As a testing ground for the latest innovations amongst food startups, street food has become the leading force in bringing inspired cuisine to the masses
If you spend much time in cities these days – or, for the more reclusive of you, much time on Twitter – you’ll already be aware that street food is experiencing something of a renaissance in the UK. It seems you can hardly go anywhere these days without hearing someone discussing the newest dessert fusion or raving about the latest in Peruvian cuisine. Without a doubt, street food has exploded to become the grande dame of dining. And, for budding food entrepreneurs, it is offering a golden opportunity to bring their products to an eager audience at a fraction of the cost.
Whilst getting involved in the food industry may once have seemed prohibitively expensive, thanks to the street food movement this is no longer the case. “It’s a way of people getting involved who’ve had dreams of working within the restaurant business but don’t have the startup capital,” says Jack Brabant, founder of Digbeth Dining Club, the Birmingham-based street food event. For just a few thousand pounds, budding food entrepreneurs can get a stall or van and take to the streets to sell their wares. “It’s a way to start off to see if it works for them.”
However, the growing popularity of street food is about more than just the economics – the industry has caught the public’s imagination. “We’ve become increasingly foodie, partially inspired by cookery programmes on the television and a very literate food media,” says Richard Johnson, journalist and founder of the British Street Food Awards. He feels that the boom can be explained by the fact that the UK has never had much of a popular food movement outside of the restaurant industry. “Gordon Ramsay has always talked about how in France good food started from the bottom – it trickled upwards,” he says. “That never happened in this country but now it is, in part because of street food.”
Britain has embraced the culture of street in a way scarcely seen elsewhere, even in countries with a long history of street food trading. “A poor man in South America selling an empanada [a stuffed bread or pastry] on the street is doing it to survive and make some money,” says Atholl Milton, founder and CEO of bunnychow, the street food outlet serving hollowed bread with fillings. “Whereas over here we glamourise it, we take those foods and push it a step further.”
Even closer to home, many countries have a rich street food heritage. “In Italy, there’s a big tradition of street food but a lot of the food is really traditional; everything is really stuck,” explains Italian-born Cristiano Meneghin, founder of Tongue ‘n Cheek, the street food outlet making use of underrated cuts of meat. One city might specialise in providing traditional seafood and another in flatbreads and cheese but beyond this there is little experimentation. “What’s happening in the UK is unique,” he says.
Given the UK’s unparalleled multicultural nature, it is hardly surprising that it has become a melting pot of distinct gastronomic identities. “Given the dynamics of the markets where we’ve traded, we will have anything from Asian, South American, African and European cuisine all sitting amongst each other,” Milton remarks.
The sheer wealth of international palates represented means that British street food has become the perfect place for food cultures to interact. “It is a celebration of different cultures and cuisines, often with people putting their own spin on it,” explains Ian Dodds, general manager of KERB, the London-based street food venue. And this is perhaps what makes the street food movement in the UK so exciting, as it encourages entrepreneurs to look beyond just presenting traditional cuisine to uncover new ways of approaching food. “A lot of people are tired of things just being authentic,” he continues. “Creativity seems to be valued higher.”
This creativity has made street food the ideal crucible for food-based innovation. “That creative edge is the most exciting thing in street food right now – people are pushing the boundaries,” Milton says. He draws on a recent example he came across of a trader making Caribbean-style arancini balls that have proven to be a huge hit with his customers. “At a Caribbean restaurant, that probably wouldn’t be considered authentic,” Milton continues. “But street food gives him the opportunity to try it out, test it and move things forward.”
And the innovations coming out of street food are helping to set what’s on the menu in other culinary sectors. “These guys are bringing a break from the norm but six months down the line Marks & Spencers or Pret will come along and make that the new norm,” says Dodds. From pulled pork to American-style Korean food, street food mainstays have gradually begun to infiltrate the mainstream, meaning that street food innovations have become the leading edge, drawing the rest of the sector forward.
However, innovations alone don’t make a successful food entrepreneur. When bringing any product to market, the litmus test will always be how it fares with consumers. “Even if you’re convinced that it’s an amazing product, if people haven’t tried it there’s no way to know for sure,” says Cesar Roden, co-founder of Ice Kitchen, the gourmet ice lolly street food enterprise. Fortunately, street vending offers direct access to the target audience without the significant overheads that come with a bricks and mortar store. “It’s very easy to test it on a small level,” he explains.
Digbeth Dining Club images courtesy of Tom Horton
Because of this, rather than needing to have everything worked out ahead of time, street trading allows people to test their products in a live environment and hone them as they go. “Nobody has nailed it in their first week or two and just stuck with that dish,” says Dodds. “There are so many little tweaks: finding the best bread, the best sauce, the best thickness, the best ratios.”
Being able to test and grow a concept before having to commit to it financially is invaluable for street food entrepreneurs. “It’s a proving ground that allows them to see what works, to see if they can build up a brand,” Brabant says. Not only this but, from the off, street trading helps food brands build up a loyal and engaged following before stumping up huge sums for marketing reach. “Especially with the advent of social media, for small businesses street trading offers a fantastic way to interact with your customers.”
Certainly, beyond its sous-vide machine and wood-burning stove, there are few tools a street food startup loves more than social media. “These food entrepreneurs are all about Twitter accounts, Instagram, Facebook,” says Johnson. Not only can it serve the purpose of reaching customers and getting the word out about location but it often is the making of bona fide street food stars. “It’s exciting that our food culture is producing people that have that kind of status in society.”
Proper utilisation of social media can mean the difference between street food that’s the talk of the town and the victuals that scarcely secure a second mention. “The most successful of our traders are the ones who are constantly building up a bit of excitement and putting out images of food,” says Brabant. Given that pictures of food are probably second only to grumpy cats in most people’s Facebook feeds, it’s hardly surprising a mouthwatering snap of a hot new food trend tends to go the distance. “Who doesn’t like the sight of something very juicy up close cooking on the grill?”
But even in this switched-on age, a street food startup’s digital community comes second to its immediate neighbourhood. “That’s the main thing about the street food movement at the moment,” says Meneghin. “Right now it’s a really big community.” Not only are many vendors willing to help out newbies with a spatula or a spot of advice but the real edge that street trading has over setting up a restaurant is being surrounded by many others who are going through the same things. “You need someone sometimes, just a shoulder to cry on or a good laugh with someone if you have a bad day,” he explains. “You share the moment.”
Digbeth Dining Club images courtesy of Tom Horton
Friendly faces certainly make a difference, particularly given the hard work that goes into running a street food outlet. Whilst the industry has a rather glamorous reputation, it’s important to remember that street food is far from being easy money, with many entrepreneurs having to trade by day and prepare food by night. “Most of your days will start early, finish late and you won’t earn much money, at least to start with,” says Brabant. And whilst street food is one of the most popular food phenomena right now, standing out from the crowd takes guile and gumption. “It takes a lot of individuality and creativity to make a stand in this,” he adds.
With all this hard work, however, can come a great deal of success. But what form does this success usually take? Is every street food vendor simply a restaurateur in the making or are most committed to a life on the road?
“Most go into it thinking neither of those things,” Roden says. “They just go into it to test a product or because they think they do an awesome chilli.” However, with time, vendors tend to settle on the goal that best suits them and for many this means a profitable existence serving sliders in Shoreditch or giving out grub at Glasto. “Definitely with some traders it’s a lifestyle,” he continues. “It’s just what they do: they do the festivals and they can make really good money.”
For others, the street is just a training ground for bricks and mortar. “They want to get into owning their own property and running a restaurant,” comments Brabant. “For small businesses, it’s a great way to interact with your customers and see if there is a potential for that.” Cutting their teeth in street food allows them to trial their concept, build up a following and put together a rock-solid case for investment, something that has helped many a great street food trader gain a permanent foothold on the high street.
But setting up shop in a permanent location doesn’t mean leaving the street behind entirely.
“We’re always very careful to advise people not to lose those roots and not to forget where they came from,” says Johnson. Maintaining a presence on the street not only gives them an immediate connection with consumers and allows them to trial new menu items but it also means they have identity that will give them the edge over their high street contemporaries. “Each one of those traders has been excited by the prospect because they have dreams, they have the desire to try something different,” he concludes. “The hardship that they’ve endured to build that brand is an important part of who they are.”
Tip of the tongue
Tongue ‘n Cheek’s journey began in Italy, when founder Cristiano Meneghin was working in communications, product development and marketing for the food industry. “Part of my job was looking at new trends in food,” he says. “One of the trends I found out about was street food.”
Acting as an advocate for the increasingly popular sector, it was hardly surprising that before long Meneghin decided to get involved himself and, given the explosion in London’s street food movement, he felt there was nowhere better to launch his new startup. Having studied for a master’s degree at the University of Gastronomic Science conducted in collaboration with Slow Food, the international movement dedicated to responsible food production, the angle for his
outlet was a no-brainer. “Sustainability is really important so when I came here I decided to used underrated cuts of meats for my business.”
The startup’s playful name came from a chat with a friend and his father whilst Meneghin was touring UK markets. “My first menu was actually tongue and cheek so it made sense,” he says. The menu only grew from there; not only has Tongue ‘n Cheek sold its eponymous pork cheek and ox tongue but it has expanded, experimenting with oxtail and bringing its Heartbreaker burger – a 50% ox heart, 50% dry-aged beef patty – to market. “These underrated cuts are really nice, they’re actually much more tasty than other cuts,” he says. “And in the UK we have amazing beef, as long as you know how to source it.”
Having worked for big corporates in the service industry like Burger King, Starbucks and Gondola and being headhunted by Jamie Oliver to help with the early stages of the launch of his food emporium Recipease, Atholl Milton, the founder and CEO of bunnychow, is much more than just an enthusiastic amateur.
His journey with the street food startup began when someone introduced him to the bunny chow, a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry introduced to South Africa by Indian migrants. But he was keen for bunnychow to be seen as more than just a curry product struggling to be heard amongst mainstream Indian cuisine and, after extensive research in South Africa, he reinvented the product. “I looked at what a bunny chow could be and took the idea of hollowed out shapes with interesting fillings,” Milton explains. “We anglicised some and with others utilised some global flavours.”
However, whilst bunnychow was born on the streets, its popularity has since seen it expand to other locations. “That’s where BOXPARK came into play,” says Milton. “It meant we could refine our menu and have a permanent kitchen base.” Since moving into Shoreditch’s shipping container pop-up mall, bunnychow has also secured investment for its first bricks and mortar store in Soho, made much easier by its trading history and clear proof of concept. “You’ve just got to demonstrate that you’ve got something that can really change the marketplace,” he explains. “And the truck and pop-up we did is evidence of that.”