The public's penchant for street food has left contract caterers adding niche specialist cuisines themselves or bringing street vendors in to their own service offer. Nick Martindale reports.
12 December 2016 | Nick Martindale
The UK's food scene is constantly evolving, as new restaurants open and cooking styles come in and out of fashion.
But one trend that almost everyone living in or near a major city would have noticed is the growing proliferation of street food; vendors selling niche dishes or products outside, whether in a dedicated market or eating area or, as the name suggests, on the street itself.
It is, inevitably, something established contract caterers have picked up on - it was voted the number one trend over the past three years in the BHA Food Service Management Report 2016 - and tried to include in their own offerings.
"It seems to be a nationwide phenomenon," says Chris Ince, executive head chef at Servest. "We've seen a big resurgence in the demand for Caribbean and Mexican food, with things like burritos, fajitas and rice dishes proving very popular.
"Something else in demand is Moroccan cuisine. Tagine, couscous and lemony flavours are all tastes that the British public love and seek out." Korean barbecue cuisine is also very much in vogue at the moment, he adds, as are pickled products. Indeed, Korean food has also come from nowhere to become a cuisine offered by many street food vendors.
In general, consumers and office users have become much more sophisticated in their palette and their knowledge of food. And while millennials in particular have become the most comfortable with the idea, it's increasingly common to see older executives queuing for 25 minutes to eat street food out of their hands.
Many employers are keen to see such offerings in their buildings, as they seek to stand out from competitors and keep people in the building. "They are constantly looking for a new edge and what is going to make them different to their peer group and remove the potential for menu fatigue from a standard corporate staff restaurant," says Mike Coldicott, director at food consultancy Tricon. "Inevitably, they're looking to the high street for example and direction and then they start trying to replicate that."
Contract caterers and food providers have so far tried various approaches to respond to the pressure to offer some form of street food themselves. Simon Esner, director of BaxterStorey, says his company has three main strategies, including developing ideas such as Quirky Bird, consisting of chicken on a brioche bun, and Hound Dog, featuring hot dogs from around the world.
"We've got our development chefs who come up with the ideas, many of which are gleaned by walking around street vendors, and bring it back into our own way of doing things," he says. The business also brings vendors working for street food umbrella firms into its own location, after conducting the appropriate due diligence.
"They're effectively a mini-management agent for various independent street food operators, and we will through them bring some of their vendors into our location," he says. "They would bring their tariffs, their marketing and their way of doing things, and there would be a concession payment which would come back to the main account."
A final option is to bring in former street vendors who are now running their own shops, such as Hummus Bros, which has a number of outlets throughout London.
Contractors are also experimenting with developing their own versions of street food, as well as bringing in vendors. They cite the need to encourage creativity and provide an outlet for their own chefs who want to try new areas and different nationalities and types of food.
Others have resisted the temptation to bring in street vendors. "We're not trying to recreate food carts in our workplace restaurants," says Alistair Day, executive chef at Bennett Hay. "These belong to street markets, where street food is best experienced with its distinctive community feel." Instead, the business has sought to include elements of hot ethnic finger food into its weekly offering, as well as into its "Authentic" week-long special offerings.
OCS also looks to recreate the street food experience through its in-house teams, although it doesn't rule out the possibility of partnering with street food providers in future. "We have looked at this for specific tenders recently," says Paul Cowie, head of catering. "But it would be important for us to be able to offer the vendor some certainty over tenure, while also ensuring that the offer doesn't become stale for the customer."
The reality, says Simon Biggs, chair of BIFM's catering and hospitality Special Interest Group, and a senior partner at Litmus Partnership, is that it can be very difficult for organisations to bring in people from the street.
One reason is that this is precisely where many vendors want to be, and they tend not to see themselves as people who would work in-house for a contract caterer.
"A lot of street food operators do it because they like being street food operators," he says. "They tend to be very entrepreneurial and they can manage it in their own way, and they like being where they are. It doesn't fit the model to forge relationships with a caterer where they're going to have to get into very complex sort of arrangements."
These are likely to involve close scrutiny of both the credentials of the operator, and the provenance of the food being sold; something of which Esner is also very much aware. "That's why we've created our own in-brand street food, because we wanted to ensure the robust food safety and health and safety practices that we have adopted since the inception of our business," he says. "When we bring in an external vendor in, we do a very detailed due diligence on them."
There are practical concerns, too. Coldicott points out that many street vendors will have limited supply and once food has sold out will often pack up and disappear. "There's an element of temporary about it, which is part of the appeal, but that's no good if you're trying to feed thousands of employees on-site, because there is an expectation by them that the food offering is consistent all the way through the working day," he says.
He also gives the example of a vendor who was brought in by a large organisation to sell tiffin curry, which proved so popular that huge amounts of food that had been prepared for the other counters was wasted.
"Because of the nature of the contractual arrangement the Indian operator made top dollar and, although there was a token payment to the operator, because they didn't make any sales across the rest of the operation they made a loss," he says. "So it's all well and good bringing in these specialist elements but it has to sit comfortably within the financial arrangements of the overall contract to work, otherwise you're killing off your own service."
Coldicott believes contract caterers have a role in bringing together all of the different elements to help it work commercially while addressing concerns over provenance. "We're working with one operator where they're providing the due diligence and experience in managing large-scale volume delivery and even some of the core menu elements," he says. "But then they have these feature offers where they engage with external street food operators on short-term tenures for three or six months." Longer term, this could change the role of contract caterers or see new providers encroach on their territory on the back of a street food proposition.
Hygiene and fads
All this assumes, however, that the current trend towards street food continues, and does not itself fall victim to another new fad. For now, the market is robust, with people prepared to pay high prices. But that may change if food inflation increases, forcing vendors to raise prices further as consumer spending becomes tighter.
And perhaps the bigger issue with the whole concept of street food - at least for those trading on the street itself - could be concerns over safety standards and just what they are being served. At some point, workers queuing up for street food might start thinking that while they've been happy to pay extra for an authentic street food experience, they haven't seen any solid evidence, for example, of those serving them washing their hands.
Councils are trying to keep control of this problem, but some contractors doubt that there is sufficient robustness from councils in addressing it effectively. The real difficulty comes when street vendors credentials aren't what they say they are, that for example they aren't, as advertised, selling free range chicken or using prime cuts of meat in their products.
Employers, too, might have similar concerns about bringing in vendors without the extra level of scrutiny from an established contract caterer, says Coldicott. "Clients love the idea - this great guy they have seen at Borough Market - but as soon as you try and measure that against their corporate due diligence requirements there's a bit of a mismatch. The philosophy of contracting out is they're de-risking the catering service, so why would they create something that's high-risk, particularly when the corporate operator takes 50 per cent of the culpability should there be any issues? They might not be so keen once they understand what's required to bring in a series of unknown pop-ups."