It is no secret that street food in London is thriving. Every month new traders hit the scene with mind boggling new concepts and taste combinations crazy enough to make Heston think twice. And almost every time we trade someone else comes up to the van asking how we got going, how we make it work, what advice we have for someone looking to jack in their day job and make their living from food. Just the other day we gave a talk at an Escape the City event to one hundred food-preneurs about quitting the office and taking those first daunting steps to starting our own business.
This makes me very happy. After all, if we can do it, so can they. Except for one growing problem which makes all these inspiring life changing moves just that little bit more risky: the question of where to trade. The reality is that the number of pitches up for grabs is by no means increasing in proportion to the number of traders bursting like hotcakes onto the scene. Councils across the city are closing their waiting lists for markets in their borough - even if some are not even full, but more of that later - while traders like us are depending on event organisers and private landowners to give us a chance and open up the city's streets to some of the best and most exciting food the city can offer.
Our own experience thus far has been fraught by intransigent councils and endless negotiating with the powers that be. We initially had a permanent spot in Camden, at Leather Lane market, but after a very unlucky torrential festival season we could not afford the double pitch fee we were paying (imposed due to the fact that our van was larger than a single demarcated stall) so we asked the council to waive it and just charge us a single pitch fee for a few months while we got back on track. This was even more important for us financially given that we had paid two months in advance to Camden without actually trading because our van was delayed, and council protocol dictates that in order to keep one's spot, payments must be made even if trade is not happening. When asked if we might suspend payment until trade was possible, they had said that if we cease payment our pitch might get taken by someone else.
They seemed, however, sympathetic to our cause and at a meeting we subsequently attended about the decline in Camden's markets throughout the borough, they openly agreed that in this climate and given that their markets are a mere 45% full, concessions would certainly be made to people like us who had new, exciting produce to offer and attracted new people to the market. On top of which, our charitable outreach added a new dimension to their traders' portfolio.
Much to our surprise, away from the eyes and ears of the group meeting, the emailed response was negative: their line was that they would 'not want to be seen giving concessions to one trader and not the other'; in short, the red tape is too thick and sticky to cross. And so we left. And unsurprisingly, our spot was not taken over by anyone. The scope for progress or change, then, looks rather limited.
So while we are all relying on private landowners and new events organisers for our business, there are two people in London who are really fuelling the fight for new spaces. The first is Petra Barran, who runs renowned street food hub KERB (formerly known as eat.st) and who works tirelessly with councils and individuals to fulfil her goal of Making Cities Taste Better. The weekday KERB market on Kings Boulevard offers members like us regular weekly pitches and an exciting new space is opening up for KERB this winter at the bottom of the iconic Gherkin.
And Petra's negotiations with councils have not been without their own struggles: for an Olympics event on Exhibition Road, she found dealing with Kensington and Chelsea frustrating to say the least. "It is one of the most resolved environments I have encountered in London, with absolutely no scope for movement, negotiation or concession. Doing the event, we felt completely out of place, as if we were messing up their clean lines. In my opinion there are some councils who will take the leap to accept street food as part of the city's future, and there will be others who will just never change. Hackney, for example, is markedly more progressive. There are so many hinterlands in the city, so many amazing spaces to bring back to life and use, that working with private landlords is definitely a quicker and easier solution."
KERB's mission is to make cities better than they would be without street food. For Petra, disused space is full of potential and needs enlivening, not ignoring. "For me, it's also about creating a permanent community of traders that build upon what the area already has to offer. Not just a pop up but something that is relevant and beneficial to a whole community."
One book that has been a strong influence on Petra is Hungry City by Caroline Steel, who analogises that in cities, when it comes to street food, we don't have naturally good soil. All we have is rocks. You have to till the land, as it were, working with councils, authorities, communities and traders, to build long lasting roots that will stand the test of the pop up, pop down era. The long term vision for street food, then, is of fundamental importance.
The new market at the Gherkin, launching 15 November, marks a real progression for KERB and its traders. "It is very symbolic in terms of London embracing street food, and especially on private land. The most iconic building in London is joining forces with new street food traders and bringing the skyscraper down to the ground. It's exciting: the beginning of a new era."
Another key figure in the opening up of London's spaces is Dom Cools-Lartigue, organiser of Friday night market Street Feast. Previously held in a disused car park in Dalston, the market now takes place inside Hackney Downs studios and comprises great street food, live music, crafts and fashion with an easy going, underground atmosphere that appeals as much to families as trendy East Londoners and attracts up to one thousand people a night.
Unlike other events organisers, Dom only ever takes a percentage of takings as a fee. "People say I'm crazy to take such a low pitch but in my opinion it's the traders who bring the atmosphere and the vibe. Without them there would be nothing, And I want them to do well." And as part of his vision, Street Feast will always be free to the public: "With Street Feast, I am just trying to provide an alternative to eating and drinking in London restaurants. Everywhere you go around the world, night markets thrive - from Thailand to Barbados and Zanzibar. Why should England not offer the same? How much more interesting is it to sample exciting new food and interact with the traders than sit in a boozer all night?" And cheaper, too. At Street Fast you can eat and drink all you like and spend a fraction of what you would in a restaurant or bar.
Indeed, Dom has certainly created something that taps into London's night culture and the event is growing by the week. With a background in club promotion and music events, his knowledge of what people want and how to create that perfect alchemy of punters, traders and atmosphere is paying off. As Petra says, "What Dom has done with Street Feast is create that sense of discovery and exploration that everyone wants to feel. Like they are finding something new and secret that no one else knows about."
Unsurprisingly, Dom has had an equally rocky road with the councils. "When we first launched Street Feast off Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets didn't like it one bit. They went out of their way to shut us down, behind our backs, putting immense pressure on the owner of the site. And they did. So we moved to Hackney and they are definitely a more exciting, progressive council." Dom agrees that the best option for now is to open up space via private landlords. "Then the councils will eventually see that street food is thriving, and a valuable addition to the city, and they will have to get on board."
Otherwise, he says, the change can only come from a mayoral level. "Everyone raves about Boris bikes and what a great addition they make to the capital. Well if Boris really wants to leave a valuable and lasting legacy to the city, enabling street food should be it."
Well, Boris, we are right here and waiting, champing at the bit to transform every nook, cranny and abandoned car park we can find. Until then, we will be hawking our gyoza in just about any place we can.