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The great outdoors

A tatty converted caravan parked in an insalubrious lay-by offering beverages, hot dogs and burgers of dubious quality is most people’s image of mobile catering. “It’s a shame,” says Bob Fox, secretary of the Mobile and Outside Caterers Association (MOCA), “because it isn’t a true picture any longer. Standards are rising and the industry is slowly improving.


“Many of the new purpose-built trailers are imaginatively themed, well designed and fitted with quality equipment. Food has gone way beyond burgers and hot dogs. There’s a huge range of choice now, with just about every ethnic style represented. Our handbook lists 66 different food and product categories.”


MOCA, the industry’s representative body since 1988, estimates there are 14,000 operators in the UK and reckons, “12,000 are reputable”. At the bottom end are 2,000 roadside operators in downmarket van conversions, but their numbers are declining.


MOCA has 1,000 members and values the industry at £400m. Since Fox came on board full-time 18 months ago having run a mobile catering operation himself, the association has vigorously campaigned to raise industry standards and reputation.


Poor hygiene, one of the big problem areas, is being addressed by food safety legislation. “Environmental health officers have weeded out undesirable operators from the hygiene point of view,” says Fox. New operators’ mobile premises have to pass muster with environmental health officials before they can trade. Many local licensing authorities have also clamped down on poor-quality mobile catering operations at markets and roadsides.


“We’re urging show organisers and local authorities to use only our accredited members,” says Fox, “and some, such as Southend, Bedford and Stockton local authorities, are now doing this.”


MOCA has also built hygiene and safety training into its membership facilities, creating a range of courses tailored specifically to the requirements of mobile caterers. “Most of our members are now trained, but there’s a constant stream of newcomers coming into the business,” says Fox. “Operators who haven’t done anything about hygiene training and practice will have to do so now that legislation is becoming tougher.”


It is market forces, however, that are driving up standards more than anything else. Show and event organisers now see catering as a money-making, crowd-pulling asset and will only take purpose-built catering trailers and not van conversions. Competition has also become much stiffer in the past few years due to the influx of new operators, many of them people who have retired early or been made redundant and want to run their own business. Presentation, quality and more imaginative food lines have become the way to gain bookings and sales at popular events.


Shows and events can range from small, local one-day craft shows, to national events lasting several days and drawing large crowds. MOCA lists more than 1,000 events in its annual handbook.


Business is seasonal – spring-to-autumn – and mostly weekends. Visitor numbers have declined in the past few years due to economic uncertainty. Licensed sites in industrial locations or outside superstores, such as B&Q, offer a steady weekday, sometimes seven-day, trade. Some operators combine a regular site with weekend events. However, licensing varies across the country and some councils have banned this kind of trading. The other two sectors are street markets, controlled by the National Market Traders Federation, and roadside and motorway lay-bys.


In defence of roadside operators, Fox says they provide good value to truckers and travelling salesmen who find service stations too expensive. “Quality units are replacing caravan conversions if the business is good,” he adds.


As a business proposition, mobile catering is becoming tougher. “It’s horrendous what’s happened in the past five years,” bemoans Gus Hirschmann, proprietor of the Vienna Grill. A former chef, Hirschmann has been in the business for 20 years and is one of the larger operators, with nine units serving Continental food, sandwiches, hot dogs and burgers at shows and events.


“Too many people have come into it, especially those who’ve been made redundant. Most of them have no qualifications, or idea about the business. They don’t survive a season, but they do a lot of damage because they take business away from established operators.


“They’re also prepared to pay the high prices now being charged by organisers and contractors, just to get on the bandwagon. Site rents have become over-priced, even though [the number of visitors] is down, and many events are over-catered as organisers and contractors see it as an easy way to make money. Small events can be £50 a day, but large events go up to £1,600 a day. Rock concerts are £750 to £1,200 and Biggin Hill Air Show this summer was £500 a day.”


Hirschmann, who does 60 to 70 events each year, says his trading is 50% down on last year. “The big operators are finding it hard to break even. The bubble could burst,” he warns.


The influx of newcomers could be down to the ease with which anyone can set up a mobile catering operation. No qualifications are required and capital investment is low compared with other catering ventures. Overheads are low, though the hike in site rents is squeezing margins. And it is a cash business.


New trailers from leading supplier Wilkinson Containers cost from £2,499 for a fully-fitted 8ft unit with a griddle, while a 20ft model with a two-pan fryer, scuttle, large griddle and a bain-marie is about £10,500. The company says most operators start with an 8ft trailer, then move up, the most popular size being 10-12ft. Average spend is £4,500 to £5,000. Wilkinson also offers a converted Ford Transit with a modified trailer mounted on the back, costing from £6,000 to £9,000, but trailers outsell these 10:1.


Fellow suppler Towability has complete start-up packages for donuts and corn dogs (a battered, deep-fried sausage) from £2,995 plus VAT, and trailers from £1,995 to £16,000.


There is also a sizeable market for secondhand trailers and vans. Few operators are keen to discuss turnover, but Fox says: “A typical roadside unit can do £600 to £700 a week on a quiet site, a B&Q location might make between £50 a day and £2,000 a week, while a large event like Glastonbury can take £3,000 to £4,000 a day. It’s extremely variable.”


The best-selling line is burgers and hot dogs, partly due to the public’s expectations and the large number of operators who sell them. “But this is changing due to health-consciousness and broader tastes,” says Fox.


“Event organisers like to put on a combination. Our advice is to go for anything – Oriental, Asian, Afro-Caribbean, Middle Eastern and especially vegetarian foods are rising in popularity.”

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