“There's such pride in this city and independents really champion that,” says Joe Schuppler as he sups coffee in Saint Kitchen.
The Jewellery Quarter coffee shop is one of 60 cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and shops that are being championed by his website, Independent Birmingham.
Joe, from Olton, first discovered the joy of independent enterprises when trying to break away from coffee chains and a sea of supermarkets while studying law in Liverpool.
But on returning to his hometown in 2013 he hit a stumbling block.
“I came back here and realised I didn’t know a single independent place in Birmingham,” he says.
“I figured other people must feel the same way too.”
On the recommendation of a university friend he found South American cocktail bar Bodega which, alongside the Pickled Piglet restaurant and Sunflower Lounge, became the first to be featured on his Independent Birmingham blog, showcasing the shops, bars and restaurants that set Birmingham apart from London, Manchester and every other UK town and city.
“I don’t go round saying all chains are terrible,” says Joe.
“Many of these chains, like Nando’s, started off as independents, and it’s a dream of many independents to have that kind of success, going nationwide or worldwide.
“But people want to go to places that are different and usually the people behind independents do things differently –the service, the decor, the presentation – and they take a lot of care because it’s their own business.
“They’ve put so much hard work and devotion into it that they want it to be as good as it can possibly be.”
The 24-year-old followed the lead of two university friends, Oliver Press and David Williams, who launched Independent Liverpool two years ago.
The Brummie version started out as a blog but has developed into a website, featuring a directory of enterprises from street food traders to delicatessens, and bars to barbers.
In their bid to compete with the chains (a David and Goliath-style battle) the economic downturn may have helped to give independents a boost, with the number in the UK rising every year since 2009.
The British Independent Retail Association (BIRA) has claimed the crunch saw several chains leave British high streets (either to disappear for good or to focus on online operations) and indies have eagerly taken their place with traditional independent ventures such as barbers, bakeries and bookshops making a comeback.
Maintaining, expanding and marketing Birmingham’s directory is a full-time job for Joe who spends his days visiting new independent ventures, adding them to the website and using Twitter and Facebook to tell others about them.
He says: “It’s obvious from social media that there are a lot more people talking about independents now.
“But 85 per cent of people out there still don’t know these businesses exist.
“Because rental prices on the high street are so high, you find independent businesses are very often tucked away and hidden from view.
“So lack of awareness is a big problem. And that’s why I started the website.
“In the Jewellery Quarter, for example, Peel and Stone are tucked beneath the railway arch and you could walk past that arch without knowing they were there but what they’re doing is fantastic.
“They don’t have the mass marketing power of the chains but they rely on word of mouth and social media.
“And while Twitter is great it can be a double-edged sword because there are so many people shouting your one tweet can get lost straight away.”
Joe wants to see certain zones, such as the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth, lead the growth of Birmingham’s independent scene, becoming hubs for independent shopping or dining like Liverpool’s Bold Street or Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
And for added incentive to seek out the indies, Joe started a city-wide loyalty scheme last March.
For the price of £15 (or two for £20) the Independent Birmingham card gives discounts at restaurants bars and shops with offers including two-for-one cinema tickets at The Electric, 10 per cent off dinner at Adam’s Michelin-starred restaurant and two-for-one pizza at Alfie Birds.
Joe says: “The point is that you can make your money back in one visit.
“It’s a chance to go out and experience the lesser-known aspects of Birmingham and rediscover your city.”
But he’s selective about who can and can’t feature on the website.
“The Lost and Found looks like an independent bar,” he says, “but they’re owned by Marston’s Plc, so they’re not included.
“Whereas here [Saint Kitchen], for example, you can come in and talk directly to Will, the owner, and that’s what people are looking for – the integrity behind a business.
“They want to support local ventures and support their local community.
“And it’s not just about individual places, it’s a strong scene.
“All the independents know each other and recommend each other so every time I meet a new one they’ll tell me about somewhere else.
“It’s really nice to see that bond and sense of community.”
“The chains are always going to be there,” he adds, “and a lot of people will come shopping in Birmingham because they want those chains, but there’s room for independent shops to grow and expand.
“There’s such pride in this city and independents really champion that.
“People are moving from London because of all these amazing independents that make Birmingham an up-and-coming place to be.
“The city would be dull and generic without them.”
Find out more about Independent Birmingham here.
Independent Birmingham’s take on the city’s best indies
“There’s a very strong alternative scene in Birmingham and the music scene in particular is phenomenal.
“Black Sabbath have been and gone but there are so many incredible bands coming out of Birmingham at the moment, one of the biggest being Swim Deep.
“And that couldn’t happen without independent live music venues like the Sunflower Lounge, the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath and the Bulls Head in Moseley.”
“Vintage clothing is big in Birmingham. We’ve got loads of vintage shops, not just for clothes, but furniture and memorabilia, and old school sweet shops.
“People love the nostalgia element and the chance to reminisce on their childhoods.
“Gingermegs Vintage (mainly women's clothing and accessories), Vintage Hideaway (clothes, memorabilia and quirky items) and Flamingo Vintage (clothes) are all great.
"Cocktail Cosmetics is also really popular and Left For Dead stocks a range of old and new music and loads of vinyl."
FOOD AND FILM
“You can’t talk about independent businesses in Birmingham without talking about the food scene.
“Having those four Michelin stars in the city is just fantastic. But street food is making a huge noise, too, having exploded onto the scene with Digbeth Dining Club.
“The Electric is mind blowing too, with great cinema food and amazing events.”
“Our coffee’s better than other cities’.
“I’ve been to the coffee shop Liverpool dub their best and ours beats it hands down.”