Street-food-boxout

Food

Street food traders and property developers

What happens when property developers and street food traders strike up a friendship?

15 Feb 2017

Street Feast takes advantage of unloved or awkward – and therefore cheap – plots of land for its pop-up markets. ‘We get great deals on rent,’ says Jonathan Downey, London Union CEO. ‘Because we can set up quickly and cheaply in ‘meanwhile’ space, that would otherwise be left empty.’

Signing rolling one-month contracts with landlords, and using temporary event notices to license its bars, the set-up used to be fairly casual. Traders had no formal contracts, while the build itself was speedy and low-cost; Dinerama cost around £500,000 to set up in summer 2015.

Now, as some of those unattractive plots of land become increasingly attractive (the first Dalston site has been sold to turn into flats) and harder to find, Street Feast is switching strategy. ‘We’ve gone from wanting to open 12 neighbourhood markets, to fewer, bigger markets,’ says Downey. ‘We could’ve opened in places like Tooting and Ealing, but those sites were too small. We’ve outgrown that model.’

The ‘cultural capital’ markets bring to an area (which, in turn, results in them being edged out) is also being seized upon by property developers and big landlords.

Placemakers

Kerb has always had a close relationship with property developers. Its most popular site is Canary Wharf. Not because it has the most exciting atmosphere, but because the 1,000 customers who come every Friday lunchtime spend around £8,000 in two hours. Commercial property developer Land Securities, which owns the land, invited Kerb to run the market to encourage bigger companies to take the surrounding retail space, increase footfall to the area and inject some vibrancy into the notoriously sterile wharf.

In King’s Cross, too, Kerb brings a certain raw spirit to Argent’s development, and has helped make it a place people want to visit and work in. ‘There’s next-to-no money changing hands,’ says head of markets Ian Dodds. ‘It’s primarily a place-making project rather than a revenue stream for landowners.’

In Camden, Kerb has been invited by Market Tech to run part of Camden Lock market and help refashion the neighbourhood’s image. (The property developer, which has bought up 16 acres of real estate in the area, is on a mission to create the Camden of the future.)

Selling out?

Up-ended from grittier beginnings, scrubbed up and put on display in increasingly corporate surroundings, some say street food is losing its soul. ‘What’s rock and roll about selling burgers to a bunch of suits?’ says Digby Vollrath, Feast It founder.

Several companies even export British food trucks to the UAE (and, beginning this year, Singapore) where they park up in marine clubs to sell their grub. ‘It’s street food the brand,’ says Mathew Carver, who is taking part in a Dubai food festival for the third time this year with his company, The Cheese Truck. ‘People pay £10 to enter to see street food traders. It’s weird.’

Others acknowledge that shedding some grime and becoming more commercial is the price paid to become a sustainable industry with longevity. David Carter, Smokestak founder, says: ‘Yes, street food has become more structured, disciplined and arguably corporate at times, but the original street food culture was always going to be short-lived.’

Both Downey and Dodds insist that change is driven by the traders. With a permanent seven-day-a-week spot, they can stop worrying about gas canisters and water supplies, while still benefitting from lower rents and the operator’s promotional machine. ‘It allows them to begin to think more strategically,’ says Dodds. ‘Employ a manager, grow a team, up their turnover, and look for further opportunities.’

For the operators too, a permanent home with a long lease offers security, and an opportunity to invest money into a site.

The biggest shift comes from Street Feast, which is swapping a derelict space in Dalston for a purpose-built 10,000 sq ft indoor market in Crossrail Place, above the new Canary Wharf station. ‘It’s an amazing building,’ insists Downey. ‘It’s like the inside of a cargo ship in space.’ With the working title ‘Streetopia’, the market will have four permanent traders and two or three bars.

It makes commercial sense, but it still seems to jar culturally – even Downey admits as much: ‘I’m not as excited about doing something in Canary Wharf as a carpark in Dalston, but that was too much hassle.’ Creating the right vibe is also a concern. ‘I’m definitely worried. But equally, when it was freezing cold in Dalston Yard, the vibes weren’t very good either.’

Street Feast’s Smithfield plan is still on the table, too. The vision is a hybrid street food and regular market; a more design-minded and branded version of Borough, open late. But planning and licensing remain a massive hurdle, nearly two years on. ‘Planning laws aren’t cut out for the kind of business we are,’ says Downey. Competition for such large-scale sites is also growing.

Adopting the blueprint

Meanwhile, some landlords are taking on the street food operators at their own game. In April 2015 the Southbank Centre took over running the market on its site (founded by Real Food Market in 2010). From its origins as a monthly fresh produce fair, the market has, like many others, evolved to focus on niche takeaway food and now runs
every weekend.

Council-run Berwick Street market is switching hands too. In April, a commercial operator will take over running the long-standing market in Soho (where Pizza Pilgrims got its first gig). While pitch fees shooting up are a worry for traders, more concerning is the likelihood that the new manager will boot out more old-school businesses for shiny new street food brands.

This story is taken from Courier Feb/Mar 2017.