Street Food Revolution
Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) director Mark Laurie says the changing face of casual dining in Britain presents opportunities for landowners and property managers to generate extra income.
The only instructions I’d received were to get off at Old Street station, head past Moorfields Eye Hospital and look for a garage on the right. Apparently I’d be able to follow my nose from there. It was October 2010, it was freezing and I was lost.
This was not my first introduction to UK street food, but it was the beginning of what would become one of the most exciting and innovative trends in entertainment & food over the coming years. It was also the beginning of what would become my passion and my career focus for the next five years, but back then it was an inconvenient and, in my mind, unnecessarily cold way to spend my Saturday night off.
Eventually I happened upon the Regents Canal and the Towpath Festival. In reality it was a collection of around ten gazebos and converted vans organised in a circle, with a crowd of a few hundred people eating, chatting and dancing away right in the middle.
The food was produced by a series of micro businesses; some part time, some finding work at markets or private events, others simply driven by a desire to be self-employed and to share the food they loved. All of the traders had their own stories but they followed similar trends; they had a job they disliked, they had discovered, developed or invented a dish and they’d had an ‘epiphany’ moment. And here they all were, slinging food by an old canal surrounded by freezing hipsters.
As it turned out, the traders at the Towpath Festival were to become the vanguard of the street food movement over the coming years, developing incredible businesses and in their own ways changing their own destinies - and UK food culture while they were at it.
One trader at the event was the Meatwagon, which by 2015 had morphed into a seven restaurant behemoth while still maintaining its personal relationship with its customers as well as turning out ‘game-changing’ burgers. Another was Choc Star, run by Petra Barran who would later be acknowledged as one of London’s 1000 most influential people by the Evening Standard and given the One Person’s Passion Award at the London Restaurant Festival. A third was Nichola Smith who would go onto become a TV chef on the Food Network, hosting the show ‘Red, Hot and Yummy’.
Despite the cold, even back then it was clear to see that street food had the capacity to transform a cold, unloved canal towpath into a vibrant, exciting place to meet and make merry – even if only for a few hours at a time. It was also the first time I’d seen British people coming together to eat in such a casual carefree way. Moving from van to van, grazing, talking to the chefs, asking about the food they were about to see cooked in front of them, sharing their discoveries with friends they’d met in the queue.
I’d never seen anything like this. It felt like something that was becoming increasingly difficult to find anywhere these days: community. It was bold, brash and confident, it had swagger. But it was also somewhere to discover, somewhere for people with a love of food and socialising to come together, to make merry and belong.
It also didn’t seem to fit into a specific audiences, there were people from all walks of life here to find out what all the fuss was about and they weren’t disappointed. For around a fiver you could eat a seafood paella, a diver caught, pan-fried scallop, on a bed of celeriac mash, topped with old spot bacon and sea samphire or a rare burger cooked on a 1950’s griddle imported from the states. For £15 three of you could share the whole lot - and we did.
The food really did offer something different; a carnival of the senses, always cooked fresh in front of the customer and made from the finest, most carefully sourced ingredients in weird and wonderful combinations. Dishes that had been passed down by grandparents or discovered on global travels, even fast food classics, stripped back to their core components and then rebuilt using only the best stock and traditional cooking techniques.
It raised the possibility of democratising good food, of giving people who could not afford Michelin food a taste of fine dining, without the pretensions or the expensive wine lists. Street food events were where bankers mixed with kids in trainers, both eating lobster for less than a tenner.
With the UK at the time apparently in the throes of its worst recession since the Great Depression, traditional employment opportunities drying up and the idea that the country was in some way broken, street food traders were finding their own ways to earn a living. They were putting on their own events, setting up markets or operating out of pubs; if they couldn’t afford glasses they used jam jars, couldn’t afford a restaurant they bought a griddle, a cool box and a tent. It wasn’t a budget night out, it was recession chic.
Over the next few months, as winter came and went, more rumblings began to emerge of off-grid events; pop-ups in warehouses, disused factories, on roofs and even in people’s front rooms. The street food revolution was beginning to grip London and change the city.
Word of the revolution would spread, usually through social media; a picture on Twitter here, a blog about burgers there. Being the first to find the best, most innovative street food or the coolest, most underground event became an end in itself; a status signifier, a definition of cool.
As I sit here reminiscing, I do so with one eye on the future, in the summer of 2015, London - and the rest of the UK for that matter - will see more street food events than ever before, probably twice as many as last, which was twice the number we saw in 2013. Events where the public will be fed in their thousands rather than hundreds, day after day, week after week.
This year Street Feast will be running three simultaneous events across London including a 1,000 capacity venue in Shoreditch. They expect to cater for around 3,000 punters per night, with a dozen food outlets and six bars, including one on top of a six storey tower.
They had quite a feat to follow after taking over a disused market space in Lewisham in 2014, where they ripped out the shop fronts and put in street food traders, a bar and a sound system to create a new vibrant destination for the summer. Never before have so many young trendy things found themselves pouring over train maps to find ‘the other’ Lewisham Market. Street Feast also ran an outdoor cinema at Battersea Power Station for the summer and an event in a disused goods yard in Dalston.
The other main London street food protagonists, KERB, are a collective of over 70 of London’s finest traders. Their markets pop up in various locations across the city including Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and Granary Square. Their most recent venture, a food court in a soon-to-be demolished paper mill in Hackney Wick, demonstrated how the industry thrives on its temporary nature. It can turn your under-utilised car park or vacant factory into a destination. It can transform a cold corporate space into a thriving market full of colours, aromas and happy people.
The revolution has spread across the UK with regular events in most of the major cities, as well as in smaller towns like Tiverton, Frome and Reigate. Some cities are now looking to street food to help develop their night time economy, kick start entrepreneurship and create a tourist destination by revitalising city centres and out-of-favour markets.
Whether you’re looking to bring some life to a functional but unloved property, raise revenue from a disused space, revitalise an area or just provide an interesting and varied food offering to tenants, staff, or private functions, street food could be the answer.
Street food can offer both short and long term solutions for landowners and property managers with under-utilized or unloved spaces. At the Nationwide Caterers Association we can help you to make that happen. We can help you source caterers or advertise your space to event and market organisers. We can guide you through the legalities and due diligence and help you bring your land to life. We even have a free-to-use system that will allow you to advertise your property or land for events. It’s called NCASS Connect (check it out if you haven’t heard about it).
To find out more about the street food revolution and how you can be a part of it, contact the Nationwide Caterers Association on 0121 603 2524 or visit our dedicated sites www.ncass.org.uk and www.streetfood.org.uk.