Street food is booming. And not just in London, but across the whole country. As its popularity has grown so has its reach into the mass market. The term ‘street food’ can now be found in supermarket aisles and on packaged products. Whilst you may not get much change from a tenner these days, the quality and playfulness of the dishes matches many of the top restaurants out there. As for the design, it’s equally as imaginative. Street food offers chefs and vendors more freedom and adventure. It’s more energetic. Quite often this results in a more minimalist approach to menus, with many vendors serving up only a couple of dishes. The focus is certainly on quality, not quantity. This focus carries through into design, which plays a really important role in street food. With so many vendors often squeezed in to rows next to each other, good design can give you a clear advantage. It’s testament to how far street food has come, that over the last year or so, many restaurateurs cite street food vendors as their inspiration. I caught up with three different operators - each with very different success stories - but all showcase how well-considered design helps them present their product.
Sub Cult | Ben Chancellor
As a resident of south east London, most weekends I’m lulled towards the smells of Brockley Market, and whilst the Spit and Roast is a favourite, it’s the Sub Cult guys that stand out in the college car park. They combine a black and white van – dubbed the ‘Sub roller’ with slick American-inspired graphics to create an instantly appealing stall. I caught up with co-founder Ben Chancellor to fnd out more.
Where did the idea for your street food truck come from? Was it a homemade customisation?
The van is a reflection of Sub Cult. It’s retrospective yet timeless, a bit rough around the edges but hopefully sharp to the admirer. It was always the intention to approach this whole venture with the essence of the brand dovetailing with the food. Sub Cult is a play on words, obviously we do subs as best we can but we don’t sacrifice goats under a full moon to Baal! Youth sub cultures fascinate me. This little island has been responsible for the overwhelmingly majority centred on music and style. I can’t keep it up at my age though or I’d be in danger of having a ‘Mod’ life crisis. My business partner Gareth was a raver in the 90’s, actually we met at one 17 years ago. He met his wife at one too, staggered over her as the story goes! Thems’ were the days.
How did you decide on the name and look? Did you work closely with a designer?
The name and approach came to me in the bath actually. American hot sandwiches were already on the mind and Gareth had been complementing it too. At the time I was bopping around a lot in fleets of 60’s Italian scooters and dancing to soul with mates dressed up to the nines. I wanted to tie that way of life in and Sub Cult sat well for us. Grime is the sub culture of present times, it’s a fascinating truly subterranean one in origin. As they always are. You could say London street food is, or certainly was in some capacity actually, not fully fathomed in the mainstream. It’s in full swing now though.
Do you think street vendors need a different type of identity to a physical restaurant?
That’s a great question. Yes and no. There’s a culture for it in the game, an undercurrent, but brand value is relative and product dependent to an extent. We’re seeing some great new brands out there and good traders with strong products now investing time and money in rebranding. It really does depend what your end goal is. I think those doing the fun casual finger food have more incentive to harness their brand from the offset as there’s a lot of us, which is great for the food industry. Whether the brand plays a part in setting outfits apart is subjective, it’s about the food primarily.
Lastly, what advice would you give from a design and branding perspective for a newcomer street food vendor?
I’ve been asked this before and everyone’s different so I’d say work with intuitive people you admire and are in tune with, like my friend and designer Tom of Plastic Crayons and to begin with what you love, have fun with your imagination and work back from there, pruning back till all your ducks line up. In essence be your own worst critic and spend more time in the bath.
Frankie Goes To BollyWood | Monty Bhurjee
Whilst strictly not a food stall, Frankie Goes to Bollywood took the influence of street food as a kick-start for their promotional soft launch, before launching their street food in a permanent location. Their food is described as Bombay-style street food built around British classics. Their weird sense of humour is also perfectly captured in the design identity, if there’s one reason to visit it’s for the genius chicken wing packaging. I spoke with owner Monty Bhurjee about his inspiration.
You started life as a food truck before setting up a permanent spot this year. How important was the design and branding in that process?
We didn’t actually start out as street food traders, we did a promotional soft launch at Winter Wonderland in a truck before opening our doors in Deptford. Nonetheless the design and branding played a vital part in catching the eye of passers-by and conveying the message of the brand. It sets us apart from others in the food scene and will define us going forward.
It seems like you guys had a lot of fun with the menu. How did you want this to come across in the design? Did you work closely with a designer?
I’ve worked with designer Lauren Archer for many years and she played an integral part in curating Frankie Goes to Bollywood. We work well together and she totally gets my unusual sense of humour.
Did you notice any differences in what you needed for a truck and what you needed for a restaurant?
Fitting out a truck and fitting out a diner are completely different beasts. A diner’s work is never done. You can do your best to relay the identity of the brand in the aesthetics of a truck but ultimately the full experience translates in bricks and mortar.
The Indian Colonel was a stroke of genius - where did this come from?
The colonel was my wacky idea. A little controversial but something that makes people laugh out loud. We wanted to have tandoori fried chicken on the menu - TFC. No brainer.
MEATliquor (MEATwagon) | Yianni Papoutsis
I spoke with Yianni Papoutsis, co-Founder and creative director of MEATliquor, one of the most successful street food-to-restaurant stories out there. MEATliquor began life as a humble meat wagon (it was an old American ambulance) that pulled into car parks across south east London, but they have now gone on to own nine restaurants across the UK, with a site in King’s Cross opening shortly. Design and art is a big part of their restaurant interiors, and taking in to account their original wagon, they certainly have a keen eye for good design.
You guys were right at the start of the London street food revolution - how has it changed since then?
Back in the nascent days of the current street food trend, it was very ad-hoc. It’s evolved to become very mainstream with a huge number of operators centred around semi-permanent street food markets rather than in car parks and industrial estates.
Design and creativity is a large part of your restaurants - was it something you’d always been interested in?
Scott’s (Collins, co-founder) pubs always had a great aesthetic and I have history of working within the arts, specifically in ballet and opera production. So the visual side has always been important to both of us.
It’s been noted that you’ve worked with lots of designers and artists through the years - how do you go about selecting them?
We’ve worked with Shed Design and I Love Dust for all our sites. Each site is different and we’ve always approached each one separately and on its own merits. We’re often inspired and influenced by the history of the local area or the building itself. Additionally we’ve worked with numerous graffiti artists, including Inkie who curated the art in our Bristol site.
Lastly, from a creative point of view, what advice would you give to startup street food vendors?
Initially, it’s important to focus all your creative energy on the product itself. Don’t even begin to think about branding, t-shirts or a cool van until you’ve got your core product nailed.
James Wood @designedbyjaw
James Wood is co-owner of creative agency ShopTalk London. shoptalklondon.com