How I started a food business: Colombian Street Kitchen

Millions of people dream about starting a business - being your own boss, following your own schedule, and filling your days with your passion. But going from dream to action can feel overwhelming - where do you start? Here we speak to Esteban Arboleda, founder of Colombian Street Kitchen, about how he turned his idea for a food startup bringing the flavours of Colombia to a UK market - from beginning to now.

Where did the idea come from for your business?

It came after realising there was a gap in the market regarding high quality Colombian street food. In London, there are only a few traders making Colombian dishes, and the restaurants mainly focus on serving Colombian nationals. But there’s a big appetite for South American cuisine generally so I decided to make Colombian food as popular as Mexican or Peruvian!

What were the first steps you took to making your business a reality?

I started by opening a Facebook page to create an initial interest and present recipes for people to follow. After I tested the concept by doing a supper club for 75 people in Walthamstow, I registered to become a street food trader. This quickly led to pop-ups, market stalls, kitchen residencies and six weeks running a shop on Camden High Street.

After I went to Virgin Foodpreneur 2014, I was inspired by seeing many successful companies. Also, the Virgin Foodpreneur promoters encouraged me to write a business plan and put my ideas into perspective. Eventually I was allocated a £5,000 loan which was vital in keeping my business afloat. Later, I started working with an amazingly helpful mentor who has kept me positive and looking for further developments, such as selling my products in delis and local shops.

Do you work full-time?

It has been a mixture between full time operations, such as during kitchen residencies, and part time for smaller events and pop-ups. I have also continued my previous job as a secondary school Spanish teacher on a part-time basis. It has always been the advice of other Virgin entrepreneurs to have a secondary income, as the life of a street food trader can be unpredictable.

What was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge was to be noticed at the beginning, especially from markets and places to do residencies. I overcame this by consistently keeping the quality of my food high, creating a colourful and easy-to-recognise brand, and actively using social media. I also joined professional associations for independent caterers to make my business more credible and visible.

What equipment do you use?

For a market or pop-up, I use a 3x3m gazebo, deep fat fryer, steamers, pie warmers and a grill. Kitchen residencies in pubs and restaurants sometimes require more.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day could include any of the following: Sourcing fresh ingredients from local shops. Developing new recipes in the kitchen. Producing food such as arepas and salsa for the delis which now stock my products. Applying for pitches around London and contacting new potential customers. Answering emails and keeping up with my social media (while drinking loads of Colombian coffee!). Meeting up with my Virgin mentor to discuss next steps. Sneaking out to the gym to balance my daily chores!

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt?

When you have little money, the best tool is social media. Regularly featuring original recipes and content on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram helps build an online presence and get your hard work appreciated. In addition, I learned having a name that says what you do, and is easy to remember, is key to being competitive. It’s a crowded marketplace so your customers need to understand your business the moment they see your logo!

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