Marrying street food and travel

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Jonathan Downey is not afraid to take a risk. He’s CEO and Co-Founder of London Union, the company behind the capital’s five street feast markets. Here he reveals how he brought quality casual dining to London and its impact on travel

Travel and street food are intertwined

Travelling the world to experience different countries, cultures and food scenes has inspired most of the new street food traders in London. Chris and Nud [chefs] from Breddos Tacos came back from Mexico and now make some of the best tacos in London. The boys behind Up In My Grill are big fans of Argentina and the cooking methods out there – they serve proper flame-grilled steak with chimichurri sauce. And Pizza Pilgrims continues to find inspiration for their pizza in Naples by working with Italian chefs.

Street Feast started as a collective in 2012, bringing individual street vendors together under one roof. The street food scene didn’t really exist in this format before. We transformed the street food scene in London with something completely new. 

Hawker House in South London
Hawker House in South London. Photo: credit to Johnny Stephens


Diners playing a role in creation

One of the reasons street food is so popular is that you can get a lot of things on the street that you can’t get in a restaurant, although that is slowly changing as restaurants are becoming inspired by street food. For instance, gua bao [steamed Taiwanese buns] wasn’t really on anyone’s radar until Yum Bun and BAO opened up. Some of the best restaurants started out on the street, too, like Pizza Pilgrims, which now has several sites, or Smokestak, which started at Street Feast in Dalston Yard and now has a hugely successful bricks and mortar site in Shoreditch.

People like street food because of the proximity to the action – you’re being fed by a chef who’s cooking your meal right in front of you, rather than someone in a basement kitchen. You become part of the creation process and it’s all about theatre of food.

Food is a tourist attraction in its own right

There’s a difference between the kind of street food you eat abroad compared to what you eat in a Street Feast market. You can go to Thailand and eat chicken satay in 15 different stalls, because they’re all serving the same thing. But in London, where you’ve got 15 traders each doing something different, you can visit 15 different countries and eat the world under one roof.

So many people choose where to travel based on food. I don’t think in the UK we recognise this enough. In Lisbon, the Time Out Market, which has 35 restaurants under one roof, is one of the most visited places in the city. Likewise in Madrid, the San Miguel food market attracts millions of visitors. London is missing this kind of flagship market, which is a mistake.


Changing the reputation of London food

In 2013 I became a partner of Street Feast with Dominic Cools-Lartigue. Two years later we sold the company to London Union, and brought in my Co-Founder, LEON's Henry Dimbleby. Our ambition was to open the world’s greatest food market at Smithfield in London, to transform the reputation of London as a globally-recognised city for food. We contacted everyone we knew in the London food and drink industry, including Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi. We told them we wanted to open the world’s greatest food market in London, so it was an easy sell. We’re still working on the Smithfield project, and in the meantime we’re opening all these mini markets in east and southeast London. We plan on expanding more in London, in Manchester and into the States and Europe within the next two years.

Good leadership is getting the job done

A good leader needs to have a clear vision and strategy. They must be good at communicating it, and diligent and determined in the execution. You’ve got to know what you want to do, get everybody on board, then get on and do it. Ideas are the easy part, it’s carrying them out that’s hard.

My biggest challenge is dealing with local authorities, who are often a big barrier to opening new sites. Finding, training, inspiring and retaining good young people is also a massive challenge. It’s hard to get great people who are enthusiastic about their job, and to keep them doing it for a long time.

My advice to people trying to grow their business is: register your trademark. It’s so easy to do but people often don’t, and you’ll hate it (and yourself) when someone pops up using your cool business name that you haven’t protected. Also, find yourself a business partner with a different or complementary skill set to your own. Nobody is good at everything and even if you think you are, you won’t have time to do it all. Plus, it’s usually the only way you’ll ever get some proper time off – if you know that there is someone else to keep an eye on things like you might.

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Street food is appealing because of the proximity to the action – diners become part of the creation process
We need to realise that many travellers choose where to go based on food. Many cities, such as Lisbon and Madrid, have flagship food markets, but some cities such as London are still lacking this
Good leadership is about having a clear vision and strategy, communicating it efficiently, and executing it diligently
Make sure you register your trademark. It’s so easy to do, but many people don’t