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Man Vs Street Food

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How hard is it to start, and maintain, a street food business? Jonathan Pile tries to stand the heat (and torrential rain) in a busy burger truck...

There’s something wrong with the meat. The fat content is so high, the second the burger hits the grill it liquefies, leaking out to cover the metal in a slick layer of hot, clear fluid. It means the patties are cooking too quickly – from raw to medium-rare in two minutes rather than three. It still tastes amazing, but before we’re ready, the round of meat is done. But not all the buns are, and the fries are even further behind. In cooking, timing is key. And we’re off.

The final buns come off the toaster just in time for the final patties to be lifted off the grill. They’re decorated with sauce and the meat is quickly transferred to the bread. As the fat is cleaned from the grill, the fries are dished up and the orders are called “Number 23, double with fries...” “Number 24, two blue burgers with angry fries…” until the last burger is handed out.

And then it begins again: “Eight orders, 11 patties – I need eight buns, six portions of regular fries and two of sweet potato…” It’s midday. We’re 15 minutes into service.

Street food explosion

It’s a well-trodden cliché now to state that the UK has undergone a street food renaissance in recent years. A cliché that’s usually served up with reminiscing about how burgers from vans always used to be a risky proposition, which is presented as an enlightening insight (as though this is the first conversation ever about street food), before branching off into one-upmanship over who knows the most obscure vendor. “Oh, but surely you must have had the spicy Sri Lankan lamprey waffles from Kochchi Miris?” Commence beard twiddling…

But it’s true. Britain’s – and specifically London’s – street food scene has never been healthier (figuratively speaking). It even has its own backlash, courtesy of commentators who want nice linen and a comfy chair while they eat, as though there isn’t room for both. Presumably they also think all music is too loud. When Street Feast started hosting events at Dalston Yard in the summer of 2012 it had eight pitches and a pool of 12 traders, which grew to 20 by the end of that year. Two years later, it has more than 60 on its books that it rotates across three sites. The colloquial term is “an explosion”.

And the perception is that it’s an easy shortcut to the elusive goals of wealth and, even more unattainable, job satisfaction. Take the brothers behind Pizza Pilgrims who (as you’ll surely have seen recounted in a ShortList feature last month) went on a road trip across Italy to learn about pizza before returning to London to trade out of a refurbished Piaggio Ape. They’ve just opened their second restaurant.

Spurred on by their success, and the apparent success of many others, I decide to do it. Not ‘do it’ as in quit my job and invest thousands of pounds in a former US Army ambulance (as fried chicken purveyor Mother Clucker uses). That would be madness. But ‘do it’ as in go to work for one of them, run the service at Wilderness Festival and work out if it really is a path to riches. Then maybe ‘do it’ for real.

I choose to try it with Bleecker St Burger. It’s a simple decision – of all the different types of street food, burgers are the most ubiquitous. So much so that last year, through Mr Hyde (ShortList’s sibling’s daily email, which I edit), I launched National Burger Day, the second of which is coming up again on 27 August. And I like its product, which helps. It’s better than having to lie about my fondness for lamprey waffles.

Zan Kaufman, who owns the business, could be a case study for the archetypal street food vendor. Previously a corporate lawyer in New York, she quit in 2010 to flip burgers in a US restaurant, knowing she’d set up her own business here in 2012. We agree my first shift will be an easy Tuesday lunchtime session at the newly established Bishopsgate Market, which is yet to gain the fame (and therefore footfall) of somewhere like the Friday spot at the Gherkin. The ultimate goal: to learn the trade and create Bleecker St Burger’s one-off special for the Mr Hyde National Burger Day street food event at Battersea Power Station on 27 August.

I want to make a good impression on my first day, so of course I’m late – no wonder Bishopsgate doesn’t have the footfall, it seems almost impossible to find, especially with Google Maps insistent that I should be heading to Old Spitalfields market. When I finally find the place (which, irritatingly, turns out to be on the main road) I’m immediately set to work making the individual patties – dividing the meat into 4oz balls. If you get one dead on four ounces (between 3.9 and 4.1oz is acceptable) it’s called an eyeball, so it becomes something of a game – trying to get it as close as possible. Hey, no one said it was a good game.

Then, that completed, the balls are placed between two plastic chopping boards and squashed to size using a cookie spatula – the height of the boards helping to keep the patties uniform. Next, we cook a tester. The speed a burger cooks at depends on a whole host of factors including – as I discovered – the fat content, so Zan revises the timings and opens for business.

Easy money

Hot oil spits, steam billows and a sheen of sweat coats my skin. Not particularly comfortable compared to my usual working conditions – there’s no chair with a lumber support, for example. Or any kind of chair.

But that I expected. What I didn’t expect was the searing pain in my left hand, received from the hot oil dripping on me as I inexpertly transfer the chips out of the fryer. I just have to let it rest on my hand until the task is done – the only other option being to drop the fries on the floor of the van. It’s the first round of my first service – and first impressions count. I am not dropping the fries.

Blistered hands aside, everything else at my station runs smoothly. And that’s one of the things that really strikes me. I have a station. I had assumed it would be something of a free-for-all, with people flitting around, doing things as they needed to be done, as and when they occurred. In hindsight, this is patently ridiculous. The van runs with the precision of a proper kitchen. Because that’s what it is. Everyone has their station. It wouldn’t work any other way.

During the same day, Zan receives a call – an offer for a private event for a three-grand fee. She turns it down flat. Later, as we relax over an end-of-service beer with the guys from fellow traders Spit & Roast, I ask her why.

“I didn’t get into this to make lots of money. If I wanted that I could still be a lawyer. And I like public events better than private ones. I always prefer to be face to face with customers who are choosing to eat our food rather than VIPs at a pre-paid event.”

Which seems fair enough. But Bleecker St Burger is established, successful and in the enviable position of being able to turn events like that down. Things have gone well for Zan – in fact, she’s just about to open her first restaurant in Old Spitalfields Market. But what of the traders just starting out – the ones who’ve seen what’s possible, and want a piece of the action?

Dan Warrillow runs Hot Skillet. Whereas I’ve written this expecting you to be familiar with most of the names mentioned, Hot Skillet is the exception. Although that’s not a comment on the quality of its excellent homemade US-style biscuits. Launched properly in February, it’s not at outdoor food collective Kerb or Street Feast and has so far been confined to the likes of Harringay Market – life is not always easy for a newcomer to London’s street food scene.

“I’ve applied to all these markets, but most of the time you don’t even get replies,” Dan tells me. “And setting up is a lot more expensive than you’d expect – I’ve probably spent about £12,000 to get everything in place. I didn’t even buy a van – I bought a gazebo because it was cheaper.”

For most people, Dan included, that type of investment isn’t easily written off – he has to make a go of it. And that’s where getting the prime spots are important: “You do events where you’re told you’ll need 300 portions, so you invest all this money in preparing for that, but if it happens to be quiet you don’t get your money back. It’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I did an event yesterday where it started raining, so everybody left. I’m about to do a medieval festival in Ruislip. There’ll be jousting. I just need to get into a proper market as soon as possible. People think they want to do it, but I’m a trained chef. They assume they can just turn up with no experience and people will buy their food and they’ll go home with lots of money. It’s just not like that.”

Into the Wilderness

And so, to Wilderness Festival. It’s different to a normal street food plot, where everyone respects the rules of lunchtime and dinnertime. It’s constant from opening in the morning until switching off the grill in the early hours. And there are thunderstorms.

Trudging through the mud and rain to the van on the final day, Nick – Zan’s right-hand man – is already in full flow. “First job – stop it raining on me.” Who said there was no glamour in street food?

The rain water has worked its way through the vents above the fryer and is rapidly soaking Nick as he attempts to cook. We attempt to plug the gaps, however temporarily, as the orders continue to come in. Not that it helps – the wind whips up and the rain starts to come in sideways through the open door and serving hatch. It still doesn’t stop people ordering, though. Those who’ve come to shelter under what little protection the van offers are making the most of their proximity.

As the storm clouds temporarily pass, Nick announces he can’t do it any more. We’d closed after 3am and he’d been there since first thing – it’s day three, and he’s falling asleep at the grill. He’s going for a swim in the on-site lake in an attempt to wake himself up so he can get through the afternoon and evening. Returning after a swim, a shower and two negronis, he has news – two of the traders were broken into in the night, losing £17,000 and £21,000 each. Which is obviously gut-wrenching, but… £21,000? From three days trading? Sure, that’s minus the cost of the spot and the food, but still. No wonder Zan was OK turning down that private function.

And that’s the thing – it is highly skilled and there is a huge outlay to begin with, but if you do establish yourself then there is serious money to be made. Big if.

And, despite my journey proving that I can hold my own in the Bleecker St kitchen, you won’t see me joining the gold rush. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Britain doesn’t need more burger vans. Nor does it need anyone doing ribs, pulled pork or pizza.

But as Adam Layton, organiser of Street Feast, is keen to stress, a street food market is like a menu – find the dish nobody else is doing, do it well, and you’ll have success. And if you do it from a repurposed VW surfer van (BOB’s Lobster) or a Hawker Hurricane (no one yet – you can have that idea for free), all the better. Just remember that blue roll isn’t great for plugging leaky roofs. And that the odd oil burn is inevitable.

Mr Hyde National Burger Day is on 27 August, when burger restaurants across the UK will offer 20 per cent off; http://nationalburgerday.co.uk/ #NationalBurgerDay

[Images: Chris Brock, James Butterworth, Jonathan Pile]

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