Making it as a Street Food Trader
We’ve been in conversation with Jimmy, a veteran of the Manchester street food scene. With his food business Nasi Lemak, Jimmy has fed thousands of people throughout the region from a simple market stall.
We hope you might feel inspired by this conversation to do the same!
Jimmy – could you introduce yourself and tell us about Nasi Lemak, and how long you’ve been in business for?
I have been in business since 2013. Since 2008, I ran a pub kitchen in Fallowfield. We were really famous for our salt and pepper chips!
But in the year 2012, I went home to Malaysia to visit my family and friends, and when I came back to the UK, I missed the food so much! So, in 2013, I decided I wanted to showcase and share recipes from my home town of Penang. That was when Nasi Lemak was born.
Why did you transition from working in the pub to doing street food?
In 2013, street food was becoming more popular, especially for new types of food. It was the only place where you could find customers who would want to try new cuisines.
These customers were brave and dared to try something different. Still, in those days, the queues would be at the burger, hot dog and pizza stalls.
Where was your first market pitch?
It was really hard to get a market pitch because everywhere I contacted wanted to know if I’d traded before. Luckily I had built a social media profile with lots of beautiful pictures of my food and people reviewing me. So I used this for my market applications.
The first place that gave me an opportunity to pitch was Foodie Friday in Stockport.
What documentation is required for doing events?
You need your public liability insurance, food hygiene certificate, environmental health registration and food hygiene inspection. But having all these things does not guarantee a spot at an event. You need to have a really good social media profile to impress the event organisers.
Keep cooking and keep taking pictures. It is also good to look at the profiles of other successful street food traders to help you form your own profile.
How do you choose which events to trade at?
First of all, my biggest tip would be to visit the event. See what the punters are like – are they young professionals, students, older people?
When you gather all this information, you will understand what menu you need to offer and your price point.
Don’t go in blind. That’s why until this day I don’t do festivals. They are very expensive and I don’t have the time to go to the festival a year before to check it out. I don’t like flying blind! I need to know what the event is going to be like.
How many portions would be a good amount to sell at a regular event?
To make it worthwhile, 50 portions at £7 to £8 each would be enough. This would give you around £350 and is something every trader should be able to achieve.
Moving on from that, once you become more established, have a bigger following and have traded at a spot many times, you should be looking at 80 to 100 portions at least.
How much money should you budget for equipment and set up?
You need insurance – the cheapest and most comprehensive one is from NMTF (National Market Traders Federation) which is £125 per year and allows you trade at multiple stalls simultaneously and give you £10 million public liability and £10 million employers insurance.
A lot of events need you to have documentation like COSHH and risk assessments, which is a headache. So another membership consider is the NCASS membership, which is £180 a year.
Then you need your cooking equipment and gazebo. A gazebo with printing will come up to £500.
Some new traders don’t quite understand that street food is about showing off your cooking skills. It is not about buying bain marries or chafing dishes and scooping out food. The queues will always go to the traders who are doing something interesting. If you are going to cook fresh, you will need an electric or gas griddle.
Sometimes new traders buy a lot of gear that they don’t actually need. The first thing you must have is your handwash – you need the one with a hot water heater. This is already £375 + VAT.
Then you need to buy your cooking kit. A lot of traders build a long menu and think they will need all sorts of kit. This is wrong! New traders should focus on smaller menus – simple, tasty and pleasant to the eye. As you progress, you can slowly add more equipment to your stall.
You will need your electric equipment to be PAT tested and your gas equipment to be gas certified. This will probably come to £150 per year.
Cooking equipment will probably cost you around £600. So you need around £2000 to set up overall.
You also should use only compostable packaging – no plastic or styrofoam. This is a new requirement for many events. This is more expensive – it can take up maybe 40 to 50p of your costs per serving, so you need to bear this in mind and find good suppliers like Ambican.
What can someone do before spending £2000 to start planning their street food business?
I personally suggest that if you haven’t saved this amount up, don’t jump straight into it. If you want to do something on a shoestring budget – keep your day job, and slowly start. Cook for your friends and family and keep testing.
To be on the safe side, you need to have all your insurance paid for.
How do you deal with big crowds and queues at your stall?
As long as you are entertaining people, they don’t mind waiting. They can see all the food is being made fresh, and they have an opportunity to watch and be entertained. Time flies as long as you are engaging with the customers.
How do you train your helpers to produce your Malaysian menu?
I don’t, that’s why I don’t run a takeaway or pub kitchen! Street food only requires one additional helper. Based on that, I don’t have to keep training staff over time. I have one staff member and I make sure I have enough events booked to give him enough work.
A lot of people think that having bricks and mortar premises is going to be difficult because of the rent and the rates. Oh my god – it’s having employees! Especially if you are doing a cuisine which is not local. Then it’s going to be hard to find local people to make Malaysian food.
A lot of training will be required. So many complications arise because the cuisine is not as straightforward as making an English breakfast.
Every week when I go out to trade, people ask if I have a restaurant! I think that would be going backward!
Before, it would have been a step forward to go ahead and open a restaurant. But now, the guys that have restaurants want to do street food.
I think us street food guys make a better living, with less headache, with more fun! We cook and chat with the customers, instead of looking at the wall in a kitchen.
Where do you cook your food?
We normally cook at the venue itself. Also, I have all my meat pre-cut by my butcher, which also saves on staff time. You can even buy your vegetables pre-cut.
If I need to do more prep, I usually use Levenshulme Inspire Cafe kitchen.
Where would you suggest new traders source their food?
If you are doing a smaller amount of food, just use the supermarkets and local butchers. When you get to a much bigger size, you need to use your people skills to talk to suppliers. Ask the butchers if they will cut the meat up the way you want, and will they package it for you? Will they deliver it to you? Speak to the suppliers close by to you. Smithfields is the place I go to find fresh vegetables, it’s a really excellent place to shop.
How easy is it for a new trader to secure a market pitch?
These days, there are a lot of events, but not enough good traders. So it is quite easy to get slots.
However, trading slots are usually 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. So markets will do well for people that are selling lunch.
For me, I’ve never done that well doing these types of markets. The reason being is that I don’t cook lunch type food. But I do extremely well at events in the evening. So it all depends on what your menu is.
You’ve been in the street food scene a lot longer than most people. What would you say is a specific challenge street food traders face?
Through the years, I have seen traders that do not even 12 months. They have a bit of money to start, but they are not determined enough to solve all the problems that a business will encounter. There will be hundreds of problems, and when you solve them, another hundred will arise.
Being a good business person is about being able to persevere and to continue to solve problems.
If you are not getting the results you want, you must be willing to change. A lot of people are afraid of change.
You should be clued up on this fact of life before starting any business, not just street food.
If you are in a situation when you are not selling any food, but other traders are, you have to think why. Look at who the punters are. Will your food connect with them? You need to assess every situation carefully. Now that I’ve done it for a while, I know what menus to do for each event. At Foodie Friday, my menu has to be fast, as the queuing times are so long. They also need to be full meals, because nobody wants to queue again. You have to keep changing until you become the best at each event.
What does your week’s to-do list looks like?
If you are a full-time trader like me, you’ll wake up on Monday (your day off) and look at the week ahead. You’ll look at your scheduled events and think: when do I need to get all my fresh produce by? Then I’ll time it so I get all my produce ready for my events.
I think: do I have enough packaging? What day do I have to wait around for the delivery? And it repeats every week like that.
Social media is also a very important part of the routine.
What piece of advice would you’d give to someone thinking of starting their own street food business?
Ultimately, if your stall looks good and your menu is easy to read, the sale is done. In my early days, I had a bigger menu. Now I only have four items, and two items will be meat, and two will be vegan, which will be written in green.
The most important thing is the branding. If you have a good name and a good menu, and you can produce food that looks really good, you will have a chance of becoming a street food trader.