Many of our Mission Kitchen members are street food stars and market traders, so we recently invited our friends at KERB to shed some light on how to make it big in the street food world.
We were thrilled to be joined by Rupert (co-founder of Dos Mas Tacos), Lily (founder of STAKEHAUS) and Charlie (the Head of Food at KERB) at our most recent Founders Q&A.
Read on for a few words of wisdom Rupert, Lily and Charlie had for aspiring street food businesses everywhere:
What are your top tips for just getting started?
- Go and work on other stalls to get a real feel for market trading.
- Make your business look legit quickly – think photos, good stall front, make it clean and tidy
- In your early 20s? This is the time to take more of a risk! You can figure it out along the way.
How do I go about choosing what to make?
- Lily: It must be something you like! And it must be missing from the usual street food offering. I asked my dad what he wanted from a street food market and couldn’t get, and it was steak and chips. So I went with that!
- Rupert: We did multiple tastings with family and friends and asked people what they wanted. We loved Mexican food and wanted to bring our take on it to London.
- Charlie: It was to work operationally. By that I mean your product should require straightforward prep and be able to be served quickly. Think about how your customer will eat the product – your food must be easy to hold with one hand and eat with another, or it just won’t work.
And how do I go about marketing my business?
- Charlie: Menu design is crucial. There should be only 2-3 items max, with a couple of sides. Only include short descriptions. You can tell your customer about the origin/inspiration of the dish as they wait. Don’t put it on the menu.
- Charlie: Be careful with the name you pick. It needs to be simple and memorable. Think long term too – the wrong name might limit your growth
- Lily: on the top of your stall, put what you sell and not your business name, as this is what people see first. You can put your logo at the bottom
- Rupert: Make your team look smart with cool t-shirts/aprons. Don’t worry about your website much. Social media is more important.
I’ve got my product sorted and have started selling. How do you go about finding new gigs? How do I get into KERB?! What do you think about residencies?
- Lily: a good shop front is essential. You’ll find that people start enquiring about weddings etc. Residencies are a easy way to get started, as the venue usually provides the kitchen, plates etc.
- Rupert: In terms of residencies, don’t let the venue force you into anything you aren’t comfortable with or what will make you lose money. Agree on a % revenue as the fee (say 20%), in case it is quiet.
- Charlie: Be persistent. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. But remember, there is a right way to ask. It feels unnatural to be persistent, but don’t be discouraged by a no. What grabs my attention is when someone asks “what can I do better?” and “can you help?”. And if you want to get into KERB? There are two questions the team ask ourselves: “is the food good?” and “can we work with this person long term?”. Oh, we also look on their social channels.
What’s does a street food trader’s work/life balance look like?
- LiIy: I don’t have a work life balance – and I’m ok with that! I love my job and you make friends on the market and are involved with lots of fun things by default, though it is still technically work. You need to manage your expectations and be organised to figure out your own timetable. Every week is different. My downtime will be a Tuesday morning, and I’ll go get my nails done!
- Rupert: define for yourself what it is you want from the business. If you want to build a lasting brand, work will inevitably be harder. If you want to do an occasional market and remain on a single stall, work will be easier.
- Charlie: take every moment, every time you can, to rest and recharge
On that note, street food is a seasonal business - how do you plan for these changes?
- Lily: I sometimes feel an anxiety if there is no future work in the calendar. A lot of work is last minute and you just can’t plan. Some traders I know book into next years events as soon as the current one is over, but this is quite an intense approach to take. Over planning is a real thing. There have been instances I’ve said yes to an event three months in advance, then something better (i.e. more money) came up later. I had to make a call whether to cancel or not. And if you do cancel, be careful who you let down. You may be blacklisted by some organisers.
- Rupert: It is impossible to plan exactly. Track your previous sales figures for solid data. When planning for quantities for events, think about what you’d be happy to sell, and if you sell out, so be it.
- Charlie: Be agile with how you deliver your menu and the equipment you use. People will go inside in winter, that’s a fact. So think about how you can make your food multiple ways with different sets of equipment. It will open up more opportunities for you in the colder months.
How should I hire people?
- Rupert: Unless you can guarantee them work and have a 7 day a week business, it is best to start with a zero-hours contract and not with a full-time one. We currently have 14 people on FT payroll but that’s because we operate 7 days a week. Refer to the agreements you have with trading sites, and if there is a possibility they could give you 2 weeks notice to cease trading, your employment contracts should reflect that. Plan for the worse thing to happen so you don’t get into a messy legal place.
- Lily: To grow your business and to be able to step away from the business once in a while, you need to hire people you trust. That comes with time. A person needs to feel empowered to do their job and you need to let go. When sussing someone out, organise a trial shift and probation period. They need to be good, but you also need to get on with them. I’ve learned how to be a manager along the way and my team have grown with me.
- Charlie: fresh eyes can be great for your business. Make a staff handbook with fool-proof recipe guides.
Founder Q&As are monthly events hosted at Mission Kitchen, where we invite some of the leading founders in the UK food scene to share their war stories and words of advice with an audience our members and other food and drink entrepreneurs. If you would like to attend our next one, follow Mission Kitchen on Instagram to learn about all our upcoming events.