TOM PARKER BOWLES meets Spudman: Why you should believe the hype that has people travelling across the world and queueing for hours to eat a £5 baked potato from a van

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Tucking in: Tom Parker Bowles with Ben Newman at his food truck in Tamworth, Staffordshire

They start at dawn. A trickle at first, queuing patiently in the early morning gloom, wrapped up warm against the bitter Midlands chill.

Then, as thin winter sun fails to break through skies grey as slate, that trickle turns to a deluge and the line grows ever longer, snaking back from the shuttered beige food truck emblazoned with ‘JACKET SPUDS’, through Tamworth’s St Editha’s Square, and back, deep into the shopping precinct.

By 10am, when the wagon opens for business, it’s two hours to the front. These potato pilgrims hail from every corner of the globe, as far afield as Australia. And they’re all here to see one man — Ben Newman, better known to his 2.3million TikTok followers as Spudman.

‘It’s like this every day,’ says Ben, luxuriously bearded and sporting his now trademark pink Mohican. ‘It’s just crazy.’

He’s warm, friendly, and possibly one of the nicest men I’ve ever met, responding to the near-incessant requests for videos and selfies with the same patient charm.

Tucking in: Tom Parker Bowles with Ben Newman at his food truck in Tamworth, Staffordshire

Customers queue in the early morning gloom from the shuttered beige food truck, through Tamworth's St Editha's Square, and back

Customers queue in the early morning gloom from the shuttered beige food truck, through Tamworth’s St Editha’s Square, and back

‘This stall has been in the same spot since the 1970s. I took it over in 2003. I had left college and didn’t really know what to do.

‘And I was sat in the pub with my dad, who was a potato merchant, when he told me Phil, the stall’s owner, was retiring. So I thought: ‘I’ll buy it and take it over.’

And he did, and his wagon became a much-loved and popular local fixture. But never, well, this popular.

Now, Spudman serves over 800 potatoes a day, costing between £3 and £7. ‘We sell them until we run out. Then shut up shop and start again from scratch the next day.’ But it was after Covid, ‘when retail was on its backside’, that one of his sons, aged 13, introduced him to TikTok.

‘I started off using it just to keep an eye on my kids. Then I thought, “what the hell’, and posted a few videos.’

The third one got half a million views and ‘totally opened my eyes’. (A recent post gained an incredible 100million views.)

‘And suddenly I’m being followed by millions of people all across the world. I get recognised wherever I go, and I’ve got celebrities doing stints on the wagon.’ He shakes his head then grins. ‘I still can’t quite believe it.’

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But behind the upbeat bonhomie is a rather more gruelling reality. He styled his pink Mohican to raise money for kidney research, having been through three different failed transplants (in 10 to 15 per cent of patients, the immune system ‘attacks’ the transplant, according to the NHS).

‘My body kept rejecting them,’ he says with a shrug, and he’ll remain on dialysis for the rest of his life.

But Ben has little time for self-pity. ‘The business works around me and my illness. I can live a long time if I stay healthy.’

Ben Newman, known as Spudman, serves over 800 potatoes a day, costing between £3 and £7

Ben Newman, known as Spudman, serves over 800 potatoes a day, costing between £3 and £7

The potatoes are baked for an hour in two vast iron ovens, before being unwrapped, lavished with spectacular amounts of butter. Toppings include baked beans, tuna mayonnaise, coleslaw and fresh chilli

The potatoes are baked for an hour in two vast iron ovens, before being unwrapped, lavished with spectacular amounts of butter. Toppings include baked beans, tuna mayonnaise, coleslaw and fresh chilli

Fundraising for kidney research is one passion; the other is Tamworth itself. ‘This is not about me, or making money,’ he says, stopping for yet another selfie.

‘It’s about breathing life back into Tamworth. And I’m also being totally selfish. I want a business that will be here in ten years’ time, and I want a town to trade in. I love this place, but Tamworth doesn’t market itself well. Did you know it was once the capital of the Kingdom of Mercia?’

Now, Tamworth is not just about pigs and manifestos (it was in the town that Tory prime minister Robert Peel issued a famous appeal to the electorate in 1834). Tamworth’s about baked potatoes, too.

While Spudman disappears back into the wagon to serve up more succour and hot spuds, I talk to PC Wakely, a local policewoman, who has come up to the back door to plead for a fan. 

‘His satnav took him the wrong way,’ she sighs, ‘and now he’s parked where he shouldn’t be. He’s driven from Walsall, and I just want to get him off the Square.’

She asks Ben if he’ll do just two potatoes, as a special favour. For the first time, the smile falters. ‘No one jumps the queue,’ he says firmly. ‘It’s just not fair.’

Please, says the lovely PC, and he relents. ‘Just this once. And don’t bloody tell anyone, I’ll be lynched.’

Once the potatoes are wrapped and dispatched, and the satnav-challenged punter sent back on his way, PC Wakely is full of praise. ‘It’s a phenomenon. I’ve never seen anything like it. And it so great for Tamworth, too. We all love him.’

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'Potato pilgrims' hail from every corner of the globe and as far afield as Australia to visit Spudman's truck

‘Potato pilgrims’ hail from every corner of the globe and as far afield as Australia to visit Spudman’s truck

Ben styled his pink Mohican to raise money for kidney research, having been through three different failed transplants

Ben styled his pink Mohican to raise money for kidney research, having been through three different failed transplants

The queue may be long, and the wind bitter, but there are no complaints. It’s all very British.

Aya is from Milton Keynes. ‘I saw him on TikTok,’ she says, her teeth chattering. ‘And he seemed so nice. ‘So I came up on my day off and have waited an hour-and-a-half so far.’

‘John’ has travelled four hours from Blackburn. ‘Please don’t give my real name, as I’m skiving off work.’ He also saw Ben on TikTok.

Lee has made the trip up from Southampton, staying in Tamworth the previous night. ‘Everyone’s a potato fan,’ he says, ‘and I love his TikTok stuff. I’m really excited to meet him.’

Nicole and Leann have taken a two-hour detour en route home to Manchester from London. ‘It was my son who persuaded us to come. He’s so into TikTok.’

Ricky and Nicole come from Barnsley. ‘She’s here for a photo, but I’m here for the spud.’

A few weeks back, a couple travelled all the way from Malaysia. ‘They caught a flight from Kuala Lumpur, booked a hotel, hired a car and came all the way here. Just to see me,’ says Ben, shaking his head. ‘It’s all very humbling.’

But there are a smattering of locals, too, who’ve been coming for years. ‘Best value, best potato and what a lovely man,’ says Molly. ‘A Tamworth legend.’

TikTok, of course, is mainly responsible for this potato phenomenon. When I tell my 13-year-old son (a Spudman superfan) I’m going to interview him, he can barely contain his glee. I become, briefly, the ‘sickest’ dad in the world when Ben sweetly films a personalised message.

‘OMG!!!!’ comes the awed response.

This video has made his month. And he’s not alone. Those huge TikTok numbers bring in income, which in turn allows him to do things like ‘Free Potato Day’ where he gives away 2,000 potatoes. And they helps raise money for kidney research too.

‘I believe in karma. You put good things in, and get good things back. We had a lovely group of people from Skegness this morning. All are suffering from dementia. But they came with pink Mohawks, and had a great time. That motivates me.’

You must have had a few juicy offers, I say, with businesses keen to get a taste of that sweet TikTok fame. ‘I’m still totally overwhelmed,’ he admits.

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‘And have turned down some insane offers to franchise. But I decided to concentrate on Tamworth and potatoes. And it’s more manageable if my health goes south.’

But what about the baked spuds? Can they really be that good, or is this simply more empty social media hype, a butter-drenched trend, a half-baked craze?

But Ben really does know his, ahem, potatoes.

They come from Lowes farm, under ten miles away, mainly a variety called Melody. And the butter is also local, from Burton-on-Trent. He’s ordered his cheese (80 per cent cheddar, 20 per cent mozzarella — ‘for extra melty stringiness’) from the same supplier for the past 20 years. Ben believes in buying local.

The team (and there are usually three, plus him) get into work at 5am, and wrap around 800 potatoes in foil. ‘You get one-and-a-half potatoes per portion, which is about 18 bags or 800 spuds per day on average.’ They make their chilli fresh every day, ‘but there’s only so much you can do. We’re not pretending to be a £15 gourmet Smashburger, rather a £5 baked potato.’

Once wrapped, the potatoes are baked for an hour in two vast iron ovens, before being unwrapped, lavished with spectacular amounts of butter, and lustily seasoned. 

You can add then anything from baked beans and tuna mayonnaise to coleslaw and that fresh chilli. Equally important, you’ll always get a pocketful of change from a tenner.

Enough talk, though, it’s time to tuck in. ‘Leave it wrapped up for a couple of minutes, to let everything melt and meld,’ Ben tells me, handing over a precious polystyrene box.

The skin is crisp and brown, with just the right amount of chew, the earthy undertone of the potato shining through.

Inside, a magnificent hot mess of melted butter and cheese. The chilli has a whisper of cumin, and the baked beans add bite.

This really is a spud sensation, every mouthful a joy. For once, do believe the hype.

‘It’s all very simple,’ he says, as I get ready to leave.

‘This brings so much happiness to Tamworth. And so much happiness for me too.’ With that, Ben Newman slips back into the wagon.

Cook. Social Media Sensation. Philanthropist. All round good egg.

Not forgetting the man behind one of the finest baked spuds to ever pass my lips.

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Source: tit.edu.vn

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