13 | Nov | 12

Richard Johnson

Mean Streets

It’s tough, selling on the streets. In Blackburn, a turf war for control of the city’s lucrative ice cream business led the driver of a Mr Whippy van to set the driver of a Mr Yummy van with a tyre lever.
Ice Creams war. Mr Yummy loses cool

It doesn’t mean a return to the 1980s, when the bloodiness of Glasgow’s Ice Cream Wars earned the Strathclyde Police the nickname the “Serious Chimes Squad” — the violence and intimidation back then ended in a 20-year court case that only concluded in 2004. But the  new interest in British street food has meant increased competition – and the streets are looking mean again.

You can see why running a street food operation seems an attractive proposition, especially in a recession. Start-up costs are low, and so are pitch fees. There are no prohibitive bills for rent and rates. And traders such as Lucky Chip and Pitt Cue have created a real buzz around the business. If it’s good, people are prepared to pay for it.

But not everyone’s happy. The old school traders, for a start, feel angry because their tired old menus – and ingredients – look out of date. Which is why they can’t charge £8.50 for a burger. Bricks and mortar food businesses feel angry because of their rent and rates bill. As the recession bites, the difference in operating costs is starting to become an issue.

It’s happening in Leeds. One street food trader had a parcel of fish guts dumped on his van for trading at a new market in the city centre. Another was told that, if she dared to come back, she would be blockaded in. The police were contacted. So were the Yorkshire Post (http://t.co/Pmx5Cua) And the council – who are hoping to bring life to Leeds by following Mary Portas’ new initiative with city centre markets – are trying to pick up the pieces.

The new market is on Briggate – the most prestigious retail street in Leeds, near Yves Saint Laurent, Harvey Nichols and Vivienne Westwood. Some feel it’s not the right place for vans, trucks and trailers to be selling street food. The Pickles & Potter Deli Café is right next to the new market, and proprietor Lorna Potter pays more than £50,000 rent a year – with rates on top.

Potter begrudges the fact that street food traders only pay £50 a day. “I’ve been on Queens Arcade for six-and-a-half years, working 70 hours a week to keep my business afloat. Why should some transient business – just trailed on, and jacked up – come along and ruin that?” Potter is trained as a chef. As says she appreciates the traders’ entrepreneurship. “But this is wrong” she says.

Potter insists that her objection to the new market isn’t based on snobbery – she’s travelled widely, and eaten street food all over the world. “But street food just doesn’t give the right message. Well, not on Briggate anyway. In a disused car park, where it’s very ‘ethnic’ and very ‘down with the street’, maybe. But not here. It’s like putting a sewage treatment works right next to a beautiful organic farm.”

Street food traders argue that they don’t use the same facilities as restaurateurs – so shouldn’t pay the same rates. A new generation of traders are out there delivering restaurant-quality food at takeaway prices. They can provide “eyes on the streets”, making people feel safe. And they can showcase a city’s diversity. They deserve a break.

Andrew Critchett, a street food trader from Fish&, is delighted with the new market. And with his high-end, sustainable seafood, he wants to offer locals a choice. “City centres need to change – to become more community and experience focused. Occasional events like the street food market lend a real vibrancy that adds to the independent spirit in Leeds city centre.”

According to Mark Laurie, director of the National Catering Association– the trade body for Britain’s street food traders – “street food can sit happily alongside bricks and mortar restaurants, as has been proven across London. I think that in instances such as the one in Leeds, the idea behind street food and regeneration has not been sold or explained to the local businesses effectively.”

Over in Saltburn-on-Sea it’s kicking off between local businesses, and rival street food traders all at once. Dave Rawson runs The Greedy Bassets Kitchen – a street food unit specialising in local, seasonal British specialities. When he was offered a pitch trading by the pier, it sounded idyllic. But the local burger businesses had other ideas.

“They claimed they paid rent on the pitch” says Rawson. “They didn’t – I checked with the council. And when the locals organized a do on the prom, the mafia said they paid rent there too. They set up their bouncy castle, and refused to move the van. Nightmare.” It’s a problem that’s unlikely to go away.