Chaired by freelance food journalist and former food editor of the Evening Standard Victoria Stewart, the first in a series of KERB Talks on 'The Future of London Food' took place on the evening of 25th October at The Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch. Victoria was joined by an expert panel that consisted of Simon Mitchell, MD of KERB, Zan Kaufmann, founder of Bleecker Burger, Regan Koch, Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London and Tony Solomon, co-founder of Anna Mae's. The panel discussed how the street food craze started, how it beat the trend label, how it became legitimised, and what the future holds for street food. They tackled some of the current issues within the industry and asked questions like: how will traders cope with risings business costs? Is street food is a consequence of gentrification? And do you need to come from a privileged background to start a street food business? This insightful discussion was followed by a Q&A. To watch again, visit www.kerbfood.com/kerb-talks-watch/
Introduced and chaired by Victoria Stewart, the panel began with a general discussion on how street food came to be what it is today. Simon Mitchell, who joined KERB as MD in 2016 following careers as a DJ and in the events and catering industry, noted that it was around 2010 when he first began to notice street food cropping up increasingly around London. The panel credited the sharp rise in popularity of street food to a number of perfectly timed and interconnected elements, nothing more so than the sudden explosion of social media and the global financial squeeze.
For Zan Kaufman, ex-lawyer and founder of Bleecker Burger, it was a result of the recession that people needed new, accessible ways to eat. Tony Solomon, who was inspired to set up his mac 'n' cheese business Anna Mae's in 2010 following a mega 5,000 mile U.S. road-trip, elaborated on Zan's point. Sharing his own personal experience of wanting a new professional outlet but being unable to afford the rising costs of rent for a brick and mortar restaurant.
Street food was by no means a new concept however, according to lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London and collective culture expert Regan Koch. Koch explained how street food has been around under many different guises (such as the humble hot dog stand on any New York street corner) for a long time, and can even be traced as far back as Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Street food has only recently been recognised as a part of the fabric of London, but it is by no means a "fad", argued Solomon. Rather, its adaptability, affordability, accessibility and quality mean that it's here to stay. In the words of Mitchell, "the latest street food movement is exactly that - a movement. It's changing the way people eat and socialise". Just look at the long lines of fast-paced city workers queuing up to eat at KERB's Canary Wharf market every Friday, and it's hard to argue otherwise!
Not only is the street food movement changing the way people consider dining. According to Koch, "street food has become the new heart - it can inject culture into an area, and bring with it investment, regeneration and progress". Street food markets have often been accused of being complicit in the process of gentrification, explained the panel, but the reality is far different from the perception. The enthusiasm of the traders is what drives success, not money. According to Kaufman, there are times "where we wondered how we'd pay rent". The whole panel urged up-and-coming street food traders to get into the business for the experience of meeting people. Mitchell closed the subject by saying how street food markets are increasingly "bringing business into dead areas, and surely that can only be a good thing?".
Looking ahead to the future, the panel discussed whether the "street" elements of street food - the vans, trucks and pop-up stalls - will be replaced by more undercover and permanent structures such as KERB's Camden Market. For Kaufman, KERB's markets provided Bleecker with a support system that was integral to its success. She explained how food courts are ultimately the best thing for operators, traders and customers alike: there are lots of resources pumped into them; traders have a permanent place where they don't need to remove their equipment at the end of the day and can build a team around; and customers have constant access to the best food in London.
For Mitchell and KERB, the on-the-street and pop-up elements remain as integral as their permanent home in Camden however. As their traders grow and legitimise, new opportunities for entry level traders arise, and the next generation are born. Street food is an ecosystem, and as sad as it is for KERB to wave goodbye to traders like Bleecker and Anna Mae's as they grow more and more, it's very exciting to see new traders come through their inKERBator program.
The future of street food is undoubtedly bright, concluded the panel, but traders and markets such as KERB must remain adaptable, innovative and passionate about the food they are serving in order to keep up with the constant changes happening around us not only in London but also worldwide. As the street food movement continues to gain momentum, existing and successful traders must now look to nurture the next generation of street food in much the same way as KERB continues to do.