How to start a street food business
Mobile catering is experiencing an explosion in the UK – could this low-cost start-up be for you?
Key things to think about when starting a street food business are:
What is a street food business and who is it suited to?
No longer the preserve of low-quality hotdog vendors, British street food is becoming big business, and there’s arguably never been a better time to enter the market.
With the industry growing at 20% year-on-year, new traders have been attracted by the country’s growing number of urban street markets, private events and street food festivals, which all present new selling opportunities. This has coincided with the less easy to quantify (but no less important) rise in “foodie” culture, with the British public increasingly amenable to new taste experiences and quality cuisine.
Unlike many other businesses, you can start a street food business for a very modest outlay indeed, scaling your offering as demand grows. Despite being unpredictable and competitive, the growth of the industry also means a new start-up can quickly generate hype and establish a profitable niche.
A street trading business can take many forms – from a full-time stall on a permanent market to a roving food truck attending festivals and specialist events. Generally, a street food business will trade outdoors or in an area with other food traders, using portable facilities, and will be able to serve customers their food quickly (although this isn’t always the case).
Street food businesses are particularly prevalent in city centres with established food markets, such as London and Manchester, and at outdoor festivals and other events during the summer months. Many businesses also ply their trade to guests at private events, sometimes for a fixed fee.
It may be worth considering seeing if you can get a Start Up Loan (external partner site, link opens in a new tab) to help you with financing, and mentoring to start this business idea. You'll also need to think about registering your business, either as a sole trader or as a company - if a company, then Smarta Formations (external partner site, link opens in a new tab) are an organisation that can help you set up.
This wide definition means there are myriad approaches you can take to street food, with your start-up costs, earning potential, and level of risk varying considerably as a result.
In spite of this broadness, does street food in general suit a particular kind of person? Jonathan “Ozzie” Oswald, founder of hip-hop inspired fish and chip truck The Hip Hop Chip Shop, seems to think so. “It suits nutters, basically!” he asserts. “It’s crucial to stand out, so if your personality stands out then your business will stand out. You also need to be a certain type of person to take on the risk of starting a street food business.”
If you don’t have a background in the catering or hospitality industry, it needn’t hold you back; many successful mobile catering businesses were founded by people with no prior experience of serving food. “We had absolutely nothing to do with food, apart from enjoying cooking and eating it,” explains Radhika Mohendas, co-founder of Dorset-based street food dumpling business Dorshi. “The lack of formal training hasn’t held us back – in fact, it has probably helped us focus on the creativity and creation of our own dishes.”
Indeed, flexibility is one of the most crucial attributes of a successful street food trader; it is not unusual to completely change your offering when something doesn’t sit right with customers, and you need to be comfortable in doing so. Atholl Milton is founder of Bunnychow, a street food start-up offering unique twists on a traditional South African bread and curry dish. He advises street food hopefuls that they “can’t be precious” about their food – you need to be willing to pivot at a moment’s notice. “So many people are arrogant and think they’ve got it right first time, never listening to any of the feedback they get,” Milton says. “I would say your flexibility is the single most important factor affecting the success of your business.”
As a mobile food business, you will normally be one of a number of options available for your target customer, so your branding and marketing activity will be crucial to success. Therefore, whilst a background in catering isn’t crucial, it is certainly advisable to have some kind of marketing expertise on board. “People with a background in marketing, branding or business tend to do well, because they know it’s really about selling a lifestyle and putting it forward,” explains Radhika Mohendas. “Sometimes you find the people who make a lot of money are the ones who look great, rather than the businesses which have the best food.”
As you will see from our section on costs, a street food business can be an extraordinarily lean start-up, and it is perfectly feasible to start trading with an initial investment of just a few hundred pounds. However, it can also be extremely risky due to the volatile nature of the food industry, and all the traders we spoke to said unexpectedly losing money on a big event is seen as part and parcel of the business. “We’ve had shocker events where we’ve lost loads of money – sometimes it just doesn’t work,” explains Jonathan Oswald. “It could be down to lots of different things – other traders, footfall, or bad weather. You will learn a lot of things the hard way.”
It’s also not a business which offers a particularly appealing work-life balance – the hours can be long, and unless you are lucky enough to have substantial investment available you will normally be juggling your new venture with your day job. “It’s very hours and commitment heavy,” admits Atholl Milton. “At one point, I was up at 4.30 every morning to get the bread ready, then I would drive the truck all day, following which I would go to my mate’s restaurant to prepare the food for the next day. Your work-life balance is non-existent.”
However, if you are passionate about good food and start with a well thought-out plan (and a healthy dose of pragmatism), there is every chance you could make a roaring success of your street food start-up. Read on to find out how.
Ready to get started? Find out everything you need to know about how to start your own business here.