This post includes input from a session on street food at the recent Restaurant and Takeaway Innovation Expo. The session was run by Mark Laurie, director of Ncass (the Nationwide Caterers Association); Dan Fullerton of BoxPark; and Theo-Lee Houston, head of markets at KERB.
Food halls…street food yes or no?
Mark Laurie opened the session by describing the latest contention in the street food industry. Die-hards are saying that street food should stay being just exactly that – food in the open air… in the street. Instead of being so luddite, Laurie contends, everyone should go to Seven Dials market and see just what is happening there, it’s just one brilliant example in the explosion of food halls happening now all over the UK. Food halls are a logical and foreseeable development, he tells us, it’s landlords trying to maximise the yields from their properties. In part it’s due to the slow death of retail – there’s more space available now. And creative use is being made of a range of other types of site: roof tops (Pergola on the Roof), disused car parks (Peckham Levels), abandoned warehouses (Seven Dials)… anywhere with easy access and a low rental value, in an area which is reasonably densely populated.
“Die-hards are saying that street food should stay being just exactly that – food in the open air… in the street.”
It makes absolute sense. “It’s simply street food indoors,” Laurie explains, “and considering the climate in this country – uncertain, cold, wet, outside is so bloody miserable – it suits everyone well. But there are the purists who argue that street food isn’t street food if it’s not sold out on the streets”.
The real threat to the soul of street food is not the move under cover, but more the big corporations who own and/or run the property. They can offer so much support, and insist on so much branding compliance that it becomes suffocating.
The threat to restaurants
Dan Fullerton works for BoxPark, which runs pop-up malls. He pointed out that the new food halls were a further challenge to those restaurants already struggling to survive in the tough trading conditions of the casual dining sector. And food halls have advantages over restaurants for increasingly curious and discerning customers. “In a food hall you can get the same great food as in the casual dining sector”, he comments, “but you get a much wider choice.”
Now even restaurants in established, high-rent areas – London’s Soho for example – are beginning to feel the threat. Soho is being hemmed at one point of a triangle by the Arcade Food Centre at the Centre Point end of Oxford Street, Market Hall West End at the other end, and the KERB Seven Dials market at the point where Soho touches Covent Garden.
The new food halls are blurring the lines between street food and restaurants. They offer street traders, aspiring to open their own establishments, a middle stage which is a lot less scary and more supported. They also offer experienced restaurateurs and chefs the chance to experiment with new concepts. And now outlets in some food halls (the upper floor of KERB’s Seven Dials for example) are allowing customers to book – so when is a restaurant not a restaurant?
From the customers’ points of view, food halls are less stiff and formal; divvying up the bill is never a problem; nor is the ‘fussy eater’; and they usually less expensive. For those with children, food halls offer fast food, but customers aren’t chivvied off quickly, often there’s a play area. The informality makes them a popular choice for the increasing number (see Fancy A Night Out…With Yourself).
Many food halls now incorporate bookshops, and stages, offering live music and comedy acts – it’s not just the food and beverage industry being attacked by the new phenomenon, so is the entertainment sector.
Food halls are not new; they’re not just British; and they can be any size
“In any case, it’s not as if food halls are a new phenomenon,” adds Theo-Lee Houston, “food halls have existed in Asia for years…. It’s just that now the West is finally catching up.” There’s no doubt food halls are an international phenomenon. In India there India there have been bazaars; and in Africa and the middle-east, souks, for centuries. More recent, recognisable examples are Madrid’s San Miguel market and London’s Borough market.
In 2014 Time Out opened its first food hall in Lisbon (see featured image at the top of this post). The hall utilises the old Lisbon fruit and vegetable market in a very popular way, leasing space to Portugal’s many celebrity chefs. Since then Time Out has opened a handful across north America – New York, Boston, Montreal… and the latest one, opened just a couple of months ago, in Chicago.
Food halls can be small – for example, at the end of 2019 Food Pit opened in Durham, host to just seven independent food businesses. Or they can be big, like the Seven Dials market in London, which is run by Kerb. The largest of all currently is Market Hall West End (also in London) with three floors and over 1,000 seats. But even for the smallest it’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. After a visit or two to The Durham Sausage Company, and sampling their handmade peri-peri pork offering the returning customer could grow weary. It’s less of a concern when there stalls also offering burgers, Mexican, Mediterranean, Thai,
Food ‘courts’ have existed in the UK for decades. They offered choice, but in a sad, tatty, depressing sort of way usually incorporating Burger King and much coffee-stained formica. There areas are ripe for metamorphosis into food halls, albeit more corporate, less characterful ones, still incorporating the Yo Sushi’s of the world. The project undertaken by Lemon Fox at the West Quay food court in Southampton is a successful example. Visitor numbers went up by seven percent; visit time extended by seven minutes; and opening hours have extended into the early evening.
The essential difference between the sad, old food ‘courts’ and the new food halls is vibe – the atmosphere needs to be lively, fun, and fashionable; the food and drink on offer, exciting, different, unexpected… creative.
What are landlords looking for?
Whether indoors or outdoors, Laurie told the packed audience that what landlords are looking for these days is authenticity. Dan Fullerton agreed, adding that this authenticity could come from anywhere. “We get people applying to us from all sorts of different backgrounds: they can come from takeaway; they can be big restaurants wanting to ‘add on’; they can be festival stall holders wanting their first permanent location. What we aim to do is to offer great food, and a really good quality experience, we are simply giving the consumer what they want and what they need.
Houston’s company, KERB, is a membership organisation which supports fledgling street food businesses in the UK. He gave some additional advice for aspiring traders. “Remember, this is all about street food – keep it affordable. Trial your products first – not with friends and family who will not critique it honestly.” He describes Kerb’s three month inKERBator programme, where some 60 businesses are offered business support in terms of product development, marketing and operations. Until now the programme has been free, but now a weekly £10 charge is made. The programme is so heavily subsidised because, he explains, “we take a percentage of the takings… it’s in our interests that these businesses succeed.”
“Remember, this is all about street food – keep it affordable. Trial your products first – not with friends and family who will not critique it honestly.”
All the businesses benefitting from the InKERBator programme are small start-ups, “we want to support people who have an idea and not that much money” Houston tells us, “the InKERBator programme is not for larger businesses with multiple sites.”
The percentage of turnover/kitchen facilities supply model is the norm for food halls. Liverpool’s Baltic Exchange charges 15% and throws in an iZettle account; London’s Market Halls charges 25%. Services such as extraction, electricity and refrigeration are supplied as the norm. Sheffield’s Kommune also offers cleaners, delivery runners, kitchen patrol staff… even photography services and branded china. Three and six month initial leases, offered by a range of management companies further help to lower barriers to entry.
What are the trends in street food currently?
Dan Fullerton says the answer to this is that it is hard to generalise. “It varies so much according to the location” he explains, “in Wembley we are selling a lot of burgers for example. But the key is not to saturate the area with one type of food – just because one burger stall is doing well, it doesn’t mean you need more burger stalls. You can get away with it at Wembley which is very event-orientated, there’s no natural footfall there, it’s more of a destination. We’ve added in some games stalls.”
“On the other hand, Shoreditch is our most popular site. And in Croyden there are lots of head offices, there’s a different audience there altogether, and they want different food.” In general terms, Fullerton thinks, Londoners are broadening their horizons – they’re the most keen to try different things.
Houston ‘s response to this question was philosophic. “Trends come and go… and if you want your business to succeed, do what you do well”. He agreed with Mark Laurie’s opinion that it’s all about being authentic, “Absolutely”, Laurie adds, “this game is too hard to just do it for the money… you have to be doing it because you love the food you offer.”
Fullerton agrees. “I do see a general trend for more specific regional food, now it’s not just ‘Chinese’ but ‘Sichuan’; but I’m still waiting for insect food to take off!”
“Yes” says Laurie, “consumers are now better educated, better travelled. But you have to be careful not to be just too niche”.
Advice about the menu
“Keep your menu simple” Fullerton advises street traders, “don’t give your customers too much of a decision to have to make.”
Houston suggests that, if you have something which is unique… unknown, an infographic can help demystify it for the customer.
The consensus was that the most successful menus are kept easy to navigate, too much choice dazzles customers. It also needs to make the identity of the traders clear, as well as the logic of what’s on offer. If there is an element of entertainment, whether from the cooking process itself, or because the chef has the time to chat, and explain a bit more about the food, all the better.
“Test your offering in the market first,” Houston warns, and use common sense. He cites the example of one woman who wanted to sell her very special porridge. “It is wonderful stuff, but it was never going to sell in the evening. We advised her to set up in a station arcade, and she’s been very successful.”
He cites the example of one woman who wanted to sell her very special porridge. “It is wonderful stuff, but it was never going to sell in the evening. We advised her to set up in a station arcade, and she’s been very successful.”
Working on local authorities to be more supportive
As director for Ncass, Laurie has a lot to say on this subject. “It’s a grey area,” he tells us, “and now there is a new law. I know some stall holders who have been selling their wares on private land for five or more years, and now the local authority is telling them they need a permit, and that they have to make a payment. At times it can feel like a bit of a shake down.” He gives an example of one authority charging £120 per day for an ice cream van… “and this was summer, winter… and not even in central London.”
“There’s no clear picture” he continues, “every authority is different. The best advice I can give is to call them up and be honest with them.”
Fullerton concurs, “there’s no consistency. In Croydon we’ve regenerated the area completely, and we’ve brought in local traders. This has led to good relations with the local authority and now we’re able to add more units. But we were up front with them from the beginning about what we were aiming to achieve.” In the end there has to be something in it for local authorities, whether it’s money, regeneration, encouragement of local businesses, or a mix of all three.
Laurie outlines additional problems due to so many different departments being involved – health and safety, traffic, planners… there’s no clarity, across councils, across the country, or in terms of future policy. “It make it very difficult for small businesses to plan”, he concludes.
When will this proliferation reach market saturation? Messrs Laurie, Fullerton and Houston all opined that there was plenty more space for growth.
But then they were speaking before the era of the Coronavirus….
For more on street food, see Guest Contributor, Ollie Hunter’s post.