It’s Weirdly Difficult to Start a Food Truck Business In Glasgow
Thanks to street trade licensing policy that seems to favour corporate organisations over small-scale vendors, Glasgow’s street food chefs are struggling to make their mark on the city’s food scene.
Photo via Flickr user Bill Roehl
Glasgow has reputation for being on the iconoclastic side. What other city would come to a near standstill when the local council proposed removing a traffic cone from a statue? Or give an affectionate nickname ("the Glasgow kiss") to the less than noble art of head-butting?
But one area in which Glasgow errs towards the ordinary is street food. There are plenty of great boozers but when it comes to creative dishes or new pop-ups, Glasgow lags behind London, Manchester, and the burgeoning street food scenes of cities like Birmingham.
So when Nick Watkins was made redundant after more than a decade working for telecoms giant Telefonica, the self-taught chef spotted a gap in the market. It was the summer of 2014 and Glasgow was set to host the Commonwealth Games. The time had come for Scotland's largest city to join the street food revolution—or so he thought.
"The idea was always to do street food," says Watkins, who runs El Perro Negro burgers, when we meet in Glasgow's vibrant Finneston neighbourhood. But Watkins soon found getting a pitch at the Commonwealth Games far harder than he had imagined.
The powers that be prefer to deal with the large companies that control much of the retail space in the city centre, rather than smaller independent outfits, says Watkins.
"There seems to be a lot of resistance to smaller operators doing things," he explains. "If you operate as a big corporate package, it is much easier for the council to let you in."
As a result, hundreds of thousands of spectators at the Commonwealth Games were forced to endure soggy chips and unimaginative burgers rather than the locally made fare of small-scale food vendors. The same is often true at other times of the year.
The council goes for the least risky option. But it's not like going into IKEA and buying flat pack furniture where you know what you are getting. This is more getting a piece of wood and making it yourself.
"We are the biggest city in Scotland, it is a bit ridiculous that we don't have a street food scene," says Watkins, who now cooks mainly in pop-up restaurants.
Part of the problem is getting a street trading license. According to a Glasgow City Council spokesperson, there is "a clear presumption against issuing street trader licences within the city centre area." The policy "is designed to protect existing, rates-paying businesses" but means that while burger vans outside football grounds find licences relatively easy to come by, chefs looking to start a street food venture face an uphill battle.
Briony Cullin, community manager at Yelp Glasgow, had hoped to set up a street food event in the city but gave up after finding "there were too many hoops to jump through."
In Glasgow, much what you'd recognise as street food—pimped up burgers, Thai noodles, Korean dishes—is not sold on the street.
"There are burger vans but they are not the cool ones," says Callin. "If you are thinking of cool, trendy street food, you are going into bars."
Unlike London, Glasgow has little in the way of the outdoor markets at which street food vendors can really thrive. While there are markets at Christmas and during one-off events like the Merchant City Festival, there are no regular al fresco pitches.
"A lot of people are getting frustrated by the inability to get pitches," says Danny O'Sullivan who runs Kimchi Cult, a Korean street food joint established in London and currently relocating to Glasgow. "There seems to be a lot of spots where you could get a van but as far as I'm aware, a lot of people have applied for trading licences and not got them."
Watch: The MUNCHIES Guide To Scotland
But Glasgow affords opportunities that other, more expensive cities don't. Rather than setting Kimchi Cult up as a street stall or "residency" in an established restaurant (as he did in London), O'Sullivan is able to open a real, bricks-and-mortar restaurant on the edge of Glasgow's fashionable West End. Overheads are low and there's a large student population hungry for fresh options.
"It's like a street food stall but we've got a roof and four walls," O'Sullivan says of his new venture.
Glasgow also affords opportunities that other, more expensive cities don't. Overheads are low and there's a large population hungry for fresh options.
Paul Crawford, the brains behind Glasgow's Street Feastival of "hand-picked street food offerings," says there are other reasons to be cheerful about Glasgow's food scene too.
"Going back five years, it wasn't great in Glasgow. You'd have friends coming up from London and other parts of the world and you'd be like, Oh fuck, where do we go? but it has really changed," he says. "It's ten times better than it was five years ago."
The inaugural Street Feastival took place three years ago in the fabled Barrowlands indoor market east of the city centre. Crawford expected 800 guests over two days. More than 2,500 came. "We were blown away by the demand," he says.
Run by the Scottish web platform KILTR, the Street Feastivals features craft beer producers, alongside what it hopes is the best of Glasgow street food. The council is "supportive" says Crawford but he would like to see a designated street food area established, especially during the (relatively) dry summer months.
Watkins agrees that Glasgow's city planners need to think more creatively about how to foster the development of a street food scene that could do much to revitalise parts of the city struggling to reinvent themselves.
"I think the council should be more willing to sit down with people to do something constructive because it affects areas that have needed redevelopment for a long time," he says. "They won't need to spend a penny. What they have is contacts."
Glasgow's transformation from rusting, post-industrial city to vibrant metropolis has been fêted internationally but the city's approach to regeneration remains wedded to grand architectural projects and city centre shopping arcades. What is needed, says Watkins, is the realisation that small can be beautiful.
"The council goes for the least risky option. But it's not like going into IKEA and buying flat pack furniture where you know what you are getting," he says. "This is more getting a piece of wood and making it yourself."
Many Glaswegians are hoping that the city's would-be street food vendors get more of chance to make it on their streets, too.