How to run a successful street food event, with advice from The Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) and the lessons learned from it’s own Digbeth Dining Club
In 2013, NCASS was tasked by the EU with creating a training course to help entrepreneurs get started in street food. It recognised that there was a knowledge gap for start-ups and that as the trade association for street food traders we were not a bad place to start.
Back in the early days of the street food trend (from 2009) very few market managers, local authorities or landlords knew what street food was. Who were these bohemians in rickety old vans claiming to produce restaurant quality food, who wanted places on markets and roving street food pitches? Councils didn’t understand it and didn’t want it. From their perspective, it was more work for no reward. In fairness, we didn’t know how to communicate effectively with them. A lot has changed since then, but it has been a learning process. Hopefully this guide will help event organisers avoid some of those issues.
The problem of places to trade persists; every new and successful event has bred more budding traders and more street food fanatics, with their bellies and smartphones at the ready. Street food events have been proven to work in urban centres as well as towns and even villages in countryside locations such as Frome, Codsall and Tiverton. The industry has the potential to continue to grow, but it needs more events and more markets.
Setting up an event
Street food events tend to be set up either by promoters or by traders themselves, and a background in putting on and selling events can certainly be an advantage. However, with the right attitude, some nous and hard work you too could become a street food promoter.
It’s a job, and if you get it right you can earn a living from it, but it should also be a passion, because things won’t always go right and it may take some time to build into something that people want to attend and traders want to work at.
Finding a venue
Location can be key for a successful event but finding the right one can be tricky. Your options are either to work with your local council or a private landlord. Often, private landlords are more commercially focused and the decision making process involves less stakeholders, making private land a preferable option for many events and markets. However, there are issues that you will need to bear in mind when looking to work on private land.
Is the property licensed? Some properties are licensed for certain activities such as providing food, playing music and selling alcohol. If you want to offer any of these services at your event, working on a licensed premises can be helpful.
Speaking to property managers and commercial estate agents may prove valuable too. Your council may let you use their land under a special markets licence. Street food is far more established these days so less explaining what the event is all about will be required; it will be more about demonstrating what you can do with the space and why you’re the right person for the job.
Licences and markets
If your location/venue is not licensed for the activities you want to put on, you will need to discuss the event with your local council to ensure you have the necessary paperwork in place. For events with up to 500 attendees at any one time (including staff), you can request a Temporary Events Notice (TEN) from your local council. The number of TENs you can apply for per year and per premises are limited, as is the length of time the event can go on for (length of your TEN). If a TEN is not appropriate, your local council is likely to have different types of licence for a specific event. Each council determines its own street trading, events licensing and market strategy, so it’s worth talking to all of these different departments about what you want to do.
Bigger events may require a Safety Advisory Group (SAG) where you present your event to numerous council departments and they advise you on whether your plans are safe. Going through a SAG unprepared could severely damage your chances and your reputation so make sure you have everything thought out and written down in an event manual. The purple guide will be your closest companion here (www.thepurpleguide.co.uk).
If you can find a venue licensed for events, food, alcohol and music, then you’re off to a good start. Remember, you’re asking council staff (who are likely to be overworked and under paid) to increase their workload without obvious reward, so be friendly, professional and prepared for their questions. Their concerns are likely to be different to your initial priorities. Will restaurants or bars be affected? Will the event generate waste that litters the area? Will it be safe and will it cause the council problems? You need to consider the council’s concerns and do what you can to accommodate. Private landowners will also have these concerns but at least they will make a profit if it goes well.
Many market towns and cities in the UK have a Royal Market Charter in place. These charters were given as a form of patronage by kings to feudal lords hundreds of years ago. The world famous bullring market in the Midlands is one such site, where the monarch of the day gave land and the right to hold markets to a Baron ‘De Birmingham’ which is where the name of the city came from.
Market charters were essentially monopolies given to individuals and they are still in place, although they are usually now owned by the local authority. This means that you cannot put on a market within a certain radius of the chartered market without the permission of the charter owner. If your event or market competes with the offering of the chartered market your application may be rejected.
Keeping everyone safe
The purple guide is the health and safety bible for outdoor events and as such should be one of your first purchases. It’s an e-book that gets updated regularly and is produced by the Events Industry Forum. NCASS produces the food section and this should be your starting point. To keep your customers, staff and traders safe you’ll need to assess health and safety risks, fire risks and escapes, and much more.
The two biggest risks with street food are fire safety (especially from unsuitable equipment and gas appliances) and food poisoning. There have been a couple of fires and explosions in the past few years, mostly due to traders not being aware of the risks, especially around marquees and gazebos. Make sure all traders have gas rigs. Gas Safe, the industry body, is due to adopt our proposals for gas rigs and safety in time for spring 2017 (COP24 of GSIUR), which should put an end to unsafe practices, but there are too many traders using unsuitable or unsafe set ups. Insist on a gas rig and commercial grade equipment; if you see camping gear and rubber hosing, then you’re taking unnecessary risks.
Cross contamination is one of the biggest food safety risks, and if traders can’t wash their hands effectively they could poison your customers. Do not let anyone trade at your event without suitable hand washing facilities. It’s the law. A Thermos flask and a bucket is not sufficient. Never forget, your customers can see the food being prepared, so they can see if the chef doesn’t or can’t wash their hands. Bad press spreads like wildfire, and killing customers is bad for business. Don’t take the risk.
Finding and managing caterers
The easiest way to find caterers is to send out a job request for local traders via the NCASS Connect system; it’s free to use and the traders all have assured paperwork (you’ll need to request, assess and hold on to paperwork for all traders). We have 4,000 members nationwide who’ll be happy to help you out.
Never duplicate food offerings as you’ll upset both traders and halve their takings, and always aim for all traders to sell around 100 covers minimum. New traders may struggle to sell more than that anyway as they’re still learning their trade and streamlining processes. Experienced traders can deliver more than 300 portions. Anything less than 80 covers and they’re probably losing money.
For these reasons, many start up events charge a small deposit and a percentage (usually 15% of takings). This means the risk is shared and keeps the traders on side. If they’re not making money, then neither are you, but that should motivate both parties to promote the event. Remember, you’re building an event together. The better you get on and the clearer the goal, the more likely you are to succeed.
Street food alliances
In 2015 we began our second EU supported project, this time to help bridge the gap between traders, organisers, councils and business. Street Food for Regions will deliver a free toolkit to help you set up your own events, whether you’re a private promoter, landowner or local council. It will be published for free online along with other resources and case studies.
We’re developing a regional alliance in Birmingham to bring together council staff, organisers, traders and stakeholders to work together, expand the industry, create more markets and events, and help successful businesses make the leap to restaurants. Details of this project along with parallel projects in four other EU countries will be held on the Street Food For Regions website.
If you’d like to form a street food alliance or join one, give us a call and we can help you to get started. 0121 603 2524 / www.ncass.org.uk
Digbeth Dining Club
In the summer of 2012, NCASS got the opportunity to found a street food event in a car park behind a bar in one of the less salubrious areas of Birmingham’s inner city. This event, Digbeth Dining Club, run by a local promoter and supported by NCASS, operates under a special markets licence with pitch fees paid to the council each month. It went on to win best event in the country twice at the British Street Food Awards and now operates across four venues with more than 50 traders on its books. By the time it was winning awards, we’d stepped back to allow the promoters to grow the business themselves.
However, apart from the opening weekend, which was a sell-out, Digbeth Dining Club struggled for the first six months. We even considered closing it. We started at the end of the summer and then worked straight into the coldest winter experienced for years. We had no heating, limited lighting and limited cover competing with the behemoth that was the Birmingham German Market. At one point we were down to two traders per week and they were still losing money.
We thought the scene would grow organically, people would find out about it and want to come. We were wrong on both counts. When the snow melted and the sun returned in the spring we re-opened and sold out, and that began a period of three years of steady growth. But the relaunch had been preceded by three months of frantic marketing and promotion. Advertising on social media, flyering at the university, posters in shops and activating networks of friends. By the skin of our teeth we made it.
- Overnight success is unlikely
- Winter is hard
- Promotion is essential
- Belief is necessary
- Traders can’t afford to lose money regularly
About the Author
Mark Laurie is the director at the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS), the only trade association and primary authority for mobile caterers and street food sellers in the UK. The NCASS mission is to provide traders with all the information, systems and support they need for a profitable, safe and legal business. From start-ups to fully-fledged mobile ventures, NCASS offers support and materials to help caterers at any stage of business. Currently looking after 3,500 UK catering businesses, NCASS continues to grow year on year as a result of its care for and support to the catering and events industry.