Street food has been around for years, from the first hot dog vendor in New York to momos in the Himalayas. Recently walking around Camden town and seeing the wealth of street food available in this corner of London, I began to understand there is more to this trend than cheap convenience. Street food encompasses more than a portable facility, instead there is an energy and vibrancy that is not found in more traditional restaurants.
This said, as gap years and sabbaticals encourage more people to travel further afield, we are looking to recreate that perfect pad thai from our travels that was often found on a street vendor cart. Restaurants have recently taken notice of this trend and though you may not find sausage rolls on a la carte menus, you may find dishes inspired by more earthly origins.
The real turnaround for street food has been in the recent awarding of Michelin stars. Previously reserved for the great and the good, two food stalls in Singapore made history last year by receiving the prestigious accolade.
I set about further investigating this trend, what makes street food so popular? I spoke to Mandy Yin from Sambal Shiok to find out the reality between street food vs restaurant.
The positives of street food
Street food has so much to offer those looking to get started in the food industry in a relatively low risk manner. Mandy Yin was looking for such a foothold:
“As you may know, 4 years ago we started off as a street food outfit working with organisations such as Street Feast, Street Food Union in Soho and the Southbank Centre. Our unique Malaysian-inspired street food offering was chicken satay, beef rendang or lentil satay, with a choice of meal type - in a bun, rice or salad. Street food allows you to test the market or indeed get a foot in the door into the industry at a relatively low cost. I myself was a lawyer before joining the industry.”
Interacting with customers in such an immediate manner also has a fair few positives, though it is not for the faint of heart. As a seller you can engage your customers in your personality and patter, and let the food talk for itself later. In the same breath however, if you struggle with customer interaction, a surly demeanour is a quick way to turn away potential profit. Mandy spoke of how her time as a street vendor helped her hone her brand and products:
“Customers at the street food markets were consistently asking us when were we going to open a proper restaurant where they could come dine with us in the more traditional seating/service style. They were also asking me to serve laksa, a standard bearer Malaysian dish, often citing that they couldn't find a good laksa provider in London.
“Hence I spotted a massive gap in the London food scene for good laksa served in pleasant surroundings with excellent service. This lead to me starting my pop up laksa bar across various venues - Fitzrovia, Finsbury Park, Soho, Harringay and most recently, Marylebone.
“Our mission now is to serve the best laksa in London, and to open our first laksa bar permanent restaurant before the end of the year.”
The Negatives of Street food
The energy of street food is one of the key things that sets it apart, it is often associated with youth and travel and can be found in every country across the world. Whenever you enter a new and exotic city, it is an assault on your senses. Whether you are deafened by blaring traffic or brought up short by neon signage, you will always be able to smell something cooking. These smells are as definitive as the architecture and are thoroughly bound up in any cultural traditions of the area. Sometimes this means there are problems translating the concept across to the rainy island of the UK. Mandy Lin was quick to point out the downsides of the movable feast:
“In my 4 years in the industry, I have noticed that the best street food traders ultimately swap their street food digs for permanent sites. See Meatliquor, Bao, Bleecker Burger, Smokestak, Breddos Tacos. This is probably because the ability to properly innovate at street food markets remains limited. For example, customers at lunch time street food markets generally want a cheaper offering and are not so discerning about the artisan nature of the food on offer i.e. they are willing to sacrifice quality for price. Customers at night time street food markets tend to drink more, and eat less, and so there is greater demand for cheaper mass-market popular items like fried chicken, burgers, pizza or chips even. I myself found that a lot of customers did not want to pay more than £6 for a street food item. This does not leave a lot of margin for the trader, once you've factored in rent/pitch fees, staffing costs and cost of goods.
“Last but not least, generally in street food, you are completely beholden to the weather. If it is freezing cold or raining, it is very likely that you will make a loss that particular day. This risk is negated when trading indoors.”
Can street food make the leap?
Despite citing these drawbacks, Mandy has travelled a long way in the last four years, reaffirming both presence and product as well as their niche on the scene. Having delicately navigated both street food vending and traditional restauranteuring, Mandy can see the style has an incredible versatility:
“My pop up laksa bar is now a proven concept, with Jay Rayner coming in from the Observer to give a very positive review. Being based at a proper indoor kitchen has allowed me to offer a more sophisticated menu, with regularly changing specials, which keeps me excited creatively, and keeps the customers coming back for more. This is why I put the street food arm of my business on hold last autumn to focus 100% on the pop up restaurant.
“Moving to more formal dining means investing more in your team, as customer expectations in terms of service becomes critical to ensure repeat business. But this seems to have been what my customers have always wanted in any case, to have a great experience whilst eating high-quality Malaysian food.
“Being in street food allowed me to build a very special relationship with customers, as I was in contact with them directly at the stalls and also through social media. I have continued to share my stories and engage within them on my journey of growth. I cannot wait to open my restaurant to have a permanent base where my customers old and new can always find me.”
“So in short, depending on a street food trader's particular niche, street food could (and should!) be translated into more formal dining.”