Set back from the busy roadside, down an anonymous alleyway and inside a forgotten garage, the smell of old oil has been replaced with the hot-spice scent of fresh food. A cooking revolution is quietly taking place in London. Neglected markets and run-down spaces are being regenerated and transformed into gastronomic theme parks where Londoners can meet and eat.
A recent report by food startup "incubator" Kitchenette suggests it's food entrepreneurship that has fuelled a boom in the eating out sector: according to their latest figures, the number of new food startups increased by 18,000 in 2010. From streateries to supper clubs and carts to camper vans, food entrepreneurs are challenging and reshaping the traditional food business model, keeping costs down and capturing the imaginations and taste buds of al fresco diners.
But if you look past the food, and over at the chef behind the hot plate, you'll see that this revolution is being steamrolled into action by young, ambitious foodies with a white-hot entrepreneurial streak. Brixton Market, the beating heart of one of London's youngest boroughs, has seen a spike in interest from young people who want in on the eating out sector. "So far this year I've had nine people under the age of 25 applying for stalls," says John Gordon, the Operations Director at Brixton Market. He explains that this is a huge change from previous years. "I think because of the recession, people are thinking wider. Before, young people wouldn't have thought about coming to work in a market."
To an outsider, it might seem like a very specialised and niche area to choose to start a business in, but it actually makes more financial sense than almost any other kind of startup. "The cost of setting up a stall at Brixton Market is around £600 - you couldn't go and open a restaurant on that budget," says John. "That's why a market is a really useful entry point for any young entrepreneur."
From stall to restaurant
For one 23 year-old graduate, a market was the perfect place to start her Chinese food business. In August 2012, two months after graduating from the University of Arts with a degree in creative advertising strategy, Melissa Fu set up MeiMei's Street Cart. "After I graduated I knew I didn't want to go into advertising. I was always very aware of the street food industry and, at the time, I noticed it was starting to thrive," says Melissa.
The idea for MeiMei's street cart came about after her sister returned from a trip to Beijing where she discovered something called a jian bing: a Chinese crepe topped with egg and herbs, filled with meat, sauce and a crispy wonton cracker. "It's a really popular dish in China. There's normally a stand outside universities and you get students queuing up round the block."
After testing out the recipe on her friends, Melissa began to look around for other places in London serving jian bings. "I couldn't understand why no-one had done it yet," she says. "So, I thought, why don't I just give it a go and then see what happens?"
With only £100 to spend on food and equipment, Melissa had to improvise. "I borrowed things from my house because I still live at home - my mum wasn't too happy about that," she laughs. It wasn't until a couple of months later and she began to turn a profit that she secured her first investor - her dad. "He runs his own business," she explains. "So he loaned me a bit of money so I could get more equipment."
Melissa got her first stall in Camden Market and was given a Friday lunchtime slot, serving up jian bings with the help of her brother. She says it was a great place to start, because the market has a positive attitude to new traders. "For the first couple of weeks, they let me go there to trade for free," she recalls. "It was really good to learn how to do it and test run it. When I did start paying rent, it was about £10-£15. When I finally got a weekend slot, it went up to £30. It was relatively cheap."
MeiMei's Street Cart now serves up to 100 people per day (sometimes more) and Melissa plans on setting up another stall so she can run different festivals and markets at the same time. In fact, Mei Mei's Street Cart has become so successful, Melissa has even been able to offer her friends jobs: "I get some of my friends who haven't found jobs after university to come and work for me - it's really good that I'm in a position now to give them some income."
Melissa has had her fair share of tough trading days, too. But she has a remedy for these: "We have a cool box that just has beer in it for when that happens," she laughs.
In the mood for food
The success of MeiMei's Street Cart has paved the way for a new project - Wong's. Inspired by Wong Kar-Wai's seminal film, In The Mood For Love, the pop-up restaurant ran for a month in a disused Citroen garage in Islington. Melissa describes it as a 1960s Chinese speakeasy that promised Chinese comfort food, lethal cocktails and jazz.
For Melissa, Wong's was something she has wanted to do for a long time. "I get frustrated by the Chinese food being served in London - it's always so horrible and westernised," she explains. "Wong's is the antithesis of Chinatown because we serve all free-range produce and all the recipes are home-made. They're a mix of my own recipes and my Chinese grandma's recipes."
The success Melissa had with Wong's over the summer has inspired her to take the next step and open up a restaurant: "I've been looking at places in Peckham because it's relatively cheap down there. I think I'd do it in a place like a cafe that's gone out of business."
From blog to supper club
Scaling up from a stall to a restaurant isn't the only way young entrepreneurs are growing their businesses. Rosie Norman, 26, a nutrition and dietetics student at King's College London, was diagnosed with coeliac disease when she was 13. After noticing that gluten-free food was becoming popular among non-coeliacs, she began to investigate what foods people were blogging about.
"There are lots of blogs about indulgent gluten-free food, but I couldn't find any blogs that covered gluten-free food from a really healthy, nutritional perspective," explains Rosie. "There's a misconception that just because something's gluten-free, it's good for you. Even in the supermarkets, a lot of the gluten-free food includes processed biscuits and white flour." Realising that she could do something to educate people about gluten-free food, Rosie set up her blog GlutenFreeRosie. Her recipes are inspired by a combination of her own experiences of coeliac disease and her knowledge of nutrition. As her blog grew in popularity, Rosie saw an opportunity to start up a business and established a gluten-free supper club.
"I chose the supper club format for my business because it was so easy to start up. You don't have to have a lot of money in your bank account before doing it, because people buy tickets for the dinner beforehand," explains Rosie. She adds that the first time round she was happy to simply break even, charging £20 for a cocktail, some live music, a three-course meal and a going-home present - some almond nut butter. Rosie's next supper club has already sold out, and her ultimate ambition would be to launch her own line of nut butters.
For Rosie and Melissa, part of their startup success is down to the fact that being young themselves they really understand many of their customers. According to recent market research by Horizon, over 75 per cent of 18-34 year olds have eaten out in the past two weeks, compared to 53 per cent of 35-54 year olds. Young people are also spending less when they dine out, which is why cheap alternatives like stalls and pop-up restaurants are so appealing.
The popularity of eating out among young people also means that using social media has the potential to make a greater impact on your business, as young diners are more likely to Instagram their lunch and follow your Twitter feed to check when and where your next stall will be. Although there are Tumblr accounts making fun of "pictures of hipsters taking pictures of their food", social media is an instant way to see and share what's out there.
"Social media has allowed information about different food practices and cultures from all over the world to become extremely accessible," says Rosie. "And then this creates a platform allowing young people who are on social media to see gaps in the market and see demand."
Rosie uses Instagram to make adverts for her Facebook page promoting the next supper club. She also explains that there is quite a large London supper club following on Twitter and getting on the Twitter lists for supper clubs was an important way of getting her business noticed.
Passion before profit
While the eating out sector is an attractive place for young entrepreneurs to start a business, it's worth bearing in mind that there are few startups that last. To make sure yours does, "don't come out trying to sell the food everyone else is selling," says John Gordon, Operations Director at Brixton Market. "Know the food, present your stall well - and come out and look at how other people do it."
But running a food startup isn't just about being a great cook, you have to take an interest in every aspect of your business. "You have to be your own PR person, you have to do all your own advertising and you need to be head chef," says Melissa. "You have to be prepared to do things you might not have known how to do before."
On top of that, John is keen to stress "It's not a way to make a quick buck. You've got to do your research". It took Melissa two months to set up MeiMei's Street Cart. "I didn't know who to ask for advice, so it took me a while to figure out what I needed to do," she says. "I spoke to my local council, got public liability insurance and my food hygiene certificate. I also used the internet a lot!"
Perhaps the key ingredient to a successful startup has to be a dedication to food. When Melissa and Rosie first set up their food businesses, passion came before profit. Says John: "The people who do well are the people who have a love of food."