5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Own Street Food Business.

Here are 5 of the things that would have been extremely useful to know before taking the leap into the fantastic world of street food! Everyone’s experiences differ in all walks of life, but here are my lessons I learnt when becoming a mobile caterer.

First let me start by saying, being a food vendor isn’t a stroll in the park, but I’ve had an amazing time setting up and running my own wood fired pizza stall in Bristol, UK.

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· FINDING PITCHES

Before I started my own street food enterprise, I worked for one. This gave me experience with the hands-on aspect of running a stall, from setting up, cooking food to taking money and giving change. It was easy to fall into the familiar trap of “I could do this; how hard could it be?”

When I started my pizza company my first question was “how to find a pitch?”. It was actually quite demoralising in the beginning as I was used to the hustle and bustle of Bristol city centre with the smell of curry and burgers blowing in the morning breeze. I, for love nor money couldn’t find a pitch for my stall. There are thousands of traders and hundreds of competing pizza companies (perhaps that was my first mistake) and this didn’t quite hit me until I was ready to compete.

There was no simple way of finding pitches or booking one through the council as there was so much competition. We decided to do private bookings and went on to do the odd wedding and function party. Our funds were quickly running out with high commissions charged by landowners such as the caravan park and we were hardly staying afloat. We got very lucky and found a pitch outside a pub in Bristol and we crafted a great relationship together and the rest is history.

This isn’t the case for most traders; we were very lucky with our situation so researching pitches in your area, or places which would be great for a pitch is paramount before diving in. Also, check out competition, it isn’t necessarily a good thing that there aren’t any street food vans in your area, there may be a reason, so tread carefully.

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· GETTING BOOKINGS

I was trying to get bookings for anything in the early days, from parties, weddings, to corporate functions and festivals. There are a few lessons I learnt in this field; one being the fact that everyone wants something for nothing. You see a lot of posts on social media of suppliers moaning about clients who don’t appreciate the value of their wares and I finally got it. Try to set prices based on what others are doing. This in itself is another issue, i.e. competition drives prices down low. Stick to your guns the best you can, and never go below your minimum, unless you have a specific reason (exposure, deal, future bookings etc).

Marketing is a huge part for this. Luckily, we didn’t have to delve too deep into this aspect as we were lucky enough to partner with a bar which were ever so good in this department. Make sure you have your business cards, reviews, social media active and a smile on your face to get those precious bookings instead of the traders waiting in the wings.

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· ACCOUNTING

In the beginning, I was told by a retired accountant of sorts (off the clock) to “focus on making the best food you possibly can, and the rest will fall into place”. I followed this far too literally, simply keeping my receipts and invoices, focussing on selling pizza. I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay on top of your books from day one. It makes life so much easier when tax time comes, and also means the accountant won’t shout at you for being useless.

Another issue with not keeping your accounting up to date and proper means we had no idea of how much money we were actually making in our first year (woefully little). This is a very scary position to be in. You have the hundreds of pounds worth of notes in the money belt, but that doesn’t mean anything if your spending is equally hefty.

Although it does add costs, I would truly recommend getting an accountant; All the jargons and tricky accounting talk really did knock me for 6, besides you don’t have time for that, you’re out selling street food to the masses!

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· DOCUMENTS AND LEGALITIES

It wasn’t as similar to the ‘good old days’ as I quite imagined (and hoped) when I was starting my company. Gone are the days when you could cook some delicious cookies and decide to sell them on the street to passing customers. You have public liability, insurance, employer’s liability, product liability, a hygiene rating and street trading licenses amongst other documents to get….and pay for.

All of the hoops you have to jump through before even entertaining the idea of setting up at a market or show could come as a surprise, especially to your wallet. There is no better feeling though when you know you’re completely covered for any unexpected and rare circumstance and you will soon forget about the costs when you’re actually making money.

Hygiene ratings are the strangest things I had ever come across. If you think your stall is clean…clean it again. The intensities of which inspectors survey your premise varies with region and the individual. Our first hygiene inspector decided to penalise us for making food outside which is unusual as I am pretty sure I have seen 5’s on other street food stands. We also got penalised for the cleaning diary. This is by far the strangest thing to me throughout the ordeal of my first hygiene rating. You can have a brand-new set up, with brand new appliances which have been cleaned repeatedly by the housekeepers of the savoy hotel, but unless you have written it in your diary, it didn’t happen.

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· TIME AND EFFORT

I said before, “I could do this; how hard could it be?”, and how naïve I was. It’s easy to turn up at 10am, sell a few portions and go home at 4pm. It’s easy to buy stock when you don’t have to worry about accounting and it’s easier to arrive to a fully set up street food stall and go home with the crowds of satisfied lunchtime punters.

When I started my company, I was flying blind into possibly the most difficult part of being a street food trader; That is the simple fact that work doesn’t stop when your customers do. The cleaning, the accounting, visiting the bank, buying ingredients, driving, packing up and down, late nights and earlier mornings really does take its toll on the ill prepared (such as myself).

It definitely took a while to get into the new routine and the workload and it’s not something for the faint of heart. If I didn’t love the hustle and bustle of being a street trader, it would have seemed more of a nightmare as opposed to the dream I came to realise it to be.

The majority of the subjects above won’t apply or worry well prepared, experienced individuals who have knowledge of the industry. I guess the main takeaway is to research, analyse and plan to the highest possible level to avoid the pitfalls I fell straight into. I love street food, and if you do too, it could be the best decision you make. Join the street food revolution, become your own boss and have fun whilst doing it; Life doesn’t get much better than that.

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Cameron King

Wood fired pizza stall owner/operator and co-founder of Stroodie, an events catering and supplier booking platform. www.stroodie.com