Beelzebab: Rise of the bab man

Beelzebab at The Hope and Ruin is an institution, it’s as integral to the city as dodgy penny pushers and seagulls nicking your chips.

With the kitchen approaching its sixth birthday it is fair to say that dropping kraut all over your jeans, cramming handful after handful of The Pengest Poppers into your mouth and chinning a Red Stripe whilst listening to Fugzai is now basically a Brighton human right.

Becoming part of one of, if not the, first fully-vegan venues in the city and establishing itself as a cornerstone of the community was never in the original plan, according to big bossman and self-titled Supreme Overlord of Beelzebab, Luke Kosta Semlekan-Tansey, who simply set out to make the kind of food he wanted to be able to eat and little else.

“I came up with the initial idea after trying this vegan kebab out in Berlin a couple of times and wanted to create something similar. But also, the kitchen and the venue itself was very punk, all very anti-establishment whilst still making this incredible food,” said Luke.

Given the special place Beelzebab now holds in the hearts of many, it would appear that a fair few others share his taste.

“I feel as though people – specifically vegans and vegetarians – are increasingly open to searching out and trying new things and there are so many unique things down here that you think like, why would these people go to a chain that they have already been to. Things like the monthly specials not only keep people interested, but they keep us on our toes, that keep us pushing things forward.”

Since the kitchen’s inception the Brighton vegan food scene has seen huge growth. Gone are the days of only being able to eat chips in pubs, or put up with some dry couscous in a meal deal; every venue, shop and restaurant now has a fully-formed vegan option, and larger chains are increasingly looking to Brighton for new openings.

I don’t sell anything I wouldn’t want to eat on a regular basis.

Luke, Beelzebab

“We have seen more places open up in Brighton that are solely vegan, brands from London for example that have opened up branches here, and whilst that is obviously great to have more options, Brighton just isn’t London and it doesn’t mean that concept will work here.”

Yet, as the choices grow ever greater, the opportunities for unashamed plant-based gluttony more plentiful, Beelzebab has remained a constant fixture of the landscape, through its culinary innovation and unmissable branding.

“The food here is recognisable and it’s different from a lot of the other local offerings. I just do what I want to do, I mean, my decisions for making and creating and selling food are not necessarily based on what I see is the flavour of the month, it is all, is this something that I would like to eat and can’t get anywhere, why not create it myself,” commented Luke.

“It doesn’t always work, some people fucking hated a jam donut dog that we did for a month, but then again some loved, I thought it was great, and at the end of the day it’s not the end of the world. It’s the same as being in a band, you have to make what you want to make, you can’t make things to please people. If it’s from you and it’s sincere you shouldn’t really care. When you start doing things for other people you’re fucked, you’ve lost your authenticity and people can see that.

“I don’t sell anything I wouldn’t want to eat on a regular basis.”

Luke out on Dogliveries

The brand itself is an unmistakable part of the Beelzebab appeal with its central character instantly-recognisable on t shirts, pins and stickers all over Brighton. 

It’s just like I’ve been able to make all the merch that I would have dreamed of making were I in a band, but have just made for a food business.

“I always knew the ethos behind the brand, what I wanted for the artwork, and knew people that were super on board with the idea and could make it happen. It’s just like I’ve been able to make all the merch that I would have dreamed of making were I in a band, but have just made for a food business.

“I’m always excited about what we’re doing, and I don’t think I’ve really seen anyone else do anything remotely similar. The branding has always been strong, but it’s never been in my mind that it has to present itself in any particular way, or any particular ethos, it’s just who I am and that’s what I like, other people seem to like it too, so that’s cool.”

The crossover between music and food is not only limited to the merchandising side of affairs, but has had an impact when it comes to creating a fanbase, and also organising events, staffing and supply.

“As somebody who spent a large part of the teenage years organising a ska band to do a tour, all turn up to practice, design merch, get it printed, all that stuff; you know what you need to do to make things happen, run a team, get stuff sorted.

The idea of building up a community around the food, as opposed to pointless posturing for social media clout has seen Beelzebab develop a glut of devotees like few other kitchens. As unapologetically independent as the pub in which it is situated, the Beelzebab ethos has resonated particularly strongly within Brighton’s counter-culture. 

“I think that Beelzebab works so well because it is in a music venue, the Hope and Ruin is the perfect place for us. It all works together, the food, the bar, the venue, I don’t think it would be the same somewhere else, or even on its own. I can’t think of anywhere else really that’s a totally vegan bar, kitchen and venue all in one. I can’t think of anywhere else that has the same vibe.

Behave, just behave

“I built it all around what I like and The Hope has never told me to change, never told me what they expect me to sell, I’ve always been allowed to do what we want, and it’s worked out well for everyone. I wouldn’t want to change the set up at all.”

There are very few, if any, kitchens around that veer from cartoon demons to black metal in terms of visuals whilst serving up jam donut hot dogs and homemade kimchi, and yet here we are, almost six years deep. The commitment to creating what you can’t find has clearly paid dividends.

Beelzebab will be celebrating its sixth birthday at the end of the month, and whilst the worldwide wave of shit we currently find ourselves in has put an end to any plans for a physical party Luke is busy preparing an online event, as DIY as you would expect.

“I’ve had a lot of ideas over the course of my life and it turns out this is the one that has worked the most. If people like it and I can make a living from it that’s great, I remember when I didn’t really make a living from it and still pushed on with it and it has ended up great. I was fucking fed up of working in an office.”