Mobile and Outside Catering
We discuss the developments in the world of catering
“Independence, nomadic freedom, the variety of places and customers is mind-blowingly fun and interesting” says Henry Kemp, Founder of Lovabite.
Street food is as old as civilisation and means bringing great and affordable food to the people. But is life on the road right for everyone? “I would recommend anyone looking to start almost any food business to get psychiatric help or failing that, try mobile catering first” says Geoff Dixon from Saucy Fries. He continues: “Mobile catering offers you the opportunity of paid sampling, market research and trial, so that you can adjust your menu and pricing then get feedback that you cannot get away with as much in a fixed location. It is also an environment where there will be a lot of invaluable trade banter and help from other food sellers, when you are all numb from the cold and the rain going sideways, that you cannot get in a fixed location with a closed door. You will find what sort of customer likes your product, so will have a better idea where a land based unit should be based on that. You will also know what size place you can get away with. Your margins will be obvious too so you know what land based unit you can afford – if any. By then you will know many of the pitfalls and the economies that can make the more expensive fixed unit more cost effective. Obviously set up costs are a fraction for mobile units, therefore lower risk and you are only signing up to a day, not a ten year lease.”
“Mobile catering setups are becoming an increasingly popular provision for caterers around the country” says Ian Harbinson Product Marketing Manager at Burco Commercial. “Offering operators the opportunity to generate a greater income during the warmer summer months and put on special events for key occasions throughout the year, ensuring the food and beverage provision is undertaken correctly is vital to making the most of this opportunity.”
For Olly Kohn, Co-founder of The Jolly Hog, standards in the market are high and customers know what they want. He explains: “Consumer’s expectations have really risen in the past few years. They are looking for an experience. Many demand restaurant standard food – even when they’re in the field! You can’t assume just because it’s not plated up nicely it should look less appealing or taste any different.”
“The flavour trend is … choice of flavour” says Geoff Dixon. “Street food got trendy, so apart from traditional vans on industrial estates and laybys, venues with a number of street food outlets tend to have new start-ups mingled in with the white vans, offering a great variety of tasty foods and flexing their culinary muscles. They serve a great variety of flavours of food from around the world to whet any appetite. But people still love the standard burgers too!”
We asked Henry Kemp more about what the people are looking for. “Latest flavour trends still seem to be dominated by burgers, curries, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Korean options. I wish I could say local sustainable British sourced food was in the top three, because that’s what we do! This category is the driver of UK farmers markets and it is at odds with street food in the UK. We are a farmer’s market street food company, which is kind of on an uphill fight to get custom, especially as higher quality ingredients require a higher price point. Those that get what we are doing, love it. But many just make a beeline for a burger.”
He adds: “Streetfood has advantages over fixed premises in terms of alternative offerings. To even hope to get a place at a market/event you need a differentiated offering. That can be a curse as much as a panacea though. Rigid lines between hot food, soups, and drinks can limit diversification. A different problem is for instance when offering food which is not accepted as healthy by many due to fashion. We do cheese toasties with real sourdough bread and artisan cheese, highly nutritious and unprocessed. But we often hear – ‘oh that got to be so many calories, I couldn’t’ - half an hour later they will be eating junk food. We believe in educating people about good food, but only worth it if they are ready to listen.”
“All staff need to go through the hygiene training and take it seriously whatever food they are doing” says Geoff Dixon. “Not only is it a requirement but you need to have the confidence that you are not going to make anyone ill. You can scupper your reputation far too easily as well. A spotless clean unit and professionalism inspires confidence and increases sales. Every potential mobile location will want to see your insurance cover, so always have it with you or be prepared to be sent back home after getting up at 5am. You also need to train staff not to need the loo for at least 10 hours.”
Henry Kemp reiterates the importance of taking hygiene seriously. “It’s a question of customer safety above all. It’s useful to imagine the strictest health inspector visiting daily. We need to be ahead of the game on safety. Also, we use gas. Gas safety training and vigilance is therefore essential. Using electricity shouldn’t be taken for granted either. It’s not just plug in and go, especially outside with electricity. You need to consider moisture, trip hazards and charge build up. For instance, many people don’t know that leaving a cable coiled up makes an electro-magnet that can get so hot it melts the cable!”
How to add value
As with any business, adapting to change is vital for survival. Geoff Dixon gives some advice on how to add value. “Be the best at whatever food you are doing. Research, research, research. There will probably be great food of your type being done elsewhere in the world, with a fantastic slant you have not thought of. Go on more courses if you need to. Get decent signage. Don’t buy a tent that is going to blow away in the first gust of wind. Develop a good brand name that everyone knows and loves so it has value. Get a logo. Turn up regularly for your regular customers. Look at how you can save money without cutting corners, so your business shows a healthy profit. Try to have a unique slant and play to it.”
It may be time to get out those old math’s books, according to Henry Kemp. “With metrics you can see what the customer wants and comes back for without guessing” he says. “Do the numbers. I mean crunch the heck out of them. We traders need to know markup, margin and the difference for every serving. Cash flow is king, so you can’t live in the land of the blind. Do cash flow projections religiously. Being an independent mobile trader is no different to any other business. You need to manage everything just as a huge multinational corporation does - maybe even more precisely and ethically. It’s a riskier startup business! The saving grace is as a sole trader, accounts are simple compared to limited companies.”
Olly Kohn tells us how consistency is key: “Our main aim is to create a food destination that people want to visit again and again, because it delivers quality food and a fun, lively experience. Building atmosphere is key to making sure we achieve a high dwell time. We do this by adding elements of food theatre like carving a hog and music with our opera singing chef.”
As with any new venture, choosing the right equipment can make or break your business. Geoff Dixon gives us his advice: “We chose a route needing the least equipment possible. Nobody is keen on stinky, noisy generators in a relaxed food environment. So we opted for LPG and a small battery to power the sink pump. Luckily our only packaging is a cone that folds flat so takes little space. But again research is key. See what is out there, go on food trade forums and ask people who have been doing the same as yours the best kit and the pitfalls. Does the pilot light blow out every five minutes? Does the water get hot enough? Does the ice cream melt?”
With so much equipment available to mobile caterers, it may take some trial and error. Henry Kemp explains: “Equipment, is the source of so much joy and pain! When starting out say we buy a rice steamer, a ban-marie, whatever, and we think we are sorted. The thing is equipment is never just right for our needs first time out. So the costs of equipment are very dangerous to fledgling startups cash flow. You buy some equipment - but you should factor on the cost four times over: once for getting it wrong, twice for maintenance/servicing & certifying, thrice for repair, forth for replacement. Equipment is super critical because it affects you peak performance capacity. Mobile trading is variable. When you do get big queues you need to be primed to turn over covers fast enough. If your equipment is wrong, your process has no chance. This is everything to success - other than quality safety and marketing of course.”
We asked Sam Walker, Business Development Manager at Biopac to talk us through the packaging options. “Mobile and outside caterers face increasing environmental challenges, as customers now expect sustainably sourced food and drink. Biopac’s range of biodegradable packaging helps meet this expectation. Making your entire product more environmentally friendly, further demonstrating your commitment to protecting the environment.
“One of our most popular products with mobile and outside caterers are trays. An open food tray is perfect for customers eating on the go. We have a variety of different options, all of which are very kind to the environment.
• Card Trays – These are made from an FSC approved virgin material. Ideal for quick serve street food. Fully compostable, and stronger than recycled board.
• Sugarcane Trays – These are also compostable and stronger than the card trays so perfect for heavier foods. The key feature of these, compared to the non-environmentally friendly equivalent – polystyrene – is that they eliminate sweating, so no soggy chips or oily residue.
• Palm Trays – Fully sustainable and compostable, these are made from individual leaves which are collected and pressed to make each tray unique. These are very popular with street food traders, their stylish look makes them ideal for special occasions such as weddings.”
“When planning a hot beverage offering at a pop-up or mobile bar, the key is often in considering the type of equipment used to produce the hot beverage” says Ian Harbinson Product Marketing Manager at Burco Commercial. He adds “With a requirement to be mobile, yet also to produce water at a consistently hot temperature, operators should carefully consider the suitability of their equipment prior to purchasing.
“It is not just the physical food offering and production that needs to be considered at when planning mobile and outside catering, but also the cleanliness and hygiene of staff and customers too. With this in mind, the provision of hand wash facilities and waste disposal units is essential.”
As always, proper planning is essential. David Watts, Buffalo Brand Manager for Nisbets explains: “If mobile and outside catering units are to ensure success from day one, then it’s essential for them to spend time carefully planning which pieces of equipment they will need to deliver their menu beforehand.
“With space often at such a premium within mobile kitchens, versatile pieces of kit that can be used for multiple tasks are some of the best bits of equipment that mobile caterers can choose.
”It’s important to note that for reliability and consistency even the smallest of mobile catering units should invest in a commercial, rather than a domestic model – ensuring their grill is built to last.”
So what does the future hold for mobile and outside catering? “People are looking for new experiences, both culinary and in life” says Olly Kohn. “They are attending more events and eating when they get there. Hopefully this means continued growth in the food to go sector. For us, it is going to be a busy year. Our plan is to work hard and have as much fun as we can along the way. We’ve carefully targeted the events where The Jolly Hog has a presence and over time built a very loyal audience of brand ambassadors.”
Henry Kemp builds on Olly’s point and adds: “Mobile and outdoor catering has seen an explosion in the UK in the last five years. I think this was redressing a void in the market, on the continent, and globally mobile has been much bigger. I think now its hit a saturation point, and traders are seeing generally an effect in drop off in trade. There needs to be a rebalancing between market organisers and traders. Organisers are expecting fees commensurate with the best days of trading, but traders need reasonable rates to even make a living. Too many organisers are happy just to bring in green traders, who don’t know the numbers and end up losing out as well as affecting established traders livelihoods. Ten percent of takings doesn’t sound much, but that equates to at least twenty percent of profit. The majority of markets take fixed fees which equate to more like twenty percent of takings on off peak days- potentially forty percent of profit. I think this needs to change.”
Geoff Dixon finishes on a final note: “With the quality and range increasing all the time, more and more customers are going to buy street food more often. It offers much more selection, is not mass produced but still often cheaper. I personally think mobile food is going to expand into and take over the takeaway & delivery sector in a huge way before long, but if I told you how, I would have to kill you.”