How to run a pop-up restaurant: Street Kitchen

Jankel (left) and Tanaka rented an Airstream van for their Street Kitchen pop-up

Last October Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka took to the streets of London in an Airstream van to serve fresh, British food inspired by Jankel’s project The Food Initiative over the course of two weeks. Street Kitchen was run as part of the London Restaurant Festival, but is set to return this June after a successful first run. Jankel explains how the concept was executed.

Location

“I’d been to New York and eaten at loads of street vans there – the concept is really big in the States but it didn’t exist in London. So we thought we’d take restaurant quality food and adapt it into street food. We have 30 years kitchen experience between us so we wanted to use our skills to serve food quickly out of a trailer but make the quality as good as a brasserie or bistro.

“We decided on Covent Garden for our first week because it’s an iconic fruit and vegetable market and really central so anyone can get there easily. There’s a pretty high footfall. We didn’t think the tourists would necessarily buy food but we thought there’d be lots of people working in the area who would buy their lunch from us.

“In our second week we went to Spitalfields, again because it’s an area where lots of people who work there would love our food offer. Also it’s the location for the Real Food Festival and we had an opportunity to be a part of their food market.

Menu

“I’d been meeting farmers and building relationships with suppliers as part of my work with The Food Initiative, and that formed the basis of the supply chain for all the food in Street Kitchen. We found that producers loved our idea and by buying directly from them they gave us good prices.

“We wanted to take the fresh, seasonal and local ingredients and cook them really simply. We did Featherblade of Beef braised in Chapel Down Pinot Noir with Celeriac Puree and Roasted Carrots; Whisky barrel chip-smoked Loch Duart Salmon with Roasted Beetroot and Crushed Potatoes; and Roasted Squash Salad. They all sold for around £6.50 each.

“You need to design your menu so you can serve it quickly. We designed it using our experience knowing we could serve it quickly but I can imagine someone who doesn’t have that experience trying to cook everything to order. That then becomes a limiting factor to how much you can make.

“We could serve one person per minute but any less than that and you’re cutting your revenue down. Keep it simple. We did five really simple dishes and it worked. People don’t need a huge menu to choose from they just need a few things done really well.

Logistics

“The Airstream we rented cost a fortune, about £2k per week. But it was fully fitted and perfect for what we needed it for. We’d found another which we were going to kit out ourselves but we had no experience of mobile catering and no understanding of how to kit it out. Unfortunately we’d already paid a £1500 deposit on that empty trailer, which we essentially lost.

“The high rental cost meant that over the two weeks we broke even rather than make anything. I think we’ve learned that it’s no good renting a trailer. We weren’t going to buy for a two week exercise but if we had bought a trailer then bearing in mind its reusability we would have made a few thousand pounds profit over those first couple of weeks.

“I’d suggest others be realistic about the kind of equipment you need. Talk to lots of people who do it already and take your time choosing a trailer. I went to look at everyone before we started.

“The van was manned by myself and Jun for the entire two weeks. We also had two volunteers at a time working the till and clearing tables (we had four that folded away into the van after use). Electricity was supplied by the location you park up in, and the gas and water was plumbed into the van via canisters.

Marketing

“The difficult thing about a pop-up is that unless you have a following already you’ll struggle to get the word out there. It takes a few events to build up a reputation.

“We did more PR and less marketing and looking back we probably should have done more marketing, we just didn’t have time. PR is a broad brush and it’s exposing the brand to a maximum amount of people. We were on BBC news at lunch and in the evening on the first day, in the Evening Standard the day before and we had a Giles Coren review in The Times in the middle of the two weeks.

“But next time we do it in June we’ll market the specific areas we’re going to be and engage with the local crowd to get a following straight away. We’ll do new locations which we’ll announce later.

Final thought

“It was a brilliant experience and we were thrilled with the response, people loved what we did. It showed we got the product right to start with.

“I thought we’d make a little bit of money though - I spent weeks doing profit and loss projections and I thought we’d make £1k if we did well. But in hindsight, starting a business from scratch that no one knew about until the first day with super high costs, I thought it was amazing that we broke even.

“The important thing is to do something that’s going to differentiate you from everyone else. I’d love to do a burger van and make the most kick ass burgers, but whatever you do, just make it the very best it can be.”

Click here to see all the features in this series.

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