London, UK: The Tension Between Street Food Vendors and Established Restaurants

Street food vendors have not been welcomed by everyone. Photograph: Alamy

By Richard Johnson |

Street food vendors have not been welcomed by everyone. Photograph: Alamy

Are stalls taking away trade from bricks and mortar businesses?

Selling food on the street has always been a tough business, and the signs are that it is not getting any easier. Recently, in the Lancashire town of Blackburn, a turf war for control of the lucrative local ice-cream business allegedly led the driver of a Mr Yummy van to smash the window of a rival Mr Whippy with a tyre iron.

Of course this incident is nowhere near as alarming as Glasgow’s notorious ice-cream wars – a campaign of violence, intimidation and arson that resulted in a number of deaths in the 1980s. However, a burgeoning interest in British street food has contributed to rising tensions between newcomers and established local businesses.

For many people running a street food operation is an attractive proposition. Start-up costs and pitch fees are low. Unlike restaurants or cafes, street food vendors pay no rent or rates. Meanwhile, the profit margin on gourmet products is greater than it is on a traditional roadside hotdog or burger.

Traders such as Yianni Papoutsis of the Meatwagon in London and Claire Kelsey of Ginger’s Comfort Emporium in Manchester have helped create a buzz that has spread around the country. But as the recession bites, these differences are causing problems.

Take for example the clashes at a new market on Briggate in Leeds, home to the city’s branch of Harvey Nichols and an array of luxury brands. One street food trader says that he had a parcel of fish guts dumped on his van. Another claims to have been told that, if she dared to come back, she would be blockaded in. The police were contacted and now the council is trying  to pick up the pieces.

At the Pickles & Potter Deli Cafe, by the new market, Lorna Potter, who was not involved in either incident, pays more than £50,000 rent a year, plus rates. She insists that her objection to street food vendors isn’t born of snobbery. “Street food just doesn’t give the right message … It’s like putting a sewage treatment works right next to a beautiful organic farm,” she says.

Andrew Critchett, who runs the stall Fish&, offers high-end, sustainable seafood at the market. He disagrees: “City centres need to become more community and experience-focused. Street-food markets lend a real vibrancy that adds to the independent spirit in Leeds city centre.”

Street traders argue that they do not use the same facilities as restaurateurs so shouldn’t pay the same rates. They are, they say, simply delivering restaurant-quality food at takeaway prices, regenerating city centres and showcasing diversity.

Mark Laurie, director of the Nationwide Caterers Association – the trade body for Britain’s street food industry – agrees that “street food can sit happily alongside bricks and mortar restaurants, as has been proven across London. In instances such as Leeds, the idea behind street food and regeneration has not been sold or explained to the local businesses effectively.”

Over in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, a similar story is playing out. Dave Rawson, who sells seasonal British specialities from the Greedy Bassets Kitchen, says the council offered him an idyllic pitch on the end of the pier. He is now in dispute with other traders over the spot and there is ongoing friction with several local food outlets.

Rawson wonders why his tiny business is seen as such a threat. But as he sears his local catch of the day, one possible answer may be in the line that’s building up for lunch.