The Streetfood revolution and why it STILL matters
Guest blog by The Troll's Pantry
It’s been about a year since I posted the blog titled The Street Food Revolution and Why it Matters. With the move at the end of the month to the Hobgoblin pub, I felt the time was right to speak a little more about the principles of street food and why they have continued to shape how my business develops. The opportunities the street food model brings are something I aim to continue to utilise even after the move to the Hobgoblin.
Street food is about more than a fancy gimmick. While the idea of buying gourmet food from a van that’s traditionally only ever sold cash and carry value burgers is undoubtedly quirky, there’s a whole deeper set of principles that are central to the Street Food movement at play.
Low prices, high quality
In the wake of the horse meat scandal, the need to know our food has been sourced well has become of even greater importance Many restaurants rely on large wholesalers for virtually all of their food, whether its meat, cheese or vegetables and while this does undoubtedly help keep costs down and save time, there is a catch. When our food is distributed in this way it can become increasingly difficult to ensure traceability Is that beef really 100% beef or does it contain something else? It’s passed through so many different hands it only takes one weak link for the whole system to fail. This is precisely what happened with the horse meat scandal.
The greatest benefit of the street food model is the overheads are incredibly low. That means it’s possible to provide the very best local, sustainably sourced ingredients and not charge £10 – £15 for a meal. While many may argue my burgers are expensive, priced between £5 and £9.50, it’s important to keep it in context. If you were to buy a burger at a gastro pub, you’d be paying similar prices, if not more. But free from the constraints of expenses like waiters, heating and business rates, the street food vendor has the opportunity to go all out and buy the finest ingredients in the land. Best of all, this can be served up at a price affordable to the average Jo.
Chef to Customer interaction
In a traditional restaurant setting, actually being able to speak to the chef is a rarity. Often hidden away around the back, sweating buckets in a kitchen the person cooking your food has little connection with the person they are serving. This has two main drawbacks. Firstly, its possible the chef will not care quite as much about the food he/she is serving up. They don’t have to see the disappointed faces of the customers when an inadequate meal is presented to them. While this may be great for the chefs stress levels, it’s not good for the customer. What isn’t good for the customer isn’t great for the business, or the food industry in general.
When the chef is right there in front of the customer there is just no hiding. You have to have clean fingernails. You can’t drop it on the floor and give it a quick wipe because no one will notice. You are being watched constantly and the pressure can get a bit much, but if that’s what it takes to inspire excellence then so be it!
The other great benefit of the street food model is the fact that with this new interaction, it makes the whole experience just that little more personal. You can see the sweat and tears on the face of the person making this food for you. If the passion is there it will shine through for all to see, not just in the way a chef speaks about the food, but in the food itself!
It brings people together
In street food, there are no set tables, no pre booking, no stuffy waiters. It’s a big bunch of people, standing around, excited and happy to be there. This isn’t like the queue at the supermarket checkouts where everyone’s faces look miserable as sin. When you get twenty people or more queuing for some street food, an amazing thing happens. People start talking to each other! One of the problems with the traditional restaurant setting is so many efforts go towards making the experience seem relaxed and personal, but it’s all a charade, none of it feels real. Maybe the people standing around in the rain waiting for a bit of tasty grub are a bit cold and wet, maybe they are cursing the fact they didn’t bring their wellies, but at least they are communicating. I see complete strangers strike up conversation every day, something you never ever see at other locations. Think, how often does it happen at a train station, or on a bus? The casual atmosphere of street food bleeds out into the street and affects everyone involved. It’s almost as if everyone is becoming liberated by the whole experience.
Now you may be wondering, “Why the hell is this guy harping on about the principles of street food, when he’s just sold the whole thing down the river to trade in a pub?”
Well, I shall explain.
The decision to move to a pub was announced a good few months ago. This isn’t something I was prepared to rush headlong into as I needed to make sure whatever happened, that I was able to keep to the principles I just mentioned. Low prices, chef interaction and relaxed atmosphere.
One of the reasons I chose the Hobgoblin was the casual vibe it gives off. I became aware pretty quickly that a traditional restaurant concept was not going to work here. People don’t come to this pub to be seated at a table and order bottles of fine wine. They come here to meet up with mates, down a few pints and have some banter. Coupled with the fact that it has a pretty massive beer garden, the name “Hobgoblin” and the fairly central location, this place seemed pretty much ideal.
So the idea was in place. The tricky thing was how to implement it without sacrificing the street food principles. My first idea was to build a burger shack in the garden. However after looking at the costs involved in building such a thing, I instead opted to serve from a pop up gazebo.
The downside to this is I’m once again limited in terms of power, space and equipment. However, limitations that are one of the principle drivers towards the creativity of street food. It forces the chef to come up with unique solutions to problems which inevitably lead down paths the chef may not have previously discovered.
So therein lay the next problem. I wanted to provide a more varied menu, with fries, chill, burritos and other delights, but a big menu doesn't fit with the street food model. A larger menu means more man power, more time, less freshness and more wastage. All of these negatives inevitably lead to higher prices, especially if everything is prepared from scratch.
So I started to think. Why is it restaurants often have the same menu format day in and day out? Surely nowadays with the powers of social media at our disposal, it must be possible to be more spontaneous and fickle. It was a theory I tested out from the trailer when for a few weeks I made Wednesday a burger free day. Instead I served chili and pulled pork and it went down a storm!. Only one or two customers who turned up left upon realising there were no burgers. People were happy to try something different, even excited by it. The most important thing for many is the fact that the food has all been made with maximum love, from the best ingredients.
The other issue was that I had decided to trade at a new street food market that opens at the end of April called “Street Diner” on Fridays by Queens Road. It’s taken me a year to get to the level of burger perfection you see now and it will take some time to train someone else up to ensure the quality is always consistent. For that reason I've decided that for now, I will always be the person cooking the burgers. Of course, I can’t be in the kitchen every day of the week, lunchtimes and evenings as well as run a business.
So I’ve decided to keep the burgers as a end of the week treat! Until the Street Diner opens, I will be serving the burgers up from a Gazebo on Friday lunchtimes in the beer garden of the Hobgoblin, after which I will be flipping them up on Queens Road. However, do not fear, there will be something equally as awesome coming to the pub Tuesday to Friday lunchtimes. I plan to launch my new Tex Mex menu, with my special smoky chilli (both meat and veggie), triple cooked fries are back, along with a whole new range of burritos! All made using the same locally sourced, quality meat principles I apply to my burgers.
These will be served from the kitchen, but it will be a no frills affair, no plates, no side salad to discard on the floor. Everything is going to be served in biodegradable, sustainably sourced takeaway containers for you to casually enjoy with a pint in the beer garden. For me, the hand to mouth experience is an essential part of street food, so there will be no cutlery barring a wooden fork to eat the chilli. The menu is going to be tight and there will be less choice than at virtually all other restaurants. This once again helps me keep costs down, so I can continue to provide you with the very best ingredients at a price you can afford. No cutting corners!
The Weekend will be all about the burgers. Both Saturday and Sunday I’ll be outside in the Gazebo serving up the burgers you all love and cherish. I’m keeping the format exactly the same. Small menu, cooked to order, queue until it’s in your hands. At the end of the day why change a system that works? Maybe one or two of you long for table service and hate the idea of queuing but I hope now I’ve had a chance to explain my reasoning and you’ll understand that it’s all for the greater good. After all, it’s a quality product that made this business successful. I intend to do everything in my power to keep that quality consistent.
Finally, I hope to see you all on the 31st March for the opening launch of The Troll’s Pantry at the Hobgoblin. We’re both going all out to make this a day to remember, with live music, DJ’s and an amazing atmosphere. It starts at 1pm and will continue on until the early hours.
The event is here;