In the first discussion, hosted by journalist Victoria Stewart, London operators KERB gathered some of street food’s leading lights to reflect on the movement’s progress, reports Thomas Lawrence
KERB discovered a winning recipe when, just over five years ago, its first site opened in Kings Cross for small-scale food vendors to sell their tasty wares. Since then the company has come to dominate the British capital’s food scene. It’s now moving into panel discussions, sharing insights from operators, vendors and commentators on the prolific rise of street eating.
The first discussion, held on 25 October in Shoreditch’s Hoxton Hotel, took a broad look at how far street food has come and trends for the road ahead. On the panel was macaroni cheese aficionado Tony Solomon of Anna Mae, Bleecker Burgers’ Zan Kauffman, street food enthusiast and lecturer in human geography Regan Koch and KERB’s MD, Simon Mitchell.
Street food past and present
Two main themes emerged from the evening’s talk – street food’s prolific emergence and spread over the last decade, and persistent challenges for vendors in an increasingly competitive market.
The origins of street food’s current popularity offer some insights into the trials ahead. According to Regan Koch, street food took a “gourmet turn” in 2008. With economic downturn biting and the cost of starting a restaurant going up, culinary professionals hoping to make a name for themselves ventured out to the roadside.
It’s an important point to note: as the economy has declined, street food has surged. Koch emphasised the rise of “tactical urbanism” as a subsequent trend, with small-scale interventions breathing new life into communities despite the gloom. Street food has been a big part of this, temporarily adding life to a space and becoming a permanent fixture if it works well.
Just as a “perfect storm” gave rise to street food as an outlet 10 years ago according to Zan Kauffman, operators are looking to diversify their offering to overcome the hostile climate today. High inflation, enthusiasm of policymakers and relatively low barriers to entry increase the appeal of innovative delivery for traditional restaurateurs and caterers.
The growing phenomenon of food courts shows how the sector is adapting. They are an important first rung in the culinary ladder, reflected in the graduation of food traders to prestige locations like Boxpark. As Simon Mitchell says, “food courts and vendors coexist”, providing a forum for tapping into high demand with low overheads. Furthermore, Mitchell points out that food courts can become part of “the fabric of an area” – since KERB opened in Kings Cross, the area has undergone massive development.
As street food becomes more popular and supply catches up with demand, the terrain has become more difficult for vendors to navigate. In addition to sympathetic spaces like food courts becoming saturated, Mitchell notes many traditional restaurants are now trying to change the way they serve to “emulate the success of street food”. From a vendor’s perspective, Tony Solomon says this has heralded a rethink – many consider festivals and restaurants more profitable ventures than the conventional roadside route. It’s clear that sellers are working hard to adapt with the times.
Although London’s street food offering trumps that of many global cities, the panel concluded more needs to be done. Koch enjoined regulators to be “more experimental” – with so many unused spaces in the nation’s capital, London could do more to give their street food scenes a helping hand. New York’s license-based model for aspiring hawkers offers inspiration from across the Atlantic.
From the vendor side, tastes are changing all the time. Koch, for example, says all his students are talking about veganism, while Solomon agrees it is “massive” and likely to dominate foodservice in the years ahead.
And what about advice for would-be vendors? Despite Solomon’s warning that “something has to give” as inflation creeps up, the panel were upbeat regarding their work and optimistic about the prospects for new entrants. Kauffman argued that street food is “cheap, it’s accessible and it’s good” – sticking to this simple formula is the key to success for sellers new and old, particularly with operators like KERB in place as a “support system”. Picking up on this theme, Mitchell pointed out that KERB has a new incubator scheme to pull in new traders, an income support scheme on markets to improve access of entry and another initiative in the making to help former prisoners with opportunities to trade.
The most important takeaway – aside from the delicious doughnut bites on offer for attendees – was that street food is thriving. Consultants searching for insights as fresh as the sector’s produce should keep watch for new instalments in this interesting panel series.