Time has flown by since we first ignited our old engine and hit the streets to make our living. We have learned so much, seen so much, eaten so much and grown immeasurably as individuals, partners and a business. And to coincide with our first birthday (if a little late), in a decidedly backward manner, we have just finished our branding. While for most new start-ups this is the absolute first thing to get done, for us it seemed we needed to find out exactly who we were before we stuck it all over our truck. And so we have. Vinyls are being planned as I type and our new identity feels very exciting and comforting - in a way that "RAINBO" scribbled on the menu board never quite did.
So what have we learned in these first four seasons on our street food odyssey? Myriad lessons in life and love. To spare you the rest of your day I will mention only those most salient points which we feel might be of interest or use. Firstly we have become part of a very strong and distinctive community, without the support of whom we would most likely not have made it this far. Through their singular vision and events, both Dom Cools-Lartigue and Petra Barran have really given London street food its roots, and the community surrounding it has become our new-found group of friends. (And this by the way is very lucky: for when you first start doing street food you see so little of your previous friends that the phone eventually stops ringing. Cue new, equally-stressed-by-how-many-cabbages-to-order-or-where-to-find-biodegradable-napkins street food friends, who understand like no one else just what your days entail).
The ever-burgeoning scene has changed so rapidly in the last fifteen months since we launched, maturing from a characterful few vans and gazebos with homemade menus and equally homemade websites, to a vibrant stream of ever-slicker conversions with super smart logos (yes, us too!), kick-ass lightbox signs (on the to do list) and all the support and know-how needed to sell fresh lobster and caipirinha candy floss in the middle of a car park. It is so exciting and inspiring to see street food evolve in this way - for truly, we are doing London proud. But competition is fiercer than ever and without tenacity, flair and more accommodating authorities opening up places to trade it will be a harder career for many as the scene fills up.
Certainly our own growth has felt much more organic than some of the shiny new outfits which have been masterfully thought through from top to bottom before they have opened the hatch. I remember on our first day trading we barely had any idea what we were doing and it feels good to have beaten a natural (if stressful) path over time to find out what Rainbo is and what it means to us. As our new logo suggests, featuring a revolutionary fist of hope clenching that great symbol of freedom, the chopstick, the charitable side of our business is without doubt the driving force behind it, and it is only since we have gotten those wheels rolling and made a real and effective change for the first fifteen kids who need it that we have felt confident to champion our cause and shout about what we do. And shout we will: for if every new business like ours incorporated giving into their model on any level we could really make some good things happen. Slowly, we hope, this will one day take root.
On a practical level, the greatest lesson learned so far (and not without much squabbling and fear) has been not to underestimate all that's involved in selling food to thousands of people in the middle of a field at that most popular of recreational phenomena: a festival. Watching people serve food at a festival and seeing the huge wads of money they take is very different from doing it yourself. With exorbitant pitch fees (going up each year) and relentless days and nights hawking your beloved goods, you need to think very carefully before you sign up. For us, as we do not prep our gyoza on site but make them all before, this means producing and freezing tens of thousands of dumplings before we have even set off. Add to that the task of getting three chest freezers and everything else we own into a lorry - in which we will then prep, clean and sleep - and getting both lorry and van on site and plugged in, in the middle of nowhere, call us pathetic but we are generally half-dead before we have even set up. And make no mistake - with thousands of pounds laid down in pitch fees, rentals and general costs, you need to sell a lot of food if you are to emerge triumphant. Luckily, we did. Wilderness in particular went swimmingly for us, and we made great new friends and loved every second. But other times we have been less lucky and after all the hauling, stacking and caffeine-fuelled navigating you find it hard not to feel at a pretty low ebb to realise it was all for about five pounds profit.
On a more general level, something we both sense, and Petra once said it when we first ran her chocolate van, we feel as if we are swimming in a very different stream. And it is a good stream. Happening upon rush hour on the tube or pulling up at an office to serve lunch, we are gently reminded of the world we chose to leave behind. Some thrive off it, some reap the rewards and suck it up, some feel they will never emerge alive and that was us. Walking away has been one of the hardest things we have done but we are always grateful for the support and enthusiasm that have enabled us to do so. And that includes friends and family on whom we have cancelled so many times it's a wonder they still try to see us. Just hold on - we will emerge for dinner soon!
The next year will no doubt be as busy, but as our team expands and we train helpful hands up, greater tasks can be tackled. And there is never a quiet moment; for even on the greyest of wintry days, with drab London clouds and never ending drizzle, there is nothing quite like having to leap into action and griddle hundreds of dumplings at a bustling party to lighten even the most reluctant and sleepiest of temperaments. It's all in doing something that genuinely inspires you.
As my brilliant, much-loved and greatly missed uncle David Frost once said, "don't aim for success if you want it; just do what you love and believe in, and it will come naturally": wisdom we will always strive to follow to the letter.
Follow Xochi Balfour on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rainbofood