Street markets are as old as time; having taken on many forms over the years and now freshly prepared and cooked street food is playing its part too – helping to revolutionise markets some areas while giving fresh produce traders a run for their money in others. With street food growing in popularity and shopping habits changing, Produce Business UK takes a walk around a couple of street markets to uncover what’s on offer and assess how traditional fruit and veg vendors can maintain their appeal
From Edinburgh’s answer to “foodie heaven” at Stockbridge Market, which sees street food vendors take on a different theme each month, to Wilmslow Artisan Market in Cheshire, where seasonal fresh farm produce meets “authentic street food” across 100 plus stalls, the UK’s street markets are hot on the trail of what started out in the US as the ‘food truck craze’.
More than a sprinkling of street food vendors can now be found on UK street markets serving the usual fresh food retail offerings and sometimes accentuating the offer, while other times appearing to be nothing more than distracting, depending on who you talk to.
According to UN-FAO statistics, street food is eaten by some 2.5 billion people around the world. In the UK, StreetFood.org.uk currently has 2,800 members with more than 7,000 units serving food throughout the UK at regular markets and more sporadic festivals. The appeal has gotten so popular that in 2010 an awards night was created, called the British Street Food Awards.
With some street food vendors, particularly in London, being run by third-party organisers, like Street Feast, the popularity of this artisan takeaway finger-style food from stalls or carts has never been so on trend. It’s also an inspiring movement for all involved; offering so much more in the way of opportunities for farming businesses, suppliers and chefs.
What people want
“Street food as a trend is certainly growing, although it’s still not at the same level as in New York,” street food vendor Charlie Morse tells Produce Business UK. “I think it will die off a little as a trend and then become a normal, everyday offer. A lot of office workers go to street food stalls to buy their lunch and eat something healthy, cheap and different. There are so many trends within food but it works when you consider that people are money conscious and like variety. Fresh veg salads are one of the best ways to mix up menus when you don’t have the scope or budget.”
Keen to set up his own food business, Morse opened his street food stall, Rad Roots, in April at the end of the traditional Berwick Street market and under the umbrella of independent traders Street Food Union. The budding chef describes Rad Roots is a healthy take on street food for the fitness-conscious thanks to its offer of protein- and plant-based heavy wraps.
“Salad can be seen as dull, but I have taken Persian and Mediterranean influences to make my salads really filling and tasty,” says Morse, who had a raw root veg salad with celeriac, swede, capers and dried cranberries plus a butternut squash, green bean and chilli flakes offering on the menu in the week PBUK visited.
“I make weekly changes but, obviously, I’m limited as a one-man-band. Also, our food styles and choices have to be approved by Street Food Union. It’s fair enough as I wouldn’t want another wrap company setting up, but it does limit you on choice. That’s why a fresh supply of different fruit and veg is essential. It gives you a bit of freedom.”
Morse sources the majority of his fruits and vegetables from Western International wholesale market in London, where he says he can find pretty much anything. “You have to get in early and it’s full of characters. I like the experience, although I have to call in my order now as I end up chatting all day.”
Tough times for traditional traders
Further up Berwick Market away from the street food vendors, the story is not so rosy. An hour into the Friday morning 9am opening time and only half the street was set up. The Covent Garden Supply stall was open, as it has been for the last 30 years, where ‘Minty’, who mans the outlet, bemoans that the “life is going out” of the 18th century street market, not least because of street food vendors.
“There are no real big shoppers around here anymore because there are fewer residential homes and more office workers,” shares Minty, who says around 20% of his custom now comes from chefs working at Soho restaurants who need to top-up when they run out.
“All the office lot come out for their lunches,” Minty continues. “People ask for stuff and we’ll order it if we don’t have it. We have a vast array of products but it's mostly people coming to sit down to eat food at one end of the market who pick up a few items on their way. Sometimes street food stalls pop up around this end of the market too, but it’s very ad hoc.”
A trader on a pound-a-bowl stall, who preferred not to be named, goes as far as to say that the market is “dead”, apart from the street food. “People don’t even want bowls anymore because they’re too heavy to carry,” he laments. “My regulars buy fruit for the office each morning, but it’s difficult to make a living. The council keeps digging up the roads and they never give us any compensation, then they put the rent up. I have made £10 in two hours today and in three years’ time, this building [opposite] will be a hotel. I can’t start juicing because I need a separate license. It’s all the same on the fruit side.”
Next door, chef Musfaf Taskan’s runs his stall, Med Food, selling salad boxes packed full of fresh produce – from tomatoes and beetroot, carrots and chickpeas, red cabbage and herbs. “I like it here because I have my regulars who look for healthy fruit and vegetable lunches, but I can also keep changing my menu,” says Taskan, who claims to serve more than 200 people a day at times. “People go for the cheapest, most convenient option – but it’s got to taste good and be prepared daily.”
Thinking outside of the box
Heading south of the river [Thames] to Borough Market and there the wholesale market seems to have struck just the right balance, with traders learning from each other. Garfield Bloomfield has been working for fruit and vegetable trader Turnips at Borough Market for eight years and he says business is ticking along nicely; boosted especially during the summer when its juice offer is added to the side of the stall.
Turnips has sold up to 10 different juices everyday for the past five years, introducing a mulled juice option in the winter. From just being a wholesale merchant 15 years ago the business has evolved into to an essential pit-stop on the London foodie list – not just for tourists, but also food professionals, budding cooks and adventurous homemakers.
Now, the team is in the process of setting up a street food offer of its own. By Christmas you can expect to buy freshly prepared exotic or foraged mushrooms on toast and soups from a stall within the Turnips’ unit.
“In the summertime, juices account for about 20-30% of our sales,” explains Bloomfield, who was managing around eight floor staff on the busy Friday afternoon that PBUK popped by. “Every so often there is a special event with street food, but stalls have joined the market and stallholders have diversified and pretty much started to sell street food themselves. The fish guys [at Furness Fish & Game] have really done it well, for example.
“It used to be better in the fruit and veg game, but you’ve got to keep thinking outside of the box. So, is that the future? Yes, we could do with more customers and the rent is high, which might make people think we’re expensive, but we offer what people want.”
It seems that is precisely the secret to success for street market vendors – ensuring that what you offer continues to remain in line with your customers’ requirements and expectations whatever the year.