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Kings of the road

15 August 2011
Kings of the road

There's a street-food revolution happening across the country as vans and pitches crop up to satisfy demand for gourmet food on the go. With relatively low start-up costs and creative potential, they're a great way to expand any food-led business, explains Fiona Sims

The smell of cumin scents the air at London Zoo on a Friday night. Alec Owen's flatbread-wrapped Bhangra Burgers are stealing the show from the penguins; Anna Mae's pulled pork sandwiches and pimped-up mac and cheese are diverting attentions away from the meerkats. No, this isn't some cutting-edge zookeeper custom, but a bunch of street-food vendors cooking their hearts out for visitors as they temporarily occupy a section of the zoo's food area.

There's a revolution happening on our streets and it's edible. Exciting food is being served out of trailers, carts and vintage vans up and down the country, at farmers' markets and festivals, on street corners and at events. Forget the grease wagons encountered on the way to a football match; this is serious tucker, with ingredients painstakingly sourced, lovingly cooked for a food-savvy audience.

Owen and Mae are part of Eat St, a loose association of gourmet street vendors that aims to "bring cohesion and robustness to the world of the mobile food trader". Pitching up at London Zoo was Eat St's initiative and it's going down a storm, reports Petra Barran, co-founder of Eat St.

Barran was one of the first to take the road with her gourmet food truck, Choc Star, an ice-cream van that she found on eBay and customised in 2005 to sell all things chocolatey.

"A lot of people come to Eat St asking how they can get started. Some are great home cooks wanting to give it a go; others are those dying in their office jobs. OK, so maybe it is dominated by middle class life-changers, but some of the ideas we are hearing are brilliant," enthuses Barran, who developed Choc Star as a way to combine her love of chocolate and travelling. "We want Eat St to be a business incubator."

But it's much more than just pitching up and letting the smells do the work. Christine McClellan has a mobile catering business, The Flying Chef, which operates mostly on the Norfolk-Suffolk border on licensed street trading pitches in market towns. She has struggled to find new customers via Facebook and Twitter, and has come up against some stubborn councils since she started back in 1993.

"One of our pitches took us three applications over a total of 14 years before we finally got the go-ahead to trade," says McClellan, who has a custom-built catering section bolted on to the chassis of a motorbike. Her biggest challenge is getting sufficient demand in a short time-window for her home-made sausages served in poppy seed rolls. "If food trucks are to work in the UK, it's got to be where there is a high density of reasonably well-heeled people," she warns.

The gourmet street food scene actually started in the USA, principally in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, but other like-minded US cities have followed suit, from Portland in Oregon, to Austin in Texas - and now London.

Inspired by the farmers' market movement, and the traditional taco truck in the USA, and spurred on by the recession, this new generation of street vendor is aggressively gourmet, politically correct and tech-savvy, alerting customers to their locations using Twitter and Facebook. They see the food truck as an attractive opportunity, with its relatively low start-up costs and creative potential.

"This new type of food truck is a far cry from the old-style greasy spoon mobile catering unit - these are smart, sassy, innovative and they serve great food," says Horizons managing director Peter Backman.

Although the goal of both American and British vendors is to be quick, convenient and cheap, they are decidedly anti-fast food. Their offerings range from cupcakes to chowder, pulled pork to paella.

The trend has even given birth to a whole new cuisine in the USA: a mash-up of Korean and Mexican food, introducing dishes such as short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas. And where US food trends go, Britain usually follows.

Danny O'Sullivan is proud of his Kimchi Sliders. He has been selling his mini Korean-inspired burgers from his mobile stand, Kimchi Cult, in various London locations since April this year, after returning from South Korea, where he was teaching English.

Inspired by Korean-American Roy Choi, the father of the Los Angeles' taco truck revolution, O'Sullivan wanted to combine his love of Korea's cuisine with his passion for cooking. He had some experience working in professional kitchens, which helped him out financially while studying. "But mostly I'm just a good home cook," he confesses.

The stints in a professional kitchen should help him with his new venture - a pop-up in a pub in Walthamstow, which he now runs alongside his mobile stand. "It's a very different experience - you don't get to meet the customers, but the sliders are going down well with drinkers," O'Sullivan reports.

This isn't the first time a street-food vendor has made the crossover - in fact, it's a growing trend. Pubs struggling with their food offering should take note. Mobile trader Yianni Papoutsis, who operates under the name the Meatwagon, wowed south London with his now legendary burgers when he set up shop on the first floor of a pub in New Cross.

Called Meateasy, it became his base for a few months, scoring rave reviews and enviable queues. Now Papoutsis is installed in another Capital Pub Company-owned venue, the Rye, Peckham, which has become the Meatwagon's prep kitchen - much to the joy of locals, who can enjoy his "Dead Hippy" burgers in the same location every night.

Papoutsis is now running his second van (his first was stolen last Christmas), a 1980s Chevrolet Ambulance - 20ft by 81/2 ft, costing "many thousands" and funded privately as the banks weren't offering. Kitted out to his own specifications, there's room for up to five chefs working in the van at any one time. " The chefs never have to move their feet," he says, proudly.

But plain sailing it's not. "It's hard to turn a profit in the first couple of years," warns Papoutsis. "And you spend a lot of time on bureaucracy - you are inspected by environ­mental health officers more times in one festival than restaurants can expect in their lifetime. There's paperwork every time we go out to play. And if you are doing the numbers you really do need a prep kitchen - ours is the pub. But the food is at the heart of it all - you have to start with a high-quality offering."

And the crossover is working both ways. Chefs Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka have worked in many Michelin-starred kitchens and have built up a reputation, but last autumn they went native with the launch of Street Kitchen at the London Restaurant Festival, serving sustainable British bistro food from a silver Airstream.

Now they have two Airstreams and a prep kitchen in Battersea (complete with take-away hatch to serve local businesses) - and a great new pitch on Finsbury Avenue Square, courtesy of owners British Land and Blackstone. And yes, the corporate sector is already sniffing about. "We've been approached by Sodexo, and we are in talks with other big operators about doing events," Jankel reveals.

Indeed, large US food chains such as Subway and Taco Bell, have already taken to the streets in the USA - not that this worries Barran. "People don't want to be spun a marketing tale. They want authenticity. They want to look into the eyes of the person making their food. There's something magical about all of this," she says.

10 ways to make a success of a food truck

1 Whatever you're going to be selling, make it good. There's no point in coming up with a great concept and wild artwork if the product is average.

2 Come up with one strong idea that is easy for people to latch on to. A convoluted menu will dilute the impact of what you're doing. You can always add things on as you go along once you have people's trust.

3 Embrace the mobile lifestyle - it's a whole new world. It involves unusual and long hours but there's a culture to it that's addictive. If you're not into change and unpredictability, things could get tricky.

4 Remember that people come to a food van for the experience as well as the food and personality goes a long way - be good to your customers and have some fun with them.

5 Be organised - it's all about logistics. Moving things from A to B and working out numbers, times, and geography correctly is crucial.

6 Make friends with the other traders - they're a powerful source of information and support.

7 Go to town on the look and feel of your van. This is the new wave of mobile food vendors and it's all about being non-typical. At Eat St we are massive fans of Insa, who has painted several of our vehicles. Exuberance and humour is key.

8 Be adaptable - you're going to need to handle the British weather, it isn't always your friend.

9 See it as an adventure - this is a life that brings you into contact with some amazing people, wonderful places and the chance to forge your own narrative out of the contours of the city. The connection street trading gives you to the world is priceless.

10 If in doubt, join Eat St for limitless support, advice, trading opportunities and instant community. We want to drive British street food forward, so roll up.

Source: Petra Barranwww.eat.st

British Street Food Awards

To drive British street food forward, broadcaster and journalist Richard Johnson founded the British Street Food Awards, which attracted more than 450 vendors for its inaugural event in Ludlow last year. This year's awards will take place at Harvest at Jimmy's on 9-11 September. "We are still a long way behind the USA, but once we convince foodie sorts that they won't get food poisoning we're away," says Johnson, who has also just published a book on the subject, Street Food Revolution (Kyle Books, £14.99)

Street food… A Guide to Getting Started

Do you need a special license? You may need a street trading license, also known as a hawker's license. However, this does not apply if you are trading from private property as are many pop-ups and guerrilla dining projects. I would try pub car parks, disused commercial buildings, private land, community projects - we have a caterer opening up in a reclaimed garden space in Central London this summer. Use your imagination, find somewhere interesting and fun that adds to the experience. One of my favourites is Frank's bar in Peckham, which is on the 8th floor of an NCP car park.

How do you choose a pitch? The great thing about mobile catering is that you can move to the customers rather than waiting for them to find you. But good roadside pitches are hard to come by. Talk to your council first and see if they have any available or whether you will be able to propose a site for the business to run from. If not, private landowners are the way to go. Either speak to your local publican or find some interesting venue and track down the landlord. You may want to secure several sites and move between them.

How do you go about getting permission to serve food on a pitch? Ask the owner - that could be the council, the highways agency or a private landlord. Some of our caterers clubbed together and put on a series of mini food festivals, called the Towpath Festival, and were given land to use along a canal operated by British Waterways.

Who do you approach first? NCASS, the Nationwide Caterers Association. Good advice is priceless. You wouldn't believe the amount of people that spend £10,000 on a trailer before getting any advice or doing any research. You may want to sell gorgeous food but you have to run it as a business or you will go bust and lose your money.

Get good advice, research and plan properly before you spend any money. NCASS will provide you with free hygiene and food risk assessment training and design a bespoke risk assessment for your food business.

The next edition of our Profitable Mobile Catering - our start-up guide, will have a chapter on gourmet street trading and guerrilla dining. We can help you to stay legal and stay safe.

Do you have to charge VAT on food you serve? Not for cold food; but for hot food, for the time being - yes. A recent court case in Germany has raised questions about whether the governments of Europe are allowed to charge VAT on hot served food so this may be about to change. However HM Revenue & Customs is challenging the court's findings and is unlikely to give up that much tax revenue without a fight.

When is the best time to park up? When people are hungry. It depends on what food you are serving and who you are selling to. You won't sell much organic porridge at 10pm. Get to know where your target customers are likely to be and be there ready for them. If you are selling organic porridge you probably want to be close to transport hubs and work places nice and early in the morning. If you are selling gourmet burgers, you can have a lie-in but expect to work into the night.

How often do you get hygiene inspections? Your local environmental health officer will visit your business within three months and from then onwards it will depend on the type of food you are serving - rice, chicken and fish units are likely to be visited more regularly than coffee units. It isn't us versus them though; your EHO should work with you to help you to improve food hygiene - most of them are very nice people.

Source: Mark Laurie, advisor, National Caterers Associationwww.ncass.org.uk

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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