The word on the street
18 December, 2011
Complacency is something established players cannot afford.
Despite the economic pain across the nation, the eating-out market is going through one of its most innovative and creative periods, epitomised by the blossoming of the street food phenomenon, particularly in London. Or perhaps it is exactly because times are tight, that entrepreneurs are finding new ways of feeding and entertaining the public, writes Peter Martin
People are not giving up on eating out, but they are more discerning. They want a bargain, but they want quality too. They want convenience, informality, not to say a little bit of excitement and from time-to-time something new to enliven their tastebuds.
In turbulent times, there is always a temptation to batten down the hatches. Some operators tried that, but as the storm has persisted that simply won’t do anymore. The realisation across the market is that this is how it is and we had better get used to it – and get out there and compete, before someone else takes our business.
And fleeter footed entrepreneurs often have the edge in such circumstances. As the Economist noted back in 2008: “One reason why downturns tend to be good times to launch new businesses is because established companies abandon growth opportunities too fast” – and there’s no shortage of new entrants now, especially down at street level.
Food trucks, pop-ups and simple market stalls are serving up everything from hot dogs, burritos and pizzas to kimchee, Jalfrezi burgers, bahn mi and barbecue ribs. It may be mainly a London trend at the moment, but as street food champion, broadcaster and journalist Richard Johnson so eloquently pointed out at last month's Peach 2020 conference, street food is much more than that, with the winner of this year’s street food awards being a fish and seafood operation trading across South Wales.
Street food is catching the vibe with students, office workers and young, metropolitan professionals in gen-eral, exactly the people that eat out-of-home most. It may be no coincidence that two of most popular street food centres in the capital are Shoreditch and Whitecross Street market, situated either side of Old Street roundabout – better known as Silicon Roundabout, the heart of London’s hip-and-trendy hi-tech business community.
But as in all fast-moving markets, there’s always something new around the corner, and it came on the first weekend of December in the shape of Box Park, Britain’s first pop-up shopping mall built on waste ground in Shoreditch.
The mall is built from recycled and refurbished 300 square-feet shipping containers, each housing a different retailer, with brands including Calvin Klein, Lacoste, Nike and The North Face. Food and drink operators in on the act included Crussh, Chop’d, Mexway, Foxcroft & Ginger and Pieminster. See www.boxpark.co.uk
As one food industry veteran observed: “It’s a great example of the exciting stuff we will see developed during hard times”.
And as another added more pointedly: “High street casual dining is no more. It’s looking more 20th century everyday.” Complacency is something established players cannot afford.
That particular operator-turned-investor sees pop-ups transforming into semi-permanent operations, taking short leases, before moving on and doing it again. We’re already seeing food truck operators in the States going into bricks and mortar, but the peripatetic life might be a more interesting one?
Exciting times indeed, which will make some feel uncomfortable and challenged – and we haven’t even mentioned the burgeoning big-scale buffet restaurant phenomenon yet. But competition and creativity is what the market, at its best, is all about.
This article was first published in the Peach Report magazine for December 2011. To susbcribe email email@example.com