How To Start A Successful Street Food Business
Have you ever dreamed of starting your own street food business? If you’ve watched the film Chef more than three times then the answer to that question is probably a resounding: “yes”. There’s something about pursuing your passion – whether that’s selling cheese toasties on a houseboat or personally delivering pakoras around town on a tandem bicycle – which seems almost impossibly romantic and appeals to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed entrepreneur in all of us.
Starting a successful street food business is, nonetheless, anything but easy. It’s actually almost impossibly hard. The competition is fierce, the overheads are poor, and the hours are brutal. But just because something’s hard, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. There’s plenty of hugely successful street food stalls out there that have given their owners a chance to turn their passion into their profession. There’s even a myriad of restaurants that started off as humble street food stalls and are now experiencing commercial and critical success on an impressive and unprecedented scale. Yes, Pizza Pilgrims, I’m looking at you.
To try and help out any of you budding Jon Favreaus out there, I spoke to some of the most successful street food operators in the scene to find out what their top tip for starting a street food business is. Specifically: how you go about turning a stall at a weekend market into a brick and mortar restaurant? We asked that very question to the people who have done just that.
Here are their top tips on starting (and maintaining) a successful street food business and turning it into an actual restaurant.
James Elliot – founder of Pizza Pilgrims
"It’s all about obsessing about the product. Running a restaurant business has so many different aspects to it from recruitment to finance, marketing to property, etc – the one thing that you can focus on that speaks to every single part of your business is the quality of the product. Without it everything else is redundant. Our passion for pizza and trying to make ours better every day is what has got us out of bed every morning since we started the stall on Berwick street almost 10 years ago now.
From the stall to the bricks and mortar, we’ve learned that pizza is everything, making sure we nail the core pizzas like the margherita but also making sure we are always open to new experiences and challenges."
Lee Johnson and Sinead Campbell – founders of BBQ Dreamz and Bong Bong's
"Our number one tip for starting a street food business is to plan ahead, but not to get too caught up in thinking about it too much and to get out there and do it! We meet so many people who plan plan plan (which is great), but worry so much about things not being perfect that they never actually get out there and start. We truly believe that learning on the job and being open to adapting helps build a stronger brand and product.
For us, the key to opening a bricks and mortar premises is to plan ahead, do your costings, do your P&Ls, and get the very best deal that you can! Having a food business is ALWAYS about the grind, but it's also about being part of a community that supports one another and that you can use as a good soundboard, so get yourself out there and chat with people."
Garrett Fitzgerald – co-founder of Butchies
"Street food is a wonderful scene to be in and full of all kinds of traders, with all kinds of reasons they do what they do. If having a restaurant is your end goal of starting a street food business, you need to allow that to guide every business decision you make from day one. It is never too early to start thinking about what your brand stands for and what kind of people-culture you want in your business. You may need to turn down lucrative festivals and events, for example, so you don’t spread yourself too thin. How well you can schmooze landlords and being in the right place at the right time is not as important as you might think.
The quality of your product and integrity of your brand before opening the restaurant should be your priority, if you are doing it well enough, the rest will eventually take care of itself. Always ask advice from people you respect in the industry, you can save yourself months of bad decisions from one insightful conversation with someone who has done it all before."
Meriel Armitage – founder of Club Mexicana
"Just do it. Stop thinking and start doing. The longer you take, the more chance there is of someone else coming up with ‘your’ idea. Get out there, start practising those cooking skills on strangers! It’s the only way to do it. Done is better than perfect- you can tinker with all the details when you’re up and running!
Create a brand! It’s not just about food anymore. Of course, your food has got to be fab, but so is most of your street food competition. You need to stand out from the crowd. Think of a visual identity that makes your business different from the rest- you can take inspiration from lots of places, but just make sure it’s authentic to you! If you don’t like it, no one else will! Be bold and be different.
Say yes to everything. At the very beginning, you need to test, test, test and test again. Say yes to every market, pop up, birthday party and picnic you’re offered. It’ll be hard but worth it. You need to test cooking your food in all sorts of locations, for all sorts of different people & try to make some money! If you’re not constantly hustling, then you’re not doing it right!"
Mathew Carver – founder of The Cheese Truck, The Cheese Bar, Pick & Cheese, and The Cheese Barge
"I’d say my top tip would be to use street food trading as a testbed for your bricks and mortar dreams. Learn and make your mistakes about food costing, managing staff, suppliers, catering equipment and everything in between while the risks are still fairly low! Because when you start paying rent on a fixed place the mistakes are less forgiving."
Philipp Chaykin – co-founder of Ugly Dumpling
"In my opinion, turning a street food business into a bricks and mortar operation has to primarily start with a concept that can operate as bricks and mortar – many concepts are better off remaining on the street food scene.
If you are certain that a street food concept can work as a bricks and mortar premises, then there are definitely some options.If you are an experienced hospitality operator with a number of connections to people in the industry – whether that’s landlords, agents, fellow restaurateurs – you may be able to find a good opportunity where it won’t cost you a fortune to start a restaurant. If you are a successful street food business and nothing more, it is rather difficult to gain industry insights and experience – so it does come down to the grind. If you wish to skip the ‘grind’ step, then you may be able to find an investor or potentially continue with a careful choice of consultant or mentor who would fill the gaps you will have in terms of industry knowledge and connections."
Z He – co-founder of Bun House, Pleasant Lady, and Wun’s Tea Room
"If you want to open a permanent restaurant, you need to get your numbers right! The expenses of trading on the street are significantly less than those of a brick and mortar site so make sure it is financially viable. Do the maths before you take the plunge and commit to a site that may have a long contract/different amount of foot traffic than what you’re used to.
Another point to consider is the brand perception when moving into a brick and mortar site. Will you serve the exact same product or should it be something different? Many audiences kind of see moving from street to shop as a different concept to them - if the move is not done with clear consideration it might very well turn off your existing crowd!"
Stew Down – co-founder of Black Bear Burger
"Our biggest piece of advice would be two-fold. On the food side of things, focus on flavour and keep things simple – having something that is gimmicky, a fad or just looks good on the gram isn’t going to have any legs. On the business side of things, be resilient – you’re going to have a lot of setbacks, quiet days where you sell nothing, wash-outs, locations that don’t work, times when you’re going to want to pack it all in etc. Power through and learn from it!"
Angelo Sato, founder of Humble Chicken
"I would say a small number of menu items to start with that are quick and easy to make and easy to grab and go. No more than four menu items. Constantly show up. Get in touch with investors and invite them to try your food. Never say no to any opportunity because none are too small. You never know who is going to like your food and who they'll know and who they'll tell. If you have love and belief in your food then it will happen."