Landlords are realising that street food can bring a vital ingredient to the shopping and leisure mix.
Prior to our new-found love affair with eating and drinking, shopping centre food courts were often depressing and perfunctory exercises in providing sustenance to shoppers.
However, our increasingly cosmopolitan tastes and the rise of street food are now creating mutual benefits between small operators and big retail landlords.
In recent years street food – usually defined as ready-to-eat finger food or drink sold in a street or other public place – has undergone a revolution.
Not so long ago a British ‘street’ meal might consist of a fried sausage or egg bap from a road side van in a polystyrene carton, washed down with a mug of tea. Cost and convenience were the main motivation in choosing to ‘eat street’. Now, discerning ‘foodies’ have the choice of almost every cuisine imaginable provided by vendors who are passionate about the quality of their product.
It is estimated that globally 2.5 billion people eat street food every day.
While the sector is still relatively small in the UK it is growing fast. Figures from the Nationwide Caterers Association show that the street food industry has doubled in size every year for the past four years, with markets everywhere from Devon to Glasgow.
Richard Johnson, food writer and founder of street food consultancy, British Street Food, says the growth in the sector can be put down to a number of factors, including a desire to get “back to basics” post-credit crunch, and a growing national interest in food. He set up his organisation in 2009 and launched the British Street Food Awards to celebrate the best vendors around the country the following year.
The first awards were low key: Johnson said that in 2010 “we struggled to fill a car park with really good quality vendors”. They now have 3,000 applicants a year.
In recent years street food has undergone a revolution
The early street food markets were deliberately unorganised, with traders using guerrilla marketing tactics to alert customers to their location. London’s Street Feast was a pioneering collective promoting “food raving” with a festival vibe. From this first wave the present day UK street food offer has become more accessible to the mass market with regular events held across the country.
While it has expanded from its underground roots, the concept of ‘food theatre’ is still core to street food’s appeal. Its ability to make locations more vibrant and attract customers has led retail landlords to explore how they can use the sector within their food and beverage offer.
Land Securities was one of the first major landlords to really embrace the sector. In October 2013, the property giant launched Trinity Kitchen on the fourth floor of the Trinity Leeds shopping centre. Emma Lawson, Portfolio Manager at Land Securities explained: “We wanted to respond to the national trend in quality street food. Interest in the traditional foodcourt was waning, and we had the space, skills and means to achieve something special.”
Described by Richard Johnson as a “complete game changer”, the 20,000 sq ft Trinity Kitchen provides customers with a continually evolving street food offer featuring five of the UK’s best street food vans, changing regularly throughout the year. In its first year it served 1.3m customers – an average of 25,000 per week.
Lawson continued: “Trinity Kitchen opened a few months after the centre itself and we were able to see how its addition impacted on the energy levels and traffic at the centre. It has represented food and beverage’s rise up the shopping centre agenda, adding an important vibrancy and excitement to the centre.” Such is the success of Trinity Kitchen that street food is now being used across other Land Securities assets, such as Street Feast in Lewisham.
Dealing with street food operators is not without its challenges for landlords. While vendors all share a passion for food, typically they don’t have a professional background in the sector and lack retail experience. Trinity Kitchen’s Rola Wala is a classic example. Offering a “British spin on India’s biggest street food flavours”, Rola Wala was set up by Australian Mark Wright inspired by his experience travelling in India. He acknowledges his lack of previous retail experience has meant a steep learning curve.
Landlords have to be bold and put in the investment
To make street food work in a traditional retail environment Richard Johnson believes landlords have to be “bold and put in the investment”.
Rola Wala has just opened its first permanent outlet and Mark Wright agrees, saying that Land Securities have “gone out of their way to support what we do and foster us as part of their offer”.
One of the main challenges was how to bring the street food trucks and vans up onto the fourth floor of the centre. Rather than dismantle the vans that are so much a part of the vendor’s visual identity, a scissor lift was used to transport them up the outside of the building.
Land Securities isn’t the only major landlord embracing the street food sector. In October of last year, British Land launched ‘Eats from the Street’: piloting street food in its out of town retail parks. Street food operators offering everything from bowls of noodles to crème bruleé were accompanied by a restored red route master bus offering an unusual dining option.
Commenting on the pilot, Charles Maudsley, Head of Retail for British Land, said: “The new concept brought a fresh culinary experience to the park’s customers and forms part of our strategy to enhance the food and beverage provision across our retail portfolio.”
British Land acknowledges there were challenges. One of the main issues was persuading leading street food operators to come to retail parks, which they did by initially giving free pitches. They also had to work hard to create an atmosphere that would encourage dwell time.
There are some who worry that the involvement of big business in the street food sector will be its downfall, destroying the very authenticity that provided its appeal in the first place. After all, even Kentucky Fried Chicken now runs a street food truck.
Richard Johnson strongly refutes this, arguing that the commercialisation of the sector – enabling indoor dining, seven days a week accessible to the mass market – is essential for vendors looking to make a profit and grow their business.
The Nationwide Caterers Association figures show that three-quarters of traders still operate just one unit. Contrary to what some people fear, the infiltration of the sector by High Street brands has not yet materialised.
It certainly seems that the assimilation of street food into shopping centres will continue unabated. The word on the street is that the developers of Battersea Power Station are considering the creation of a street food market with up to 60 vans on the third floor of the central building.