How to sell… street food
Quitting your job to start up a street food stall is the dream for many. But with so many innovative food startups now selling all over the country, how can you make your stall or van the one customers will buy from?
Michael Tomlinson is the founder of The Little Fishy, a gourmet fish and chip van based in the North East. Here are his tips for making a splash when selling street food (no pun intended).
How did you get started selling your fish and chips?
I'd always been interested in starting my own business and I was a regular visitor to a fantastic local market which has several food, craft and bric-a-brac stalls. One day, I realised that fish and chips would go down really well there, so I took it from there and managed to secure a space at the market.
Although I'm not from a catering background, like many people I've always been a keen amateur cook, and I have high standards when it comes to food.
We started in December, which helped us to get used to slow but regular trade. Now the season has started to pick up and we're getting busier, I absolutely love it and would recommend it to anyone as a relatively low risk way into working for yourself.
What certification do you need to run a street food stall?
As well as food hygiene certificates for anyone handling food, you need to get in touch with the local council to make sure you comply with licensing laws. Because we trade from the market and at other organised events, we didn't need a street food license, but we did need to register with the council 28 days before we started trading. This was really straightforward.
We also registered with NCASS (The Nationwide Caterers Association) to get support with completing the relevant documentation such as a risk assessment and setting up a due diligence system.
How do you stand out from the competition at events?
At the moment, we're unique in offering a contemporary street food version of fish and chips. We offer twice-cooked chips and fresh cod coated in Panko breadcrumbs. It took a lot of practice using different potatoes and cooking methods to perfect the standard of chips that we wanted to produce!
I think aesthetics is very important in street food as only a small portion of people will be regular visitors - most will buy purely from looking at the trailer/van and the menu.
It was important to me that the overall brand reflected the quality of the product, which often isn't the case with traditional fish and chip vans. We trade from a custom built 10ft by 6ft trailer, and although the shell is essentially the same as many of the classic trailers you see, the interior and exterior was designed to separate ourselves from the classic image you have of a fish and chip mobile.
How do you encourage people to buy?
Clear signage is key so people can see at a glance what you're offering. We've also found it best to be busy all the time (even during quieter times), so we prepare everything in the morning for that day only. If you are standing around looking out at prospective buyers it can put them off, so being friendly but busy seems to be the best approach. We also offer a lot of samples, which helps! During the first weekend, so many people tried the chips and came back to buy some.
Do you see many repeat customers?
Every week we see regulars, which is fantastic. These often turn into further bookings - for instance we recently booked a wedding and 2-3 private parties from repeat customers.
How did you set your price point?
This can only be done through research, looking at what price people are selling similar products for in your local area as well as what it costs to produce your product. If you price yourself too high you could be losing a lot of trade, and if you are too low it can put off regular customers if you later need to increase your prices. We based ours around our local average, after researching several local restaurants.
What’s your biggest challenge?
Starting the business to begin with was the biggest challenge for me, as it was all completely new and took a lot of organisation and planning. I did this mostly during the evenings as I had a full-time job and we have two-year-old twins. Now five months down the line I have left my job and am running this full time, and looking for a second trailer so we can look to attend events on the same day.
Any other tips?
Make sure you have enough cashflow when starting the business to get through quiet weeks/months. It takes time to establish a new business - we had to put a lot of our initial profits back into the business for additional equipment and have had to pick and choose which events we attend, as it can sometimes cost a lot.
Also, if you have a good idea, get advice from a local business support agency. This was invaluable to us, as they helped us to produce a business plan and secure the funding that we needed from Virgin to get going.