Walking to work yesterday I was surprised to discover a shiny new Pret a Manger food outlet preparing to launch about two blocks away from our office at Midori House. As a booming business, entrepreneurial success and constantly evolving brand, Pret certainly deserves our respect. However, this will be the fifth Pret stacked up in Marylebone – three of which are on the same street. Like London buses, you know if you miss one you’re sure to catch another very soon.
The antidote to this growing homogenisation is what was witnessed on the other side of London over the weekend at the third Feast festival in Wapping. It’s booming in popularity and over 8,000 visitors purchased £8 tickets to enter an upmarket street-food celebration, with 35 of the most exciting young food entrepreneurs in London taking part. Pizza Pilgrims, Rita’s Bar & Dining, Patty & Bun, Big Apple Hot Dogs and Bone Daddies Ramen were all there manning stalls and selling a couple of signature items from their menus to a ravenously devoted crowd.
Only a year since they launched, Feast organisers aren’t surprised at the growing popularity of and interest in food brands doing something different, many of whom are still serving their wares in street vans around the city.
The team behind Kerb, who organise weekday London street-food markets in Moorgate, King’s Cross and Spitalfields, have also noticed a spike in popularity. More and more patrons are happily queuing in their lunch hours for a mouthful of buttermilk-fried chicken tacos, kimchi cheese fries or rib-meat rolls from one of Kerb’s 50 traders.
Petra Barran, founder of Kerb, says London street-food markets are unique, not because they’re new but because of the trading roots that are special to London. “Our markets have remained largely intact because of the way the city is configured and the way licensing was organised in the 1920s with the original barrow boys,” she says.
While there are plenty of fantastic existing street-food markets such as Borough, Broadway and Maltby Street, what’s interesting about Kerb is that it’s aimed directly at busy Londoners as a daily food option, not just for stomach-led visitors on a weekend jaunt.
It’s heartening to see a groundswell of city dwellers who will occasionally sidestep the ease and convenience of a place such as Pret to experience something a little out of the ordinary – and they’re willing to travel, line up in the rain and snow, and spend money. For a city that once maintained the bipolar options of special-occasion dining versus chains or your local caff, London is heading towards a head-to-tail variety of everyday eating options with the widest possible range of culinary influences and settings.
Tom Olroyd, group head chef for Polpo Ltd and Mishkin’s stall worker at Feast, says, “People want accessibility and honesty at the moment and that’s exactly what street food is.” Does he believe this is yet another trend, that in time will pass? “No. Affordable, fun dining is here forever.”
Emily Smith is Monocle’s PR and events manager.