Four – minute read

Each month, we profile one of our favourite independent bars, cafés, restaurants and retailers. Here, we meet Simon Jones, owner of Medicine bakery in Birmingham…

If the 90s were your heyday and warehouse raves your thing, the name Medicine will likely ring a few bells. What is now a quirky artisan bakery and gallery on Birmingham’s New Street, was once the hub of the city’s emerging music scene. Then known as ‘Medicine Bar’ and located in the repurposed Bird’s custard factory building, it was the focal point of Digbeth’s nightlife renaissance, hosting diverse music acts from the likes of the Chemical Brothers and Amy Winehouse, to up-and-coming grime artists and Asian dance music.

Halcyon days

“It was called the Medicine Bar because we thought it sounded cool,” laughs owner Simon Jones, who, alongside his wife Francesca, has been in the industry for more than 28 years, running various pubs and businesses in the Birmingham area. When it first launched, Medicine was one of the only ‘concept’ bars in the country at that time, along with only a handful of others, including the infamous Dry Bar in Manchester.

“There was nothing like Medicine then – there were maybe six or seven places in the whole country that were challenging how you went out, or where you went out,” he says, reminiscing about a time when bars were beginning to experiment with music by hosting DJ sets. “Bar DJs are commonplace now,” says Simon, but back then it made Medicine a trailblazer. As the competition in the area grew and business got gradually tougher, the bar eventually closed in 2011 after almost two decades in Birmingham’s creative quarter.

“We sell bread with the same attitude we sold vodka”

From bar to bakery

So, how did the transition from edgy bar in a renovated factory building, to city-centre artisan bakery occur? In part, it was a reflection of the time that has passed since the rave days: as Medicine’s following has matured, so has the brand. “I’m 50 – those people [who came to Medicine in the 90s] have got children now, so we’re engaging people who’ve got good memories of those times in a different way,” says Simon.

Before opening the main bakery in Birmingham city centre last year, Simon first opened a rural bakery and kitchen (also called Medicine) in Codsall, a village on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. The two venues present very different challenges, but also allow Simon to make the most of two target markets. “A city is a very different place; they are very receptive and open to new ideas,” he explains. “Outside in the suburbs or a small town, it’s a little less like that. But, it’s provided an ability for us to make a blueprint. I’ve been able to train bakers there; we’ve got a core team and have set up a core standard there, which allowed us to launch into the city.”

Food and catering has always been a part of Simon’s businesses, so the move from bar to bakery wasn’t such a strange one – but it did require retraining. “There’s nothing like trying to pay the bills to make you learn how to do something quickly!” he laughs. “It was quite a lifestyle change. But now it’s nice to have done that training and come back into the city with a new outlook, but perhaps the same ‘guerrilla’ attitude. You could say we sell bread with the same attitude we sold vodka.”

Bread isn’t the only thing on the menu at Medicine. It’s famous cronuts (a cross between a donut and a croissant) are a pastry-lover’s dream, as are its variety of artisan cakes, brownies and locally roasted coffee – all served up in beautiful surroundings.

Changing spaces

The Custard Factory was a tough act to follow when it came to finding a venue for the Birmingham bakery, and Simon’s pride and admiration for that first incarnation of Medicine is still very apparent: “It was a glass-fronted, architectural masterpiece,” he says. Bringing old and neglected buildings back to life is clearly a real passion – the breath-taking 19th century gallery with original hardwood and marble floors, fresh white walls and palatial ceilings, took a lot of hard work and determination to resurrect. When they first acquired the space, the floors were covered with glued-on 70s tiles, the walls were painted yellow and it had been empty for a number of years. But, Simon knew the building from when it was the headquarters of the Royal Society of Birmingham Artists – and immediately swooped in when he heard it had become available.

“Part of the reason we launched Medicine back then was as a reaction to the right-wing way that the world was lurching.”

Agitating the status quo

With such a versatile and expansive venue, the possibilities for Medicine in its new form are almost limitless. Exciting plans are afoot for the gallery space and Simon is keen to get other local traders involved. He’s keeping his cards close to his chest for now, but whatever the future holds, it will be “independent, artisan and crafts-focussed.”

Indeed, for every project Simon has taken part in over the years, there has always been an emphasis on providing an inclusive, nurturing environment for all types of artists – and the wider community in general. “Part of the reason we launched Medicine back then was as a reaction to the right-wing way that the world was lurching,” he says. “We wanted to do something that was anti that. In the 90s, people went to clubs to listen to the music and talk about politics. It’s not like that now, it’s a different age.”

But, Simon believes coffee houses are beginning to fill that gap and provide a much-needed hub for social and creative interaction. “People from all generations, from 15 to 80, are coming here and really engaging in what we’re doing. We really wanted it to be a space for a little bit of a resistance,” he smiles. This goal, it seems, is what has inspired Simon to keep innovating all these years and is what makes the long hours and demanding workload worthwhile. “It’s hard work when you run a business, but you can achieve something unique. That’s been my drive in everything I’ve done; not just for the sake of being unique – but for the sake of agitating the status quo; not settling for second best. And trying to make something good happen.”

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