesser known aspects of Birmingham and rediscover your city.

From unearthing hidden gems to writing about the best beer gardens in Brum, Independent Birmingham is all about inspiring the good folk of Birmingham to explore their city in new and exciting ways.

Having established the website in August 2013, in March 2014 the Independent Birmingham Membership Card was launched and now, approaching the end of its second year, there are over 10,500 people with the IBcard – using it to support their local economy and support an independent Birmingham, whilst having fun all at the same time.

The card is just £15 (or two for £20) and entitles you to fantastic year-long discounts and deals at over 80 of the very best independent cafes, bars, restaurants and shops in Birmingham (including the likes of: The Electric cinema, Simpsons, Adam’s, Bodega Bar Y Cantina, mac Birmingham, The Plough, Two Cats Kitchen, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, The Lord Clifden, The Jekyll And Hyde, Digbeth Dining Club, The Church, Cherry Reds, The Prince of Wales and many more!).

So basically that’s it. Every week there’s new and interesting online profiles which allow you to take a unique guided tour of Birmingham, and then there’s the IBcard which allows you to shop local whilst being rewarded.”

We’re a city on the rise, with new and exciting independents opening up by the score and fantastic events taking place all over the city.

I know you mentioned to me that you trained in the legal industry, do you miss that line of work and is it something you would ever consider returning to, what made you change career direction?

“In all honesty I never really considered a career in the legal industry. Having read Law at university, I’d decided pretty much straight away that it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t that it was boring, in fact I found it pretty fascinating at times, it was more that I’d decided that I wasn’t cut out for being shut away in an office all day, working insane hours and then having to take my work home and work weekends too.

Ironically, I now work insane hours, work long into the evening and also work weekends – but with Independent Birmingham it’s ok. It doesn’t feel as bad, as I’m working on something I love and have built up by myself from nothing – so the long hours and hard days are as rewarding as those rare days I have off to try and relax.”

You are obviously extremely well versed with Brum’s independent scene, and work very hard to bring to light many great businesses, do you have any experience of other cities and if so, how would you say Brum fares nationally? Or even internationally.

“In all fairness, the only cities I’ve really visited that often have been Liverpool and Leeds – only having been to London twice in my entire life. London never really appealed to me, everything was too far apart and disconnected – there’s no real sense of community or cohesion, and the underground is a complete nightmare.

Liverpool is a city I love, purely from having lived there for 3 years of my life, and their independent scene is pretty strong – focused mainly along one or two central streets. This contrasts with Birmingham, where the independents are sprawled all over the city and often tucked away down side streets (resulting in many of them being overlooked and receiving far less business than they deserve). However, whilst I do love Liverpool and its vibrant independent scene (with Leeds also having a strong collection of great indies), nothing really compares to Birmingham at the moment.

We’re a city on the rise, with new and exciting independents opening up by the score and fantastic events taking place all over the city. Our food scene is incredible, from 5 Michelin Stars to the best in street food – so in terms of how Birmingham fares compared to other cities, I’d say we’re certainly up there with the best – and, to be honest, whilst London is meant to be renowned for exciting food and drink, I’d definitely say that Birmingham trumps the capitol for the UK’s best foodie city.”

Is there anything you feel Brum lacks at the moment on the independent scene, are there weaknesses and strengths, anything you would like to see more of?

“The only real thing I can think of here is that Birmingham’s independents are very spread out and a lot of people (especially new visitors to the city) can often walk right past them without really ever knowing that they’re there.

That’s one of the reasons I started Independent Birmingham, to shed light on these amazing businesses – the quaint coffee shops, the quirky bars, the old boozers, the incredible eateries and everything in between – it was a celebration not only of these independents, who I felt added a unique character to our city, but a celebration of Birmingham also.

Other cities have districts renowned for independent shopping and eating – and whilst Birmingham has Digbeth and the Jewellery Quarter, as well as a mass of fantastic independents dotted around the city centre, there’s no real cohesion when it comes to where great independents in Birmingham can be found.

This does add a certain ‘hidden gem’ factor to these places though, which I also love. But for them to thrive, they need business and raising awareness for these valuable assets to our city should be a top priority for all.”

There are over 10,500 people with the IBcard – using it to support their local economy and support an independent Birmingham, whilst having fun all at the same time.

How many IB card holders do you currently have and at what point do you envisage saturation point will hit, or is the constant demand from students and newcomers to continue expanding.

“Currently there are over 10,500 Independent Birmingham Membership Card holders and to be honest, I feel that saturation points are still very far off with this project.

With so much excitement around the city, and with so many new independents opening up and big names attempting to push their way into Birmingham (you know things are going well when big brands are trying to force themselves upon the city), I feel that more and more people will be drawn to Birmingham’s independent scene.

And with over 80 of the very best independent cafes, bars, restaurants and shops on the IBcard (with loads more lined up to join in the coming months), I feel that Independent Birmingham can, and will, only go from strength to strength – with more and more people using the card to support local and celebrate Birmingham’s thriving independent scene.”

I would imagine your working life revolves around independent Brum, it has to right? So, what, if any, non-independent businesses in the city would you like to have on board if there were no limitation. Are there any chain restaurants or bars that you frequent which you feel still hold the same ethos as the small trader offering something unique.

“To be honest, The Everyman Cinema in The Mailbox really wanted to join the card – and I really wanted them. But they’re not really independent – I mean technically they are in that they’re a successful independent company, but since they started outside of Birmingham and have over 11 different cinemas I couldn’t really add them to the website or the Independent Birmingham Membership Card as it’d sort of clash with the whole ethos and concept of the website. But it is pretty cool there.”

My entire focus is Birmingham and will be for the foreseeable future

Would you ever consider expanding to other cities or areas and if so where, and why?

“Well there already is an Independent Liverpool (founded by my university friends, Oliver Press and David Williams) and that was the first. Independent Birmingham came second, and recently Independent Sheffield has launched.

However, since I run Independent Birmingham all by myself (including all the writing, social media, admin etc.) you can imagine that I’m pretty busy with just covering things here! With so much going on it the city, and so many wonderful independents to celebrate, my entire focus is Birmingham and will be for the foreseeable future.”

When not in Brum where do you like to party, or chill out. Any fave destinations? (be careful here, you may suddenly find several thousand IB card holders bathing on your favourite beach).

“Party? Chill out? I’m working all the time! No, but honestly I haven’t been on a night out in almost half a year, as I find myself too busy to waste the next day with a hangover, feeling sorry for myself – and I quite enjoy waking up bright and early, fresh and ready to tackle the day.

I much prefer just going out to eat or staying in and cooking (maybe shaking up a couple of cocktails), followed by watching a few episodes of Friends (yep, I’m re-watching the entire series, again) and reading my book. Walking my dog in the countryside, stuff like that. Who would have guessed that I’m actually really boring, eh? But my ethos has always been that as long as I enjoy doing what I do, then what other people think doesn’t really matter – so you could say that I’m boring and proud!

However, I love going to the cinema and (without trying to appear to unduly favour one independent over the next – as IB is all about celebrating them equally, as well as celebrating the city of Birmingham) I do very much enjoy tucking into a plate of ribs at The Church. I’m also a big fan of the new fine dining restaurant Nomad – they’re doing some really interesting things there and the food is just incredible.

I also love the chicken wings at Nosh and Quaff, they’re pretty life-changing.”

I’m a big fan of Fleetwood Mac too, but then again who isn’t right?

You have one day in Birmingham, obviously there’s a lot to choose from, but please can you give us five independent businesses which you feel sum up the city’s spirit and why.

“Faculty Coffee – their coffee is immense and it’s a really friendly, laid-back environment where I can simply sit, enjoy my cup of coffee and get on with some work in peace.

Bodega Bar y Cantina – I love Mexican food. Their nachos are pretty incredible, and the portions are big (just how I like them).

The Church – it’s a pub, but a soul food pub. You can just sit there, chomping away on a plate of ribs or a huge burger (maybe whilst sipping a beer or one of their delightful cocktails) and just relax. I tend to go during the day when I can, it’s a bit quieter then and I can sit at my favourite table and just enjoy the simple things in life (that being great food and the good company of friends).

The Barber House – everyone needs a haircut, yet these guys do things a little different. You get a complimentary beer or whisky (or a cocktail if it’s a Friday) and they offer anything from a normal haircut to a traditional cut-throat shave – so it’s pretty cool there. And really friendly too.

The Electric – I love the cinema, and The Electric is the UK’s oldest working cinema. It’s quaint and awesome, making a trip to the cinema a truly memorable experience (and pitta bread with houmous is just epic, as movie snacks go).”

And finally, what’s on Joe Schuppler’s walkman at the moment?

Nice – Well my Sony Walkman broke a fair few years ago (probably from over-use) but at the moment I’m listening to a fairly eclectic mix of artists.

City and Colour are one of my favourite bands, but I also enjoy the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chains, REM, Metallica, Elton John, Stone Sour, Simon and Garfunkel – the list is endless.

I’m a big fan of Fleetwood Mac too, but then again who isn’t right? One of my favourite songs though is a piano score made by Moby which features on the end credits of Heat (which is an unbelievably good film by the way) – it’s a beautiful song and I never get sick of listening to it.

Thanks Joe, really enjoyed finding out a bit more about you, see you soon for a beer! Nick.

Interview by Nick Byng for Grapevine Birmingham.

For more information on Independent Birmingham: independent-birmingham.co.uk