Blue Collar Permanent Venue! …Interview

Yesterday, the council announced a deal for Blue Collar to take over the historic Hosier St market, along with plans to transform an adjacent yard into a permanent food and drink venue. An array of recent positive news gives us confidence the town centre is on the right path to reshape itself in the face of current challenges. I’m particularly excited by this one – but let’s save my further thoughts for the end. First, here’s the full lowdown from Glen Dinning, owner of Blue Collar, who has kindly talked us through the plans.

Q&A with Glen Dinning, owner of Blue Collar.

Q) Following the sustained success of your regular markets and the big summer events, it’s no surprise you’ve been eyeing up a permanent venue for a while. Tell us about the search, the ones that might have been, and how you’ve ended up at Hosier St.

It always felt like the next step but the frustration was finding the right place – if we went down the route of taking over a standard restaurant premises, the level of investment needed to put in all the extraction and convert it into a food hall is massive. Back in 2018, we had a conversation about a ‘meanwhile space’ at Station Hill before they started work on the site. We pitched a shipping container site that would have been based around the theme of Billy Smart’s circus – his circus used to transport their animals on the train & there are some brilliant photos of elephants on that area of land with Reading Station in the background. Another idea we pushed would have used the Garrard Street Car Park, with food and retail outlets on each level & a rooftop bar at the top. MGT, the landlords, were really supportive and it looked like something could be done but the works were brought forward and it wasn’t to be.

We also looked at a site on Castle Street, spoke to Broad Street Mall & had a fair few meetings about the area they’re now calling Queen Victoria Courtyard, but these were pre-Covid times, when the landlords held all the cards. The other factor that narrowed our search was that, when it comes to street food and food halls, I think it’s so important that you’re in a building or on land that has history to it, that tells a story.  So when the opportunity for Hosier Street came up it felt like a great opportunity – this is a market that has been going for hundreds of years and it’s where I was dragged to on Saturdays when my Mum wanted her fruit & veg! I know the area is lacking a bit of love, and we know how big a job this is, but we’re Reading people and the opportunity to restore the area to its former glory means everything.

Q) When you look at the scruffy yard as it stands today, a site I’m sure most people are unaware even exists, you need a bit of imagination to see it as an attractive and bustling food & drink venue. Tell us more how you intend to transform it?

Lots of hard work – we’ll be bringing in and adapting shipping containers which will create a bar, kitchens for four food operators to be permanently based from and two levels with rooftop seating. We want lots of colour and artwork – on one of the walls we’ll roll on the posters from all the Blue Collar events, on another we’ll celebrate the old school market traders, there are some brilliant photos from the market in the 60s and 70s. This is going to be undeniably Reading & all about celebrating our town and everything it stands for. There will be a pergola that will go from one side of the space to the other, with greenery and lighting hanging off it. In the summer, it’ll be the biggest beer garden in the town centre, in the winter we’ll adapt it so it’ll be fully covered, enclosed and feel more like an indoor venue. 

As well as the decor, the transformation comes from the businesses within. The beauty of having four food traders is that these are experts in their field, they’re not trying to offer everything to everyone, they’re specialists in their field and have spent countless hours obsessing about how to make their dishes perfect. 

These food outlets would be brilliant standalone restaurants in their own right but by being together you can visit with a group of friends and know they’ll be an option for everyone. The hope is that it’ll create lots of reasons to visit, whether it’s for the food, for drinks when the sun comes out and you’re looking for a beer garden, or in the winter when you’re looking for a cosy, heated venue that’s a bit different from the norm.

Q) The Hosier St market in Reading has floundered, I think it’s fair to say, in recent years, despite some determined resistance from certain vendors and loyal customers. Are there plans for the market as a whole, and to what extent is your venture supporting a wider revitalisation.

Absolutely – although this will take time. Once Blue Collar Corner is built and open, we’ll work with both new and current market traders to improve the market area outside the site. We hope Blue Collar Corner will be the central point and be part of generating footfall that can help lift everything, achieve the broader revitalisation you mention and boost sales for the market traders. The plan is for the row opposite the side of Pavlov’s Dog beer garden (as if you’re walking from the church in the direction of the Hexagon) to be lined with quality fresh produce traders. Ultimately, we want to create something really organic, with the fresh produce traders on the street supplying the food vendors inside the site – proper, independent businesses working together. On the other side of the market we will have retail market stalls. Like I say, it’ll take a fair bit of time, but we have an initial three year contract and by the end of those three years we want this, and what we’ll continue to do in Market Place on Wednesdays & Fridays, to be up there with the very best markets in the South of England.

Q) Tell us more about the food and drink offer planned, and whether it will change throughout the week. And wider, throughout the year, how do you envisage the market adapting through the changing seasons, both with regard to the offer as well as how you might adjust the physical elements to help maintain year-round appeal?

We’re not ready to reveal the 4 anchor food tenants just yet but they’ll be there to compliment each other – we want this space be a place where vegans, fried chicken fans, spice lovers can all come, where you’ll be able to visit if you’re looking for something super indulgent or if you’re counting calories and don’t want to waste them. 

As well as the anchor tenants, we’ll be bringing in some of the UK’s best street food traders to pop up at the front of the venue on Saturdays & Friday nights – these will rotate and vary week on week. They’ll be a condensed menu of lagers, pale ales, cocktails, wines & coffees – the focus here is on quality products and working with local breweries and producers. We’ll be applying for drinks to be served in glassware and want to get away from the festival style that you perhaps get at our events, this will be a proper, permanent venue. 

Blue Collar Corner will adapt throughout the year, we’ll celebrate the summer with the site covered in greenery, the roof off and both floors making it a massive beer garden. As the seasons change, we’ll replace the greenery with Autumnal leaves, add in heaters and cover the site to make it a cosy, semi-indoor venue.

Q) How about music and entertainment? Are you going to get some other groups involved in that regard?

Food and drink is our focus but we’ve always been keen to create the right atmosphere, and music really helps with that. We had a bit of a moment in 2018 where we ramped up the DJ sets (playing chilled background music) at our summer events and saw how much it enhanced the experience. Our licence conditions will influence what we can and can’t do but we’d really like a combination of acoustic live music, DJ sets and strong playlists from local artists. 

Q) Although quiet lately, the council had been talking about further enhancements in the area – a Minster Quarter – including the former Civic Centre redevelopment. Are you aware of any further plans? Presumably, at the very least, resurfacing the pavements around the area would help you out by making the whole area more attractive? The Broad St Mall too has its plans around here… a mutually beneficial critical mass of investments perhaps?

The council has been great with their support for us getting to this point – especially with Covid in the background, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work with the Planning and Licensing departments to refine our proposals and make the very best of this opportunity. I know they’re ambitious for the wider regeneration of the Minster Quarter. 

The hope is that, whatever’s planned, the council can work alongside us to make this an area full of life and activity. The new bowling alley and cinema at the Broad St Mall, the hotel on the land of the old nightclub behind Pavlov’s Dog – these are all really positive things. I just hope these new sites are full of independent, Reading-based businesses – if they are, it’ll be really special & we’ll start to have an independent scene on par with Bristol and Oxford. 

Q) What is the schedule to get cracking? I presume a good dose of Covid conditionality!

In the immediate term, our planning application will be reviewed by the council, with us aiming to formally submit our application to the planning department within the next week or so. Assuming we can get the all clear, the infrastructure itself will go up fairly quickly and we’re eager to get going, with late summer being a realistic target for opening. 

Covid-19 continues to affect things, with any new or remaining restrictions having to be factored into our layout. It’s also led to complications in transporting goods, which has in turn affected the availability (and cost) of shipping containers, but we’ve allowed a bit of leeway for this in our schedule. 

We’ll likely launch as an open air site to enjoy the last of the summer and, once we have opened, then begin to really focus on improving the market area outside the site too. This will be a long process, but over the course of our three year term we’re going to give it a real go. If we get it right, then this venue can really breathe new life into this part of our hometown.

My thanks to Glen for his time on these answers, and of course for his ongoing enthusiasm for Reading!

Nationally, as we emerge slowly from Covid restrictions, many have speculated what will be left of the town and city centres they knew before. The impact of shop closures is biting, especially in medium-sized centres shaped around retail. Reading, it would appear, is just about large enough and sufficiently forward-thinking to offer hope. Station Hill has begun, Crossrail is “imminent”, we have heritage regenerations like Queen Victoria St in the pipeline, the Oracle and Broad St Mall have advanced plans to repurpose space, and John Lewis is suitably reassured to reopen. Dare I even mention the Gaol?

But we cannot be complacent. The new digital diet of internet takeaways, streamed boxset binges, and any manner of online merchandise on your doorstep within hours… it’s by no means assured that Berkshire can be dragged off its sofa to rediscover its county town. Blue Collar’s venture is a bold one, and it will take time to elevate Hosier St market to become a genuine magnet for visitors. But judging by the social media reaction I saw yesterday, if word gets out then this venue has the potential to offer a dose of what every town is looking for right now: some fun, friendships, and above all, a reason not to stay at home.

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Blue Collar Permanent Venue! …Interview

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