Our lovely hippy city by the seaside is globally renowned for its openness, progressive values and tolerance.
So for International Women’s Day (March 8) we thought it would be cool to catch up with some of the ladies currently making waves in different sectors of the Brighton food and drink scene.
Here come the girls…
About six years ago, after late-night drinking around a friend’s kitchen table, I went for a bit of a run on the seafront.
Well I say run – more of a slow hungover jog. It occurred to me if I’d been drinking anything other than gin the previous night, I wouldn’t have been able to lift myself off the sofa. There was a proper lightbulb moment: gin is the one drink that ‘lets you get away with it’. And of course, Brighton is one town where you need to ‘get away with it’ on a regular basis. Therefore, I realised, Brighton needs its own gin.
At first I had bugger-all clue, but I was working for the BBC at the time, and thanks to Brighton’s shitty train service I had four hours every day to read, research and study gin-making. There was a huge amount of trial and error. We bought our first still from eBay. It was once used as a drug dealers’ prop in the Samuel L. Jackson movie 51st State. Anyway, that blew up. Another one dented. Fast forward to now: Brighton Gin employs a team of eleven, is stocked by Harvey Nichols, and last summer won "UK’s Best Gin" at the People’s Drink Awards. Brighton is full of people who are obsessive about the city – so long as you’re willing to graft there’s always collaborators to help ideas get off the ground.
Brighton Gin is run almost entirely by women, which makes us, I think, unique in our field. And it’s interesting when, for instance, people pitch up to collect stuff, or have a nose around. Our guy Paul is training as a distiller, but right now is mostly looking after deliveries. Yet people often default to talking to him instead of us. Whether that’s conscious or unconscious who knows. At industry events we do look around, and notice there aren’t many others like us there. But the positive thing is we have a place at the table. And we’re not going anywhere soon.
My sister Amy and I decided in 2009 there had to be a better way of retailing food, and in doing so support fair and ethical supply chains.
Big supermarkets snatch all the profit out of local communities and degrade the quality of food. We wanted to come up with the antidote. Our starting point was: if you were to start a supermarket from scratch, how would you do it? You’d source locally, and support people in the town. Animal welfare would factor in – no factory farming, eggs from just up the road and so on.
That’s where the name HISBE came from – How It Should Be. At first it was tough. The awesome responsibility of hiring people, making payroll each month. As a social enterprise we needed to make a profit, and our values insist we keep money in the local economy, and pay everyone a proper living wage. Now, thankfully, it’s working. We don’t struggle every month. We’re purpose-led and commercially successful, on a mission to change the food industry.
We were both single mothers, but our kids had reached the age where they were getting independent, so we wanted to start a business.
There was a gap in the market for authentic Mexican street food in Brighton, so we threw ourselves into it. We started out with the ‘mothership’ site on Gloucester road, which is still thriving and has an amazing core of regulars. We’ve done stints at pub kitchens here and in London, and drove a converted Airstream food truck to Glastonbury festival.
Six months ago we opened a bigger site on Western Road, a huge move forwards for us. Development is so important. We also took our head chef Benji Hinchcliff on tour, eating our way around Mexico City and beyond to keep our kitchens authentically Mexican.
We’re members the Brighton Restaurant Association, a collective of local independents who meet up to discuss issues, support each other, and drink a lot of wine. On April 9 we have a collaboration with chef Bas Oonk, which will be an awesome Mexican-Surinam fusion dinner.
Being women hasn’t really hindered us, but then we’re both quite formidable in our own ways! In all seriousness, we’re very proud to show our daughters that women can go out there and do well in all aspects of life.
Maggie and I met when she was an antiques dealer and I was a personal trainer/massage therapist.
She was running Metrodeco as a lovely Art Deco antiques shop, but reckoned there was a need for a cafe in the area. I always loved tea, so we joined forces as business partners in what started life as a combination of antiques shop and tearoom.
After a few years the tearoom became very successful, so we took the difficult decision to stop selling antiques. Maggie’s eye for style meant we could still have a beautiful vintage setting, and serve our growing customer base. Not least the more discerning hen party brigade with whom we, somehow, became popular.
Our staff all dress in vintage style and we play music from the ‘30s to the ‘60s. Together with our quirky decor, this creates a feel from a bygone era. Afternoon tea is our speciality, combining our own baked goods with choice items from local bakers to create a real indulgent treat. Brighton really does feel like one big community, striving to be the best we can. We’re huge supporters of the Brighton and Hove Food and Drink Festival and often host events. We have a tea company as well, and our tea is on the menu at loads of cafes, restaurants and hotels in Brighton and beyond.
When I was 12 I started making birthday and celebration cakes for friends and family. Within a year, word of my baking had spread. Before long I found myself doing paid jobs.
However the main step towards what became the current Miss Muffin Top business was when my best friend, age 17, became vegan. I realised I could no longer bake the same delicious treats for her when she came over – so I rose to the challenge, and started adapting my recipes to be vegan-friendly. It was only after that I became aware of a huge increase in demand, especially in Brighton, for vegan and dairy-free treats. That was seven years ago. I was probably one of the first small cake businesses in Brighton to go fully vegan. Now we’re lucky enough to have hundreds of restaurants and bakeries catering to this lifestyle and other dietary requirements, so it’s forced me to up my game tenfold!
‘Miss Muffin Top’ now offers more than 20 different flavours of vegan brownies alone – peanut butter, sea-salt caramel, cookie dough, choc-honeycomb and hazelnut praline (just to name a few). We also cater for gluten allergies, and can whip up the occasional diabetic friendly recipe on demand. I’ve never really thought about challenges in relation to my gender – I just got on with it, and have found myself to be treated equally. I absolutely love being a boss lady though.