The Surrey Street-food Revolution (part three)
Heat on the street – why here, why now?
Fiona Woodcock, Surrey Street redoubtable market inspector, is fascinated by the growing numbers of street food outlets in Surrey Street market and delighted by their quality. Always on hand to support and advise traders and the general public, Fiona explains that the British street food market has been growing gradually since the late 1990s but that a recent, sharp surge in confidence is detectable. Events in Surrey Street right now are definitely part of something bigger.
She believes the quality of street food has risen as better equipment has become more affordable – modern small single canister gas burners, for example, are as powerful as the older ones that took up far more space and needed the strength of many people to lift and manoeuvre. George Whatle is a good example to invoke in this respect – by using three such burners, he can offer a wide choice of cooked hot dishes within a small working space.
But whilst visibly proud of what the market already is, Fiona is not satisfied. She intends a still larger future for its food traders and sees Surrey Street as a stepping stone for small businesses, showing people what is possible and encouraging them to greater things. Croydon Business Venture, the accredited Enterprise Agency for the area, has already advised a number of former Surrey Street food traders about financing that crucial and often nerve-wracking next step into becoming a larger operation, which often means launching themselves onto the huge national festivals and events catering market.
Meanwhile, for those who wish to keep a presence in Surrey Street and be part of its future, expansion plans are afoot. Croydon Old Town is one of twenty-seven Portas Pilot areas, chosen by Mary Portas as showcases for her ideas on how to reverse declining high streets and attract people once again to shop locally and support the community’s businesses. Right now the Old Town plans are still under wraps, but word is that the first big Mary Portas announcement will be made in January 2013.
The plan is to create a Surrey Street Learning Kitchen on the Bridge House site, where new catering businesses can be helped to develop and caterers can be trained. It seems that street food, and the area’s growing reputation, has gained the Royal Portas Seal of Approval. The Queen of Shops sees Croydon’s future here.
For the fallen
A trader such as Charmaine Laurent with her new business, LoveSome Cake, has shown great resilience – picking up the pieces after the failure of Allders and the personal blow of her redundancy. I wish her every success and on the evidence of my slice of Red Velvet Cake, success will assuredly come. It has to be said, however, that there are no guarantees.
It’s a rough fact of life that sometimes a dream for which you truly strive can fail to come true. Starting your own business is no panacea, and failure has happened in Surrey Street too:
- Gaida Simmeoni’s Italian produce outlet, Divine Foods, recently decided not to persist with its presence in Surrey Street – this despite selling the real deal: imported ham, salami and truffles from Italy, along with home-made hot dishes of the day such as lasagne, and puddings such as tiramisu
- Rick Woodall, chef from the local Croham Hurst golf club, did not find a ready market for his soups, although his presence only on a Friday may well not have given enough customers the chance to discover him
- Guyanese food – surprisingly, for I am lucky enough have Guyanese friends and can vouch for its deliciousness – has likewise failed to achieve success
- Most puzzling of all, in an area with such a strong Polish community, the Polish sausage vendor also decided not to stay
It’s difficult to know why the best-laid plans and cherished dreams of certain traders did not work out. For some, the business plan may not have been quite sharp enough – insufficient contingency to cover bad times, perhaps. Maybe there was over-optimism, something which can trip the feet of the very people most driven by passion for what they are doing.
Reliability is also an issue in Surrey Street. Street food trading is not a part-time occupation and certainly not for the faint-hearted – as evidenced above, your customers count on you. You’re as good as your last satisfied diner, who’ll recommend you to their mates, or as your last disgruntled would-be customer, who wondered where you were and certainly won’t pass the good word on to theirs.
It’s hard physical work too, outdoors in all weathers and, in the case of many of the stall holders I have met, six days a week. Surrey Street success stories have one thing strikingly in common – a commitment to what they are doing which keeps them doing it even in most laborious circumstances.
It would help here to remember the words of Oscar Wilde, wince at them as we might: “Only the shallow people… do not judge by appearances.” In order to sell against such quality competition, it’s vital to look the part. As Fiona Woodcock told me regretfully, although she encourages everyone to turn out as professionally as possible, not every Surrey Street food trader has understood just how important this is.
The best of Surrey Street has got the message and shows real visual (as well as culinary) flair. Sunny Quinton’s groovy Mexican ambulance is my own style-favourite – when I see something so original-looking, I immediately want to give it a try. Faith Wok is vivid and eye-catching, like the colours of the food it sells, and George Whatle’s Caribbean stand was brightly decorated for Christmas. Zanylicious looks slick and professional, and although newly-arrived this foodie team of husband-and-wife is clearly a serious contender. LoveSome Cake is pretty and charming – a tea room in a tent.
Lastly, there’s timing, which for starting businesses is perhaps just another way of saying ‘luck’. For some it could just be that launch day came too soon, before there was enough footfall (and consistently enough) to allow a particular product to find its market. RIP for this reason the Chalk Hill Bakery, perhaps, with its range of high quality products priced just that little bit above what the local market could then bear.
This puts me in mind of David Lashmar’s short-lived and much-lamented Stuff market, just around the corner from Surrey Street, in Middle Street. The story of Stuff is a salutary tale for Old Town Croydon – in many ways an inspiration, but also a warning.
The site was right, and Stuff’s successor thrives there – the Beanies girls have made a resounding success of their children’s play centre, café, and Sanity Restoration Centre for those blessed with the gift of a toddler (or possibly, in the most unfortunate cases, with more than one). The look was good, and the content – well, a tad too tie-dye and tarot for my taste on the second floor, but it was just about spot-on.
Stuff was packed with great, well, stuff – cool leather bags, gorgeous baby clothes sold from pastel coloured beach huts, ethnic jewellery, chutneys, and handmade chocolates. It had the coolest (although admittedly also the least accessible) café that ever failed to make a decent cappuccino, complete with its very own Dalek. (And a proper coffee machine, I am certain, would have followed in time.)
It was our own little slice of Camden Town. Could it ever have connected with that critical mass of customers with disposable income and an eye for off-beat style? In that place, at that time, I fear the answer was always going to be “No.” But, alas, there was no chance to find out. Stuff opened too soon, in bleak mid-January 2010, in the dead of one of the coldest, snowiest winters in decades. Shoppers stayed home and the few who came out felt far from flush. Just ten weeks later, Stuff was gone. Sometimes, it really does come down to luck.
Fuel for our future
Although some street food traders are thriving, it’s early days if Surrey Street is to fulfil the potential it undoubtedly has. We all need optimism to carry us through hard times, but we need more than that. We need to be smart, customer-focussed, and to keep our eyes on the prize. So here are my top tips for street food winners :
- Achieve consistency - It’s difficult to build momentum or run a sales push for products available every second Thursday when sun comes out. As in other areas, Croydon needs reliability here.
- Sell yourselves - In this game, appearance is all. Get your chef’s hat on and look the part.
- Make the market a real destination - Surrey Street lies at the heart of the Old Town and must look and feel that way. The Church Street entrance cries out for a stylish welcome archway, and so does the end of Middle Street. An issue, perhaps, for Mary Portas?
- Tell us where you are - Signage is poor as you walk along Surrey Street, and you don’t know what’s ahead of you until you are almost on top of it. Street food sells mostly at the Green Dragon end, but a lot of footfall comes from the Town Centre, the very opposite direction. Give would-be street-diners a good reason to keep going, or watch them turn back!
- Get connected - One simple thing could increase footfall – the extension of the North End paving down Crown Hill and round into Surrey Street itself. (And yes, I am aware of the tramline. I said ‘simple’ – I didn’t say anything about ‘cheap.’) But a clear visual cue, telling shoppers they had not, in fact, reached the end of the shops, would keep them walking into the Old Town and into Surrey Street market.
Food of love
Surrey Street has great products and great people. The beginning of a unique Old Town vibe is right there. Street food can and should lie at the heart of this future identity – a future of pavement cafés, busking musicians, and delicious lunches on the hoof for Croydon College students, Tech City office workers, and local mums alike. Croydon has the opportunity to create a real street-scene that both asserts our common identity, yet celebrates the diversity which is such an important part of us.
Drawing on its medieval market history, while being reflective of Croydon’s modern communities, Surrey Street can become a cool, characterful place where people come for something special – something they couldn’t find in a thousand other places. Nurturing it is now the key, and I want to see it happen. We deserve it to happen. Street food can be fuel for our future.