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For someone with a love of all Asian cuisines visits to London in the early 90s, and in particular the Sunday Market at Wimbledon, provided something of an epiphany for our chef director Chris Wiggin. Here could be found a whole aisle of pan-Asian traders offering dishes from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and much more. But these were not street food traders as we understand the term today, cooking dishes from fresh ingredients. Clearly these were all restaurant owners who were bringing their unsold food from the day before to offload on unsuspecting tourists. The wonderful aromas coming from the stalls was somewhat mitigated by the chorus of pings from microwaves up and down the row re-heating food. With the arrogance of youth Chris decided the concept could be so much better if food was cooked fresh to order. And thus, the Happy Noodle Company was formed.
A residency was found at the Holliday Wharf Antique & Craft market which ran every Sunday (in the old coach houses behind the Mailbox, now demolished to make way for the new registry office). The owners allowed us on with much laughter amongst themselves, telling us that they thought we would last three weeks. Our competition was a burger trailer and a hog roast guy. After two weeks of competing against us the hog roast guy packed up and left. The burger guy stayed and after treating us with much suspicion at first, Hank (who also ran City Fruits in the indoor market) turned out to be a good friend who gave us much advice, including the all important lesson of how to sell food at a profit instead of a loss.
The Happy Noodle Company sold exclusively Thai food, much to the confusion of many of our customers (very few Thai restaurants existed at the time) who would almost unanimously ask us whether our food was more like Indian or Chinese food. However it gradually built up a following including one lady who would come with six Tupperware boxes every Sunday to be filled for her meals for the week and the owner of one of the few Thai restaurants (Beau Thai in Solihull) offering Chris a job as a chef in her kitchen. Part of our appeal was down to showmanship. Our stall had four high power burners setup on the front counter inches away from customers, something that would give an EHO officer today a heart attack whilst having kittens at the same time. When a dish was ordered a wok would go on the burner and the dish would be cooked in front of them. We discovered lamb fat has a low flash point so we put a lamb dish on purely so that we could shake the wok vigorously over the flame and create a huge fireball to draw our audience in. We were show-offs and proud of it!
Canoodle was formed in 2013 by Chris Wiggin along with his Australian wife Vicki Ewart, both of whom originally formed The Happy Noodle Company in 1993. In 2018 Vicki took a back seat from day to day involvement in the company and Canoodle entered a new phase becoming a limited company and taking on operations Director Chris Harding at the same time.
Today the company is run by Chris Wiggin as Catering Director and Chris Harding as Operations Director, otherwise known as The Two Chris’.
Chris Wiggin was born in Great Barr in 1959 but has lived in Edgbaston for the last forty years with his Australian wife Vicki and their five dogs. He attended George Dixon Grammar School and continued his further education at West Surrey College of Art & Design in Farnham (now The Surrey Institute of Art & Design) where he gained a B A Honours degree in Visual Communication.
Throughout the 1980s he worked as a commercial photographer culminating in ownership of his own business, Solid Light Studios in Snow Hill, Birmingham. In 1993 he started the Happy Noodle Company, specialising in Thai Street Food making him one of the longest established practitioners in the industry as well as one of the very first Pan-Asian street Food vendors in the UK. He then went on to spend most of his career in Advertising before taking early retirement from the Birmingham Post & Mail in 2014.
Alongside his main occupation Chris ran the critically acclaimed Birmingham Plus restaurant website for ten years, which as a forerunner to Facebook and Twitter quickly established itself as the primary reference for restaurant news and reviews in the midlands. Chris has also worked as a restaurant inspector and judge for awards such as Heart of England Fine Foods and Taste of Staffordshire. In 2013 he formed Canoodle Catering where he continues to work as Catering Director.
Born in the early to mid 70’s (he won’t divulge exactly when) Chris#2 was born in the Home Counties and remained there until migrating to Birmingham in the early 90’s to attend University.
Chris#2’s background is that of a Scientist ,specifically Biochemistry -which is perfect for training for street food. His scientific bent means that he’s driven by rules & order, numbers and data. The perfect foil of organisation and practicality to Chris W’s creative and artist flair.
Having forged a career in IT and Telecoms for over 20 years he decided it was time for a change and that there was a bigger world out there. Having known Chris W for the best part of 15 years and knowing Canoodle since it's inception it seemed that by bringing his logical approach and ‘just do it’ physical aptitude along with drive, enthusiasm and boundless energy he’d be a good partner to take Canoodle up to the next level.
Chris#2 is responsible for the practical and operational side of Canoodle. Having been the project manager for the fit out and build of our new kitchen and storage unit he has since modified the livestock trailer that we trade in, taking it from a humble farmyard tool into a shiny metal kitchen. Now not satisfied with having only one he’s now looking for a new project to convert, preferably something with an engine !
But it was not easy selling Thai food (or any form of street food) in the 90s. Firstly, there just were not the opportunities. Street Food events as we know them today did not exist, nor was it easy to quickly advertise an event when they become available. Social media did not exist, and the only option was an expensive advert in the Evening Mail. Interestingly Digbeth Dining Club now has more followers across its Social Media channels than the Evening Mail’s entire circulation, even at their peak in the 1970s. Getting ingredients also proved difficult. The nearest place to get ‘exotic’ ingredients like lemongrass and lime leaves (now commonplace in any supermarket) was a little Thai shop in Richmond near London. Ultimately time was called on the Happy Noodle Company when the antique market closed down but along the way we also managed to do work for people like Performance in the Park, Ministry of Sound and Birmingham City Council and we can certainly claim the accolade of being among the first dedicated Street Food traders specialising in Pan-Asian Cuisine in the UK.
A twenty-year hiatus ensued when Chris reverted to his original day job of advertising before something magical started to happen to catch his attention and garner thoughts of having another crack at ‘unfinished business’. That spark of magic was the formation of Digbeth Dining Club, a wholly new concept. Here food traders were not invited to support an event, they were the event! Of course, Birmingham in the second decade of the twentieth Century was a different animal to the 1990s. Air travel to far-flung countries was often cheaper than a train ticket to Glasgow and that gave people an appetite for all the exotic foods they had eaten abroad. Social Media meant pop-ups could quickly reach thousands of potential customers and of course it did not take long before photographs of food became as popular as those of cats on Facebook and Instagram. Into this exciting new era Canoodle was formed, trading at its first event at Digbeth Dining Club in August 2013.
Canoodles first menu was exclusively Vietnamese. By now Thai was so ubiquitous a green chicken curry could be bought in almost every pub and the thought process was to offer something new and exciting. Sadly though people in 2013 found Vietnamese food almost as challenging as Thai food in 1993 so the menu was expanded to cover multi cuisines, initially offering Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian. Cambodian and Korean food followed, and we have even tested the market with dishes from Singapore and Sri Lanka.
Whilst we were one of the first Pan-Asian traders in the ‘new wave’ street food scene, competitors didn’t take long to spring up and presently it is possible to sample cuisines from other traders of just about every country in the region. But we have never been afraid of change and in an effort to stay ahead of the competition and bring innovation to the Industry we have diversified and now have a second complimentary brand in Kowaca, our entirely original take on American-Korean fusion diner food.
Canoodle is still at the very heart of everything we do but the more sophisticated restaurant quality dishes that it offers find more favour these days with corporate clients and weddings, whereas the simpler, more ‘street food friendly’ menu of Kowaca featuring items such as Korean Sloppy Joes and Fried Chicken is currently enjoying huge popularity amongst diners at street food events up and down the country.
It’s been a fantastic journey so far and in our first seven years we are proud to say we have worked with some amazing blue chip companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Jaguar Cars, Selfridges, Hyundai, Evans Cycles, Halfords and Birmingham University to name but a few. We also work at most of the street food events throughout central England such as Digbeth Dining Club, Leicester Canteen, Derby Bustler and Northampton Bite.
In 2013 when we started, we did a semi-conversion of our domestic kitchen at our home in Edgbaston to meet EHO requirements and used most of the rooms in our (admittedly large) Victorian house to store equipment. In 2018 we became a limited company and moved into our 2000 sq. ft facility in North Birmingham incorporating purpose built prep kitchen, offices and equipment and van storage. It seems like finally getting there but we will never stop innovating to bring the best street food we can.