London street food: How US food trucks influenced UK's historical street food scene (Part 1)

| by Elliot Maras
London street food: How US food trucks influenced UK's historical street food scene (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This is the first part in a two-part series about how London and American brands are learning from each other.

The opportunity to serve favorite recipes from mobile kitchens is trending worldwide, and in many countries, food trucks are simply the latest addition to what's long been considered "street food" — food sold from stalls to passersby.

Where food trucks are the hot new thing in America, in Europe they are simply the latest entrants into a long-established street food scene. Food stalls, however, are as much a part of the culture as they are in less developed regions such as Asia and Latin America.

Despite this fact, America's food truck movement is still influencing other continents.

Ginger's Comfort Emporium is among the many trucks that have found success at London's KERB markets.

Petra Barran, a food truck owner who has led a revolution of sorts in the U.K. street food scene with her KERB markets, was inspired by her visits to New York City and San Francisco in 2009 and 2010.

"The thing I was most excited by was the people behind the trucks, more so than by the food," Barran said. "I was incredibly inspired by that."

Barran was especially impressed by The Street Vendor Project in New York City, a membership-based project that began in 2008 and now has thousands of members. The project reaches out to vendors and teaches them about their legal rights and responsibilities, and provides business training and loans.

Barran was also inspired by the 2001 book by Mike Davis, "Magical Realism," which explores the Latinization of the U.S. urban landscape, including its impact on Los Angeles street food. The book inspired Barran about the importance of improving urban environments.

Barran's KERB markets in London are similar to food truck marketplaces in the U.S. such as Spark Social in San Francisco, which provides fixed locations for vendors to operate in. These organized marketplaces act as visible destinations for customers to discover and patronize food trucks. Groups like Spark Social also market their venues to the public, creating a support structure for food vendors. The organizations also broker their vendors' services for catering events.

Private markets arrive

Barran stressed the fact that her motivation in launching KERB markets was not commercial, but lifestyle focused. When launching her own food truck in 2005, she recognized the challenges facing both food trucks and tents, known as "gazebos," and became inspired to change the laws restricting them.

London's street food dates back centuries. Over time, government regulated markets determined where gazebos could set up shop.

"We have antiquated laws on running markets," Barran said. Food trucks and gazebos had to go through a lengthy process to get permission to do business in a government market.

Barran also realized the unique experience a food truck delivered was the social aspect combined with eating. When people bought from her truck, they stuck around to chat.

"I don't think that's something people would have felt as comfortable doing if they didn't have that food to connect them," she said. "It made me feel connected to London in a way that was really, really meaningful."

Barran met with other street food vendors and formed a collective called "Eat St." The vendors held their markets at different London locations.

In 2011, she received a call from a real estate developer that offered the collective a location for a market. The developer wanted to have food vendors at a certain location on a newly-built street.

"That was really a great move for us," Barran said. The first KERB market began in 2012 at an area called King's Cross with 20 traders. The market attracted a lot of business and has since grown to 70 traders. There are now five KERB markets in London.

"We're creating a new kind of market that didn't exist until recently," she said.

A stage to tell a story

The KERB market is a stage where people come to tell their story, she said. The food vendors tell their stories through their food.

"Street food's kind of the coming thing," Barran said. "You've got street food concept restaurants. Street food menus."

"It's the lowest barrier to entry to a profession anywhere in the world," she said. "You don't need any certification to join the London street food industry."

"People can experiment and try something without feeling they've got to answer to their financial backers," she said. "Everyone belongs there and no one owns it."

Barran said the success of the KERB markets rests on the careful selection of traders.

The success of London's KERB markets might indicate the role that such markets will play in the U.S. as the food truck industry grows.

Part two of this two-part series will explore what the U.S. can learn from the London street food scene.

Want to hear more about how Europe and U.S. restaurant brands are learning from each other? Click here to register for the Franchising & Innovation Summit, July 18-20 in London.

Cover photo: istock


Topics: Food Trucks

Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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