- Ben Newman, 39, gets mobbed by fans when he walks through Tamworth
It’s not often you see people willing to queue more than an hour for a jacket potato. Nor to board a plane and travel 6,500 miles across two continents just to get a nibble of a spud.
It’s something that has flabbergasted Ben Newman too to see queues snaking through the quaint market town of Tamworth, Staffordshire, every day outside his modest trailer.
The 39-year-old father-of-nine is instantly recognisable by his trademark pink-mohawk, but there’s a heartfelt reason behind the rock star look after suffering his own health battles.
The jacket potato king got the punk hairstyle to raise money for kidney research and it’s something that has stuck ever since.
His business has exploded since he started uploading videos onto TikTok last year just to ‘keep an eye on my kids’.
More fondly known as Spud Man, the son of a potato merchant is regularly mobbed when fans see him walking through the town.
It’s beyond the wildest dream for him and his wife Sarah Simpson, 37, AKA Spudwife, and something that seemed unimaginable when he started out the business under a different name two decades ago, aged just 18.
He now sells up to 1,500 potatoes a day priced between £4 and £5 from inside his tight-knit cream-coloured trailer, raking in about £7,500.
He suffered three failed kidney transplants – in 2014, 2016 and 2019 – and will be on dialysis for the rest of his life.
People have been flocking from as far as the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia to his humble jacket potato van after his videos took the internet by storm racking up 2.6 million followers and 41.6 million likes on TikTok.
‘It’s all been beyond my wildest dreams,’ he said.
‘I just try and have fun with the videos. People seem to enjoy the livestreams but I enjoy filming people’s responses when I give them a free spud.
‘I’ve seen the Binley Mega Chippy comparison but I like to feel we’ve worked a little harder than that.
‘They were a meme and it happened by chance. We know it will drop off but we want to keep going for as long as we can and to put Tamworth firmly back on the map.
‘If we do well, so does the town. It’s all about promoting local businesses and also every jacket potato seller out there.
‘There is one in your own town, go and support them.
‘My grandad was a farmer and my dad was a jacket potato merchant, I think they would be proud.’
He has no idea how he became an unlikely tourist attraction for young people after originally joining TikTok to keep an eye on his children.
Since then, his simple videos of him sharing culinary tips and daily life as a jacket potato vendor on his trailer have exploded in popularity.
Ben has even earned his own personal fanbase in Hawaii and admits he is still baffled by his newfound fame and becoming a millennial craze.
Ben, of Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, said: ‘I still can’t quite get my head around what’s happening. It’s just been crazy and absolutely mind-blowing.
‘I have no social media training or experience. When my son, who is now 16, put TikTok in front of me I just thought “I need to keep an eye on you on this”.
‘But I soon realised it wasn’t just for dancing girls, so I uploaded a few videos of me making a potato using just a Go-Pro and a decent camera.
‘When they began hitting a few thousand views each I thought I could use this to promote the business. But I never expected what happened next.
‘It was October and we had around 400,000 followers, which I was chuffed with to be honest, then all of a sudden it started to explode.
‘For no real reason that I’m aware of, some videos were getting millions of views. One has had almost 100 million views.
‘We worked out if you sat down to watch that video 100 million times, you’d be watching it for 60 years.
‘All of a sudden people from across the world were turning up – from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and USA.
‘The most surreal moment was this couple from Malaysia, who hadn’t come to the UK for a holiday – they came just solely to see me.
‘They caught a flight to Gatwick and then hired a car to drive to little old Tamworth solely for a jacket potato.
‘The amount of people I’ve been able to connect with and meet from all over the world is just crazy and incredibly humbling.
‘Every single customer has been awesome. Its not just millennials, we have middle-aged families here too.
‘We’ve become a tourist attraction. Our best seller is probably the classic cheese and beans.’
Ben says he can’t even walk through his home town anymore without being stopped in the street due to his new local celebrity status.
His fame has spawned Spud Man merchandise sold online in the form of keyrings, tote bags, aprons and clothing.
He added: ‘It has opened up some incredible opportunities for me. I honestly can’t walk through town anymore without being stopped.
‘I never sought celebrity status, I just wanted my little jacket potato van to do well. I won’t tour or open my own shop – I love my trailer too much.
‘I just try to be authentic and honest and I think that’s what people like. I don’t really know, you’d need to ask them.’
Last weekend he raised over £11,000 for Kidney Research UK by giving away 2,200 free jacket potatoes to people in the town.
He said: ‘There’s not a lot of dialysis patients who are as active as me and I want to try and show a positive side of it and help support the charity where I can.
‘I’m trying to put out a positive message to them and that they can be normal whilst having kidney failure.’
Ben has been at the same location for more than 20 years after setting up his own business called Newman’s Catering at the age of 18.
He became Spud Man around two years ago and believes his late father, who was a jacket potato merchant, would be proud of his recent success.
In the wake of the pandemic he started using his @spudarmy account to promote his business but said he ‘never believed’ this would be the outcome.
Customer April Hall, 38, a support worker, travelled an hour from Telford, Shropshire, to try a Spudman jacket potato with cheese and tuna yesterday.
She said: ‘Some of the guys I support have been going on about him for weeks after watching all of his stuff online.
‘I’m not really into social media that much so it all seemed a bit bizarre to me but I promised them we would go and see him.
‘We came early to avoid the queues and he is such a nice man. The jacket potato was lovely too.
‘It’s amazing to see normal, down to earth people making it in life so credit to him. He has done really well to get this following and we were happy to support him.’
Another customer, McDonald’s manager Lewis Rochelle, 18, of Cannock Staffordshire, said: ‘I just wanted to see what the fuss was about.
‘I paid £5 for a jacket with cheese and beans and it was really good, so it was well worth the trip.
‘I saw his videos before Christmas when he had about a hundred thousand followers – but its just exploded.
‘Every one in two videos is about him at the moment. It’s mad. I’ve not had to travel far but it was great to meet him and get a photo with him.’
Regular Lee Vickers, 29, of Tamworth, added: ‘Spud man has put Tamworth well and truly on the map – it’s unreal what he’s doing for himself.
‘He deserves all the success in the world. He always puts the graft in, he’s a top guy and above all he sells top-quality hearty spuds.’