Street food markets today are unprecedented territory, where service is taking a back seat and faster food – helped along by technology – must surely be the answer, says Neil Rankin
A few years ago I attended the opening of a Soho fish restaurant operated by a friend. They had built a beautiful space with excellent food and had decided to take a leap of faith with an at-table tablet ordering system.
It was a brave move, but it didn't quite work out. The gains were all there: the speed my wine came to the table, the ease with which I could order dishes and getting the bill was a dream.
But somehow, it didn't add up to hospitality. This was a restaurant, after all, and I'm not sure it's wise to kill the service interactions that are a big part of the experience. People want to be served by people because it makes them feel special.
At that same time the London street food market was emerging. The early spots run by Street Feast in Dalston felt like they had tapped into the heartbeat of the city. They were spaces where people could eat informally and hang out. The locations were pop-up spaces in clearings earmarked for new apartments, so they had an underground feeling reminiscent of rave culture and squat parties – only with incredible food. For this reason the queues were never an issue, they felt part of the story, like it was part of a movement.
Street food markets today are all grown up. Gone are the transient spaces and that new liberating, cultural movement. In their place we now have sanitised venues with meticulously choreographed flows in highcost fit-outs in permanent, centralised locations. The food is better than ever and there are more places to sit.
However, a recent opening sparked what I think is the first critical backlash. This was a super-high-spec venture, clearly backed by significant funding, calling itself the next generation of markets and in the most central location possible. The food is undoubtedly some of the best food any street food market has offered. But I'm still to meet someone who likes it.
The problem, for me, comes from its categorisation. The money spent on it and the professional management means this evolution can no longer hide behind the pretence that it is "street food". When a restaurant opens there should be a period of forgiveness with wait times and basic customer service as the team learns how to get the food out quickly and meet customers' basic needs.
Independent street food traders can bypass this because in these new, sleeker spaces the gloves are off. Now, it's no longer acceptable to wait 45 minutes for an £8 dish – or any dish. They need to address single diners wanting multiple dishes and large groups wanting combinations. If someone is queuing in a quiet period, with some 30 staff to 30 customers and they aren't being treated like royalty, there is something wrong. The answer is difficult to pinpoint, but it's most likely a combination of training and tech – and the latter seems to be something of an easy win.
This tech, which was inappropriate for the Soho restaurant, seems perfect for a market because, at its heart, these are issues that can't be solved with extra staff. I'm no fan of tech in restaurants but this is uncharted territory to which the traditional answers seem not to fit.
The future stars of street food will not be determined by the cost of a fit-out. Operators must address gaps in the market and regard hospitality as a core issue. We don't fall in love with things that give us what we want or what we desire – that's a casual fling. We fall in love with something that gives us what we actually need.
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