Within the old Whitley borders, and built on the sewage plant that had been the origin of the Whitley whiff before new facilities were built on the other side of the A33, Kennet Island isn’t everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live or visit. Some people point to its isolation from the town, the zombie-film-like soulless streets and architectural sameness as the downside. On the upside, it’s clean and safe with some nice foliage, there is a hospital for a minor op and it’s close to the football and Kennet Meadows; you can even walk or cycle by the canal from central Reading. While most Islanders are hunkered down in their living machines, two resident pioneers are working hard at building a smart and tasty new business, situated slap bang-in the middle of the estate’s rather wonderful and a bit mad waterfall-bedecked piazza. Breege Brennan and Shuet Han Tsui are the friendly, busy folk behind the memorably named Fidget & Bob and generously agreed to talk to me about it.
[Matthew] How do you describe your business?
[Shuet] It’s an all-day eatery and drinkery!
Is this your first business?
Yes, I worked in industrial engineering and manufacturing for 20 years, then was involved in funding new start-ups. Breege worked in theatre and events as a stage manager. We are enjoying the freedom of having our own business, and we love food and cooking. We know that a lot of people here live and work in London and Reading, and have high expectations; we must meet those expectations to succeed.
What have you got for breakfast?
A lovely breakfast wrap for only £4. It’s got sausage, beans, egg, hash browns and cheese – it’s delicious, and has been hugely popular. We have nothing against the ‘full English’, but you can get that elsewhere.
What’s your finest fare?
We aren’t entirely there yet. Currently, we make ‘signature’ Fidget & Bob fresh pizzas which are delicious. And we have started doing weekly specials as well. We can’t wait to do our signature Chinese barbecue pork with lashings of proper sauce. And for the past six months, we have been developing freshly made pot noodles – made from scratch. Customers will be able to take them to work; just add hot water.
Who are Fidget and Bob?
I can’t tell you, other than that it’s the name of our business and it’s not us. We will be having a competition to see what people think, and will reward the right answer or the most creative or amusing one!
What is your mission?
We want to create an independent, all day food and drink business at the heart of this community. We really mean that as we are Islanders; we live here! We want to provide interesting, creative food choices, to stock independent, local British food and drink where possible. We want to present quality; we really try to source the best.
How have you chosen your beers and other goods?
We did a lot of research; it’s great fun sourcing them! We are looking for both quality and something interesting. We start the search locally, working outwards – nationally, and then round the world. We have been talking to The Grumpy Goat in Reading about supplying local cheeses and beer, and to Nomad Bakery in Caversham for their lovely bread. It’s important to us to support local, independent businesses; when you support an independent company, a real person gets paid – it doesn’t go to the invisible shareholders of a large corporation.
Who are you trying to attract here?
We want to attract Kennet Island residents. We have had a lot of people who work from home, and some mums; they can all pop in and shoot the breeze over a coffee, or a drink or two (we have a full bar licence too). Coming to an independent coffee shop like Fidget & Bob is a great way to feel less isolated if you’re at home all day. We would also like to attract people who work on Kennet Island, such as the Hilton Hotel, the BMW garage, the Circle Hospital and the Argos distribution centre across the road.
What do you think of the facilities at Kennet Island?
It’s got a great, new, independent café bar [laughs]! There is also a gym, a nursery and a great hospital. The Island development is 11 years old and it is very well kept and clean. I have been here for 11 years too and enjoy living here. The landlords, Berkeley Homes, are very thorough, and were incredibly supportive of us when we opened. The director and the MD dropped in to see us and show support.
Where do you get your coffee?
We buy our coffee from Clifton Coffee in Bristol. We looked at a lot of coffee suppliers but chose Clifton as the coffee is fabulous (it’s high on the global speciality coffee ranking; a kind of league table for speciality coffees). Moreover, Clifton buy coffee directly from a grower in El Salvador. This ‘direct trade’ system is a step above the widely known Fair Trade system. The coffee we serve is only one step from the farmer, Ricardo Lima in El Salvador. He in turn supports the local school and has built a clean water system locally. We also stock a range of gorgeous speciality teas from The Canton Tea Company, all directly sourced from independent tea growers in China and India. Ethical trading is important to us. We could buy cheaper coffee and tea, but feel it’s important that independent producers are supported, whether in Caversham or China.
‘Good’, ‘better’ and ‘best’ are written on the wine boxes; why is that?
All our wines are really good. We stock three whites and three reds and as a matter of principle they are top-notch. Again, we did a lot of research and decided to import wine in ‘BIBs’ (bag in box). BIBs travel lighter, so are more economical to import. As a result, the customer is not paying for the transport of heavy glass bottles. As the wine comes from small, independent producers in France and Spain, typically there is less chemical intervention; four of our wines are organic, one is vegetarian and one is vegan. And finally, as there is no light penetration through a BIB, the (already fine) wine stays much better for longer. So it’s a win-win situation. We are proud to sell BIB wine and are open about it.
Have you any special offers?
We just started Wine Wednesday; a large glass of wine and a bar snack from the menu for £7. We will be doing other deals as go along . We are finessing this business every day as we learn more about our customers.
What do you want to achieve?
We want to see people coming back, and at different times of day, and we want families coming in; we had a group with a baby yesterday for a pre-dinner drink, and a group of friends having a relaxing drink. It was a friendly, diverse atmosphere. Every day we are getting new people, and every day we are learning – it’s all very exciting.
Trade was pretty brisk when we were there, and that was on a Thursday. Before the chat, my wing-woman Sue and I scoffed a cheese board made up of Cropwell Bishop stilton, cave-aged cheddar and Cornish yarg for a bargainly £6.50. Going forward, Fidget & Bob plan to use local cheeses; I wish I could find a nice quote or rhyme to tell you how wonderful these three cheeses are, but as Chesterton pointed out:
Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
I also had a gorgeous, zingy bottle of handmade Thistly Cross cider with ginger. To finish, we had a strong, full flavoured coffee that was still ticking us over many hours later.
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.