Writer Mark Roberts / Photographer Connor Pope
Passing Fancies, open Wednesday through Sunday, is an unassuming glass fronted bar opposite the large ‘Foliage Man’ (I’ve trademarked the name, before you ask) in the Custard Factory. It’s fancy without ‘classy’ expectations, specialising in reasonably priced, curated boutique cocktails and small plates.
When you meet Thomas Matthews you see why Passing Fancies is swiftly becoming the go to place for cocktails in Digbeth, the passion and personality for excellent, affordable, beverages starts at the top and flows generously all the way down to the bartenders.
Tommy is one of three owners of Passing Fancies along with Eve Green from Grain & Glass, and Matt Arnold of The Edgbaston Boutique Hotel. He greets me warmly at the door and offers me an unfiltered Stella Artois, which as someone who doesn’t like lager, banged.
“I started competing at a national level in 2016, and it was always this ongoing joke that wherever the finals were being held, we [Birmingham] were the butt of the joke.”
“I took that really personally”, Tommy continues. “We don’t have the densest population of great bars like London does, but we still have quality. We still have smart, driven and creative people.”
Community is something Tommy is eager to talk about, something that clearly drives him, and this passion is focused on Birmingham and its developing bar scene.
“I look at the industry as being one community. No matter what bar you work in,” Tommy explains with a laidback but palpable enthusiasm. “We’re all still in hospitality, we’re all doing the same thing. We just do it to different levels.”
And “different levels” is Tommy being modest. Tommy is an award-winning bartender, and was bar manager of Couch in Stirchley which ranked No 37 in Top 50 Cocktail Bars 2022, and The Edgbaston Boutique Hotel ranking No 24 and 25 in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
On top of Tommy’s credentials, Passing Fancies has just received a 9/10 in Class Bar Magazine, probably the industry’s biggest bar publication.
“We got lucky”, explains Tommy when the recent accolade is brought up. “I used to work at The Edgbaston Boutique Hotel and I heard that unfortunately they were closing, so I hit them up.
“We got £20-24K’s worth of kit for peanuts”, says Tommy, pointing to a centrifuge in one corner and a rotary evaporator in the other.
The conversation develops as we talk about the kit he’s using.
“I don’t like people that hoard information. I’ve never understood the secret recipe side of things. If everyone knows all the secret recipes, is everyone not just better as a whole?
“There’s this beautiful line between plagiarism and inspiration and I think when you believe people will be inspired by your techniques, they’ll have their own version with their creativity.”
Maybe everything is a remix after all?
“The scene is just blossoming the more people talk to each other”, Tommy gleams.
Passing Fancies is also built upon the idea of community, from the inside. Tommy remembers his bartending past and explores his business model with me.
“So I sat down with Matt and Eve, and we chatted about our combined two decades of experience in hospitality. We’d been through the not so nice employers and the 90 hour weeks,” Tommy laments.
“We just looked at it and went ‘what didn’t we like when we were in the trenches?’”
Tommy goes on to describe an all too familiar story in the industry. “The lack of respect, this assumption that you’d come in on your day off to do stuff, zero hours contracts, your head on the chopping block to go home but you’ve still got bills to pay.”
Because of this, Passing Fancies decided to incorporate a fixed salary, fixed hours, and a 5% service charge equally split between all bartenders.
Tommy clearly understands the logistical issues with zero hours contracts: “You’ve got this crazy up and down weekly pay that you have to try to explain to the banks if you want a mortgage.
“Even if you work in hospitality, you should be entitled to the ease of getting the things you want in life.”
It’s important to note that Tommy, Matt, and Eve are all, fundamentally, bartenders in the eyes of the bar. “Now obviously there are perks for Eve, Matt, and I being business owners – but the directors are bartenders in the eyes of the bar. It’s super transparent.”
Tommy comes to an epiphany. “Now I say it aloud, it sounds very socialist and I mean I’m not into politics at all.”
I nod in Marxist approval.
“Sometimes when you have a bar manager who is this super, crazy, skilled person, sometimes that intimidation gets in the way.” Tommy goes on, explaining another aspect of his, Matt, and Eve’s business decisions.
“They (workers) don’t want to come across as stupid, or get laughed at or whatever. We’ve created this even playing field so everything is just a flavour lead conversation on what is delicious.”
For Tommy at least, this is the foundational idea behind Passing Fancies.
“The one thing all of the team ask before anything goes on the menu is, is it delicious?”
And I can vouch for them. The cocktails, the beer, the whiskey Tommy gave me after the interview – both of them – are outstanding.
If you’re in the Custard Factory and you’re passing, you should fancy a pass into Passing Fancies. Okay I’m bad at endings. Can you blame me? They plied me with booze.
To book a table at Passing Fancies go to: www.passingfanciesbar.co.uk