Pop-up, start-up: how food on the move could find you success

The pop-up food industry has been around since mobile kitchens became a feasible practice; the ice cream van and the fish and chip mobile truck have long been familiar sights on British roads. In recent years, however, a number of factors have contributed to a resurgence in pop-up food stalls.

There are now more options for transport, such as leased or good-quality second-hand vehicles, thereby decreasing some of the initial investment of starting a new pop-up. Improvements in domestic technology, such as microwaves, have simplified cooking in a stripped-down space. Also, it’s fair to say the UK has become more open minded with their food: developing a taste for experimentation with different kinds of delicacies. All of these combine to make pop-up food stalls a viable and attractive option as a business venture.

The advantages:

For the budding chef or entrepreneur, pop-up food stalls offer a number of advantages over working out of a static kitchen. You can take your business to your customers instead of having to persuade them to come to you. Consequently, you can use your food sales as a means of introducing customers to your brand, and getting them engaged with you and your business — this then provides you with an ideal opportunity to upsell other services, such as private catering, food supplies, recipe books, or cookery lessons.

Everything starts with a business plan

Start by writing down at least one idea for a type of pop-up food stall you’d be happy to run; if possible, put down two or three. Having identified a few angles, go online and do some thorough research to see how your ideas stack up against the market. Since one of the major benefits of pop-up food stalls is their flexibility, a good starting point would be to ask yourself where you think you should go to sell your goods. Once you’ve decided, and you’ve established that your idea and starting location are feasible, find out whether there’s any existing competition and how they are faring. Take advantage of your ability to adapt and doctor your concept at this early stage.

Also, consider when you should be selling your product, deciding if you need to vary your offering according to the time of year. Research to find out who goes to your intended venue: how many people can you reasonably expect, and what is their demographic? Is footfall affected by the weather? Identify the critical times you and your business need to be active to ensure maximum sales.

Why people should buy from you?

You need to be absolutely clear about this yourself: you’re going to need to communicate it to your customers quickly and clearly in a manner that’s digestible and engaging.

Lastly, create a brand that is easy to identify and understand. Doing so is invaluable in gaining a following and contributing to your great reputation for excellent food and service. Choosing your name and branding is incredibly important: like your food, you want your business to appear attractive, inviting, and infinitely shareable. All of these aspects should be included in your initial business plan.

Budget

The first rule of budgeting: do your research. Ensure you have an idea of what you really need versus what you’d like in an ideal world, giving you an educated figure of what you can expect to pay for your vehicle and equipment. Resist any temptation to go for cut-price options: business equipment works as hard as its owners and needs to be able to stand up to heavy-duty use.

Your first and most fundamental decision is what kind of vehicle you want to use as your base of operations. Bigger vehicles, such as market stalls, large tents, and trucks offer more space but the trade-off is portability: some of these vehicles can prove to be effectively static. Smaller vehicles have less space and surface area to work with, perhaps meaning you’ll have to find an alternative location for your food prep, but they are far more portable.

Be careful…

New businesses tend to have to be very careful with their money. Since this is almost certainly the biggest and most important outlay, it may be worth looking at leasing a vehicle to begin with. Then, if you find that this particular vehicle is not working for you, it should be relatively straightforward to change it. Alternatively, you could look at the second-hand market for your vehicle.

Once you’ve found your vehicle, complete the process by choosing adequate insurance and, where relevant, breakdown cover. The good news is that once you have your vehicle, buying the rest of your equipment should be relatively straightforward.

Get the paperwork in order

Your first decision you will have to make is what kind of business you want to be; for example, do you want to be a sole trader or an incorporated company? You will need to register with the environmental health office at your local authority and undergo an inspection; you will also need to register with HMRC for tax purposes. There are other administrative steps that will probably be either necessary or very beneficial for you to take.

As an example:

If you wish to trade on public streets, you will almost certainly need a trading licence from your local council. You should also expect to be asked to present your insurance papers and other safety documentation before being granted either a trading licence or access to private venues. These would typically include: public liability insurance, employers’ liability insurance, — if you have staff — gas and electric safety certificates, and a food hygiene certificate. You may also be asked for evidence that you have undertaken a risk assessment of your business, so you will need to be prepared for all of these.

As a final point, you should set up a business bank account. While this is not, technically, a legal requirement, it can make life much easier in the long run.

Get your business rolling

Once you have everything in place, you can start applying to venues and putting the word out that you have an exciting new offering to share. Remember that building up a business takes time and there can be a long waiting list for popular venues; however, the more flexible you’re prepared to be and the more work you put in, the quicker you’ll cultivate a brand following and grow your business.

You’re likely to make even quicker progress if you learn to be astute about marketing. It costs very little to have business cards printed with your full contact details, including your website and social media presence. Give these out to all your customers and make sure that you keep providing engaging content — things like quality photos of your food on social media — to keep people involved with your brand. Not only is word-of-mouth marketing free, it’s far more likely to resonate with consumers, so do everything you can to keep your customers happily spreading the word about you to the people they know. Your business will grow exponentially as a result.

For more information on how to run a successful business, how and why you should incorporate, as well as additional information on managing staff and business finances, feel free to check out our help centre.

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