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Britain's Street Food Scene Is Overrun with Bandwagon Jumpers

When you start working out how many burritos you need to shift to pay for the shiny new Airstream caravan, it’s fucking hard. You’d better hope your food is awesome.

The street food scene is overrun with bandwagon jumpers.

I joined the British street food world halfway through its rise, two years ago, out of frustrations with the shift patterns in restaurant work. I started out with Dough Boys Pizza back in 2013 at [Yorkshire arts and music festival] Beacons Festival, which led to a further two years of festivals and gigs, and a permanent residency in Leeds at the Belgrave Music Hall.

Shortlist put us in their top UK pizza places and we went from selling one thousand slices a week to smashing out one thousand a day at busy times. Our next mission is opening up in Liverpool and we have Manchester lined up for next year. Humans love pizza.

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It's a similar story with our burger brand: loads of festivals, loads of events, then some bricks and mortar action. In 2014 we won the British Street Food Awards with our side project Fu-Schnikens, which serves steamed buns, ramen, and dumplings.

That gig was a real mission, we sold over one thousand buns in two days. We had two of our crew making the buns at five in the morning, then running them up to the front line ready for service. We had extra pork belly braising in two kitchens in different parts of Leeds 'cos our oven was fucked. It was carnage.

Being a street food trader is hard work; the highs are ace and the lows can be shit, especially when you're battling crap weather (like the time we woke up to find half our unit had blown away) or when your staff go out to party after a shift, get smashed, and get lost in a field (true story).

Foodwise, the thing that makes street food great is when you have one thing done really well by someone who knows what they're doing. You don't often get that in a restaurant. I'm thinking of vendors like Manjit's Kitchen in Leeds or Yakumama in Manchester. Their stuff is just stunning and you can tell right away that this is their "thing." No pretence, no bullshit—just excellent food.

Here's the recipe for an instant street food business: Buy some frozen brioche, pre-cooked meat, shit BBQ sauce, and coleslaw; chuck it all together and flog 'em out the back of an old Citroen H van for £5. Call yourself "The Pork Dork." Boom: street food.

Because street food has been butchered so many times by so many people, namely the "brioche warriors." The theory being, if you stick meat in brioche and sell it from a van, that somehow makes it "street food."

Here's the recipe for an instant street food business: Go to [wholesalers] Makro, buy some frozen brioche, pre-cooked meat, shit BBQ sauce, and some frozen coleslaw; chuck it all together and flog 'em out the back of an old Citroen H van for £5. Call yourself "The Pork Dork." Boom: street food.

Could anyone tell the difference between that and the stuff a really good trader like Longhorns Barbecue Smokehouse do? I'd hope so, but if you're fucked up at a festival, maybe not.

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To see chain gastropubs and hotels with a "street food" menus makes me feel queasy. These big corporate fuckers spot a trend and then rinse the shit out of it by delivering a watered down, soulless version. Pulled pork slider wankers. We just have to hope they get bored and move onto fermented seaweed or some kind of Scandinavian trend.

There's no rule book for this stuff and I'm not saying every part of what you sell has to be made from scratch, it just depends on how much love you have for the food you do. If you're going to cut a corner, cut one that doesn't compromise on quality. For Fu's, after making the buns ourselves in the beginning, we now buy them from a great little Chinese bakery. Those guys can smash out thousands so with the amount we shift, we're happy we've found a specialist who nails them consistently and saves us a shit load of time.

Fu-Schnikens-street-food-leeds

Fu-Schniken's steamed buns. Photo courtesy Tom Joy.

Being a street food trader seems to generate quite a romantic image in people's minds. Chef has a lot to answer for. It's a great film but at no point do you see him dealing with a mad rush when staff haven't turned up, or packing down in the rain, or running out of gas halfway through a festival.

People see you trading in a field—in the one day of sunshine we get a year—selling your lovely wares to smiling happy customers. It's enough to convince graphic designers, sales reps, and teachers to quit their day jobs, bash out a business plan, get a nice chunky bank loan, and dive straight into it.

Brave bastards. When you start working out how many burritos you need to shift to pay for the shiny new Airstream caravan, it's fucking hard. You'd better hope your food is awesome.

The moral of the story is to nail whatever it is that you do. Sell substandard shit and you'll flop and your redundant H-van will be on eBay within a year. Know your food, love what you do, and make it the best you can. If you don't, you're fucked.

As told to Kate Feld.