From cheap hot-dogs at car boot sales, to gourmet burritos along South Bank, street food and pop-up restaurants have come a long way over the years. Taking the form of temporary market stalls and wandering café vans, pop-up restaurants offer exotic and traditionally-prepared dishes from around the world.
According to Nicholas Russell, chief executive of We Are Pop Up, the industry is booming, and in the UK alone there are up to 10,000 pop-ups. More people than ever are striking up business in this field, consumers are increasingly indulging in its products, and the UK even hosts an awards ceremony devoted entirely to British Street Food. So what is it that makes this industry so popular?
There’s room for trial and error
More often than not, street food pop-ups are new businesses just starting out, building a brand from scratch. Therefore, the best thing about pop-up/mobile food outlets is precisely that — they are pop-up. They allow for mistakes and trial and error, so if there’s not enough custom in one area, they move on. They allow entrepreneurs to try out new business ideas in a number of locations on a number of customers, meaning that they are able to gauge their popularity and target different audiences before they take the plunge and commit to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Meat Liquor — the chain of hugely successful burger restaurants around south east London — was established this way. Starting out as a £3,000 burger van with a decent sound system, some great burgers and a lively Twitter account, Meat Liquor was able to play the field and round up troops before sprouting into the various successful branches it holds today.
Pop-up restaurants provide an economical solution to the persistent problem of empty shops. With the incredible growth of online shopping in the United Kingdom (which is set to rise by another 17 percent throughout 2014), high business rates and pricey long leases, many shops have been abandoned. In London, around 20 percent of shops are vacant.
…and there is plenty of help
Many entrepreneurs have already caught on to the growing popularity of pop-ups, and have capitalized on the business model. Companies such as We Are Pop Up act as the middle man between landlords looking to rent out their space and people looking for somewhere to temporarily host their pop-up business. They are encouraging the temporary use of these empty spaces to help businesses cement their fan base and business ideas before taking the plunge. Another great option for start-up street food businesses is Boxpark, a quirky pop-up mall based in the heart of East London that leases refurbished shipping containers. New businesses are able to rent a container for a few months to see how their products go down with customers.
It’s the food of Festivals
Once renowned as unsatisfying, greasy and not particularly nourishing, festival food has been transformed, thanks to the growth in popularity of street food. Many festivals now pride themselves on their food as much as the music.
It’s fashionable; therefore we demand it
Customers are often keen to photograph and share pictures of their street food dishes on Instagram and other social media sites. This craze has even coined its own term: foodography. When searched on social media sites, this term returns thousands of food-related photographs. But why post pictures of food? Simple — because street food is trendy. It’s associated with festivals, traveling, and exotic flavors, and makes a cheap and handy alternative to restaurants.
In response to this trend, many pop-ups use the free marketing that foodography provides by offering incentives for customers who “share” their food on social media. The Picture House has taken this even further by becoming the world’s first pay-by-picture pop-up restaurant. Here, diners are given the chance to settle their bill with a hash-tagged Instagram photo.
In our current economy, a relaxed dining experience is appealing to many customers — whether on their lunch break, meeting friends or just grabbing a quick snack. The street food business allows a lot of freedom, both for owners and customers; customers are busy, but they want impressive, delicious food, quickly — and that’s exactly what they get from this industry.
The outcome of the recession has encouraged many to look towards new business ventures, and with its sudden growth in popularity, the street food industry has become a popular choice. One appeal may be the low start up fees, as a street food trader can be set up and turning over profit in a relatively short timescale. According to a study by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, customers are cutting back on restaurant spending, creating demand for a similar experience of gourmet food at a lower price — a niche that pop-up food ventures are capitalising on.
Mobile businesses such as pop-up restaurants have historically faced challenges in accepting card payments, missing out on custom from an increasingly cashless society. New mobile point-of-sale systems (mPOS) allow businesses to take card payments on the go using the cloud as they run from phones and tablets. The first mPOS systems came about in the 2000s, and have since become the perfect asset for anyone in the pop-up restaurant industry.
Square, one of the earliest mPOS systems in the US, has been adopted by brands such as Starbucks and Whole Foods Market. Square consists of a card reader which can be plugged into the audio jack of a phone or tablet, and allows businesses to accept card payments anywhere. The UK has followed suit with Barclaycard being the latest provider to offer an mPOS solution. Similar to Square, their Barclaycard Anywhere device can be plugged into a smartphone or tablet to process payments remotely.
The time is now
It is a fertile time for new businesses, particularly street food and pop-up restaurants. A combination of increasingly favorable trading conditions, lower barriers of entry, and a growing consumer appetite for cheap, independent and responsible food sources are forging an environment that is extremely attractive to entrepreneurs. It remains to be seen whether pop-ups will become a permanent fixture in the UK food industry, or if the business model will be as transient as the stalls themselves. One thing for certain is that the economic state of the country will continue to play a crucial role in the success of these businesses. For as long as people remain thrifty and fascinated with food, street food is sure to continue its growth in popularity.