Street food trucks are a cheap, exciting way of serving food that is bang on trend – so what are diners queueing up for? Richard McComb reports
It’s free-wheeling, informal, eclectic and, above all, packed with flavour. Street food has become one of the most successful and influential styles of cooking in the UK, and it has happened at a dizzying pace. In fact, the first British Street Food Awards were held as recently as 2010, shaking off the sector’s reputation for – in its organiser’s words – “cheap sausages and over-fried onions.”
The ripples from this young movement, fuelled by its hip, inclusive credentials and exciting global influences, are now seen industry-wide, and this was underlined in April when one of the country’s top street food exponents cooked alongside two Michelin-starred chefs in a food truck. Lee Desanges, winner of the Best of the Best at the 2016 British Street Food Awards, was joined by Luke Tipping, chef-director of Simpsons in Birmingham, and Simon Hulstone, chef-proprietor of the Elephant in Torquay, at University College Birmingham. The three chefs delivered a menu comprising chicken wings in hot sauce, pig’s head bon bons with apple, cassia and oregano, and a rich chocolate torte, with all the dishes incorporating Tellicherry black pepper.
A street food report commissioned by Santa Maria Foodservice in 2016 found the sector to be in good health. The research, based on interviews with customers at four street food markets, found that one in four eat street food two to three times a week and the vast majority (87%) is eaten for lunch. The average spend is £6.50, although a quarter shell out more than £8. Crucially, 94% plan to maintain or increase the amount of street food they consume in 2017. More than half of consumers say street food has increased their interest in spicy dishes, and in ascending order, the top three slots belong to Mexican, Caribbean and Chinese food.
Desanges, who trades as Baked in Brick, says it is vital to stand out. He practises what he preaches by cooking marinated chicken tikka skewers over a charcoal barbecue fitted under the bonnet of a 1964 Mini Cooper. “People buy with their eyes first,” he says. “If you have a dirty, mediocre gazebo, it’s boring – you need to be quirky. With street food, you can do some mad stuff and that is what people want. They want to come and have a bit of an experience.”
The chef, who is taking on an industrial unit for food prep and creating new dishes, relishes being able to experiment – a case in point is a new barbecue sauce using Canadian maple syrup. Desanges says: “I love the dark maple syrup with IPA beer in a barbecue sauce, using paprika I smoke over oak. The sauce is lovely – the maple syrup brings out sweet, deep, slightly liquorice notes.”
Alistair Day, executive chef at catering specialist Bennett Hay, says customers seek out street food that is “authentic, artisanal and aromatic.” He believes a resurgence of interest in vegetarianism and veganism and a desire for health-conscious diets has made street food more appealing due to its use of vegetables, ‘superfoods’ and ‘plant power’.
“Curries and daals, served with flatbread instead of rice, are real crowd-pleasers. Indian food is one of the most popular choices on menus,” says Day. “An explosion in independently-run microbreweries has also increased the market for craft beers, which can go well with snacks such as bhel puri, moong dal dosa, curried chickpeas and samosas.”
One of the advantages of street food is the boost delivered to gross profit margins, as Matt Vernon, development chef at Servest Street, points out. “The beauty of street food is that the cost of serving has gone into the food itself, meaning that it’s normally better quality and value for money. Cooking up these foods isn’t necessarily labour-intensive, but it does yield impressive results,” he says.
Servest has seen a surge in demand for Caribbean and Mexican food (burritos, fajitas and rice dishes), and demand for Moroccan cuisine has remained strong. “Tagine, couscous and citrus flavours are all tastes that the British public love and seek out,” adds Vernon.
The adage about consumers tasting with their eyes has never been more relevant than with street food and this means operators need to be on top of their game. Simon Cannell, managing director of Speciality Breads, says dishes need to look the part, adding: “Most consumers honestly would not know our breads come as a frozen product, as they are all hand-finished by our artisan bakers and frozen immediately after being baked. We have a diverse selection of over 100 frozen breads, which can help vendors set themselves apart and even charge a premium.”
The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company uses products from Speciality Breads for its lobster and crab sandwiches and fills the Sicilian lemon and poppy seed scone-brioche hybrid – a Scioche – with smoked mackerel and a zesty salad. Speciality Breads’ new Sabarosa Flatbreads, made with 100% British flour and Kentish rapeseed oil, come in chimichurri and sourdough variants and work well with dips, or grilled and loaded with steak, fish or chicken.
Jonathan Williams, founder of the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company, says: “With the nature of our business, we need bread that is reliable, consistent and great-tasting. We had an 80-year-old former baker who was visiting the area on holiday last year. When he tried one of the pan rustic rolls, he came back to tell me they were the best rolls he had ever eaten and he had been baking for more than 40 years.”
Spice up your life
Matt White, chair of the University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), urges caterers to capitalise on the popularity of street food by being bold with flavour. He says: “Google’s Food Trend Report finds that consumers are ‘travelling through their taste buds’ and opting to consume more daring flavour combinations. From mochi ice-cream and Mexican candy to pickled herring and kimchi – in today’s competitive market it takes a lot more than a standard burger to draw in paying customers.”
Do it yourself
Robert Burns, marketing controller at food manufacturer Westlers, suggests that operators use its beechwood-smoked frankfurters as a base for customers to devise their own twist. Serving suggestions include buffalo mozzarella, caramelised red onion, Swiss cheese, jalapeños and pulled pork.
To accommodate the growing hot street food market, Planglow is adding a number of new products to its Street Food range. These include two sizes of sealable carton/noodle box, a tray, plus a napkin with dispenser. The tray and cartons are made from a sturdy, compostable material that is designed to handle grease and sauce-laden foods. The seven-piece Street Food range includes a Street Box, chip cone and deli paper.
American and Tex-Mex foods have proved popular in the casual dining sector and Tom Styman-Heighton, development chef at Funnybones Foodservice, expects to see the trend mirrored in street markets.
“Having gained an unflattering reputation in past years, top-quality hot dogs and burgers are now respectable again and are building a new fan base,” he says. “Slimy sausages and fatty burgers are things of the past and high-grade beef is used to make proper hot dogs and burgers served in freshly baked rolls with authentic mustards, onions, cheeses, chilli and relishes. These dishes are made for the street food scene.”
Trends to watch
Although Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at Fresh Direct, points to the success of seafood vendors with items such as lobster rolls and fried squid, he believes there is one street food favourite: “It appears a cheese toastie is the street-eat of choice,” says Parsonage, who suggests upgrading it with sourdough bread piled with cave-aged Gruyere and truffle shavings.
In fact, the street food vendor’s trick of concentrating on one foodstuff and making it the best it can be – along with a little bit of theatre in its cooking and presentation – makes for a compelling product, says Cathy Amos, senior sector marketing manager at Brakes.
“We believe the main trend this year will see chefs focusing on one key dish which they will enhance and refine to ensure it’s the best on the high street. Our customers are also asking us for ingredients to support flavour trends with Middle Eastern, Persian and tacos top of the list. A move towards highlighting great British classics is also apparent.”
Rachael Sawtell, marketing director at Planglow, predicts growth for ‘bowl food’ with fresh ingredients and aromatic, balanced flavours, such as Mexican rice bowls, noodle dishes, curries and other sauce-heavy ethnic foods. “Regardless of their origin, all offerings are served with a strong street food twist,” she says.
In key with the Mexican trend, Funnybones has introduced soft blue corn tortillas, which contain less starch, more protein and have a lower glycaemic index than white corn, as well as containing no artificial colourings or flavourings. They are also perfect for street food snacks, measuring just 10cm. To accompany them, the company has introduced three barbecue sauces – Kansas City (a tangy tomato base sweetened with molasses); Carolina Gold (for pork sausage or grilled pork); and Alabama white sauce (a creamy, peppery sauce spiked with horseradish). The Funnybones range also includes Spicy Albondigas (Mexican spiced pork meatballs) and Spanish-style Antojito Pork Belly Bites.
The perfect accompaniments to Mexican street food are guacamole, salsa, nachos and tacos, which can work well for starters or as part of sharing platters, according to Lisa Ronquest, head of product development for Mars Food. And Uncle Ben’s offers a range of Tex-Mex Ready To Use Sauces, distributed by Aimia Foods, including Mexican Salsa, Chilli Con Carne, Hickory Smoked BBQ and Texan BBQ.
McCormick’s 2017 Flavour Forecast highlights plancha grilling as a hot trend, creating smoky, sear-flavoured crusts on meat. Grillers can use the plancha with meats, seafood and vegetables, pairing street food with bold sauces, rubs and glazes. Schwartz Fajita Seasoning, a blend of onion, garlic and spices, also adds Mexican flavour to menus, perfect for fajitas, burritos, tortillas and enchiladas. Other street food-inspired seasonings include Blackened Cajun Seasoning and a Portuguese-inspired Piri Piri Seasoning. Schwartz Sriracha Seasoning reproduces a sweet, sour heat with a garlic kick.
Flavour fusions and ethnic influences are becoming more popular on burger menus, too. Hot and spicy seasonings are coming into their own with sriracha (chilli peppers, garlic, sugar and salt) and harissa pastes (roasted red peppers, fresh coriander, caraway seeds and garlic), complementing consumer demand for spicy burgers, according to Aine Melichar, brand manager for Kerrymaid.
“Being able to offer consumers miniature versions of their beloved takeaways is another great lunchtime grab-and-go option, as consumers with smaller appetites or less time would be satisfied with the reduced option,” she says.
And fast cooking can mean using convenient ingredients: Kerrymaid’s Single cream delivers the taste of fresh cream without the risk of splitting when heated or mixed with alcohol.”
The Original Patty Men
Scott O’Byrne and Tom Maher worked as designers for a menswear label when they made a burger using a Krispy Kreme doughnut for a bit of fun. Four years on, they are veterans of the street food scene and have made the move to bricks and mortar – or, a railway arch, to be more precise.
O’Byrne, 33, and Maher, 34, known as the Original Patty Men, opened their eponymous Birmingham restaurant in December 2015, trading on rave reviews for their burgers at the city’s award-winning Digbeth Dining Club (DDC). The restaurant, known as OPM, has become a word-of-mouth success story. When The Caterer pitched up for an 11.30am interview, the first lunch guests were already arriving for burgers being cooked on the open grill.
The central offer is high-quality burgers. OPM uses grass-fed, dry-aged Longhorn beef, brought direct from a Herefordshire farm to make their 120gm patties.
“Produce is key. It always has been. We will never scrimp on it,” says O’Bryne. The patties are made by hand and cooked for six minutes until they are medium, and served in buttermilk buns. The recipe won ‘best burger’ at the 2014 Street Food Awards.
The menu is deliberately uncomplicated and focuses on a few variations: the Cheezy-e, the Bacon Cheese and “Big Verns” Krispy Ring (served in a grilled glazed doughnut). There is a weekly special – currently the Cheezy-e Diablo (beef patty, lettuce, raw diced white onion, spicy cheese sauce with roquito chilli and a topping of pickled red chilli) and a chicken option, the “Alabama Slammer”.
O’Bryne stresses the importance of keeping things simple and getting the look and feel of street food right. “It is so competitive and you have to stand out in all areas – that’s why branding is so important. You don’t see many gazebos at festivals any more – it’s all about the food trucks.”
Canadian maple syrup
Fresh Direct Group
Santa Maria Foodservice