The British street food scene was flying before Covid hit, drawing huge investment for new sites across the country. Can it recover those heady heights?

It’s noon at Market Halls Oxford Street and the daily lunch service is underway. Spices are sizzling at DF Tacos, wings are frying at Chick Chick Crew, and the beef rendang is bubbling away at Gopal’s Corner. Groups of tourists, locals and office workers slowly circulate, taking in the sights and smells. By 12.30pm, they have completely filled the seating area with food and chatter.

It is a welcome sign of a tentative recovery in the street food scene. Before the pandemic, the market was booming and on track to be worth £1.3bn, growing at a rate of 7% year on year, according to research by Lumina Intelligence.

The likes of Market Halls were laying out ambitious growth plans and attracting serious investment. In 2019, it attracted £20m in private equity investment, with plans to grow revenue by 77% in the 2020 financial year.

Then Covid hit. Overnight, street food venues were forced to close their doors and expansion plans were quickly scaled back to focus instead on survival. At Market Hall, within two years of its multimillion-pound investment, the business fell into insolvency and was forced to enter a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) to pay its debtors. Its equity, meanwhile, plummeted from £2.8m in 2020 to –£2.6m in the financial year ended 4 July 2021, according to its accounts.

“The past 14 months have been the most challenging of my career,” says Andy Lewis-Pratt, Market Halls founder and CEO at the time.

“Prior to the pandemic, we were fast-growing and had exciting plans for our business. But with prolonged restrictions forcing us to close our doors indefinitely, the future of Market Halls is now at real risk.”

Yet shoots of recovery are starting to emerge. Market Halls’ flagship Oxford Street site officially reopened its doors back in March this year. Many other venues are similarly reawakening, and ambitious new sites have come on to the scene since the start of Covid, as profiled on these pages.

Market hall 2

 “The future of Market Halls is now at real risk”

There’s no denying the scale of the damage wrought by the pandemic with Market Halls by no means the only operator to suffer. Boxpark, a chain of street food venues across London, suffered a £2.3m loss in the year ending 30 April 2021, down from a £2.2m profit the year before, its accounts show. CEO and founder Roger Wade said this was down to its three venues being closed for 30 weeks of the financial year.

But if Covid was bad for the big operators, it was even worse for the independent traders who inhabit them. While Boxpark suspended all rent and service charges for traders during the pandemic, its residents suffered from a lack of government support to keep them going amid the enforced closure. Kerb, which runs four markets across London and describes itself as an incubator for independent traders, can testify to the challenges.

“Most of our vendors are self-employed and didn’t have commercial premises so they didn’t benefit from grants or the reduction in business rates,” says Kerb CEO Simon Mitchell. “There was only very limited government support available.”

Although Kerb offered its own form of support – selling vouchers that customers could use for traders when they returned and running a website for anyone who pivoted to meal kits and delivery – many people left the sector altogether. “We lost about a third of our membership, so we went from 100 members to 60 or 65,” Mitchell recalls.

Feast It, an event planning platform that enables booking of street food traders, tells a similar story. “A lot of businesses didn’t survive the pandemic, a lot of traders have come off the platform,” says community manager Josh Ebsworth, formerly a street food chef.

“Most of our vendors are self-employed and didn’t have commercial premises so they didn’t benefit from grants or the reduction in business rates”

Yet both businesses illustrate the more positive narrative emerging since the end of lockdowns. Ebsworth says “we’re seeing three years’ worth of events crammed into one”, which has resulted in “insane” demand to book traders over the summer months. Kerb’s Mitchell says its Seven Dials market near Covent Garden is “busier than ever”, having attracted Londoners as well as tourists and office workers.

At the same time, Mitchell admits its sites in the City remain quieter than pre-pandemic. The contrasting fortunes across his portfolio illustrate how the street food scene is evolving in the wake of Covid. Permanent shifts in consumer behaviour – particularly the move to hybrid or home working – have resulted in a shift in the busiest times and locations for street food venues.

While sites that were made for weekday workers are struggling, others in more local or central locations are thriving. And venues that relied on a bit of both demographics are having to shift the way they operate.

The new peak time

Take Temple Quay Market in Bristol. Having relied on weekday workers and taken a hit in the pandemic, it “now feels successful again”, says David Pyne of Square Route Events, which runs the market. However, it’s also considering operating on other days of the week as working patterns change.

Borough Market is in a similar position. Its Borough Market Kitchen street food area opened in November 2019, just before the pandemic hit. Back then, the weekday lunch was the peak occasion and the market was closed on Sundays. Since reopening last summer, that pattern has been turned on its head.

“The weekday build has been very slow and we’ve been a weekend market predominantly for many months,” says Lucy Charles, operations director at Borough Market. On that basis, it launched Sunday trading across the main market last June, and Borough Market Kitchen is shortly due to follow suit. For Charles, this will be crucial as weekend footfall returns to – and even exceeds – pre-pandemic levels.

This shift in occasions is also changing what people want from a street food market. Before, a large portion of trade came from office workers looking for a quick lunch. Now it’s increasingly from consumers looking for a big weekend experience. “There is a pent-up demand for group dining,” says Trish Caddy, senior foodservice analyst at Mintel. “People are looking for a place where they can meet up with their friends and have fun with food and drink.”

Caddy has noticed a growing number of new venues catering to this trend with entertainment that matches their food offer. Take Manchester’s Escape to Freight Island, which includes a cocktail bar and makes much of its “outstanding entertainment”, including live music and comedy sets. Or Hockley Social Club, which hosts performers such as the Birmingham Symphonic Orchestra and looks to replicate the “club” feel of street food venues in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Escape to Freight Island 5

Source: Escape to Freight Island

“People are looking for a place where they can meet up with their friends and have fun with food and drink”

There is also a growing interest in more specialist venues, says Caddy. She points to Alkebulan, a food hall entirely devoted to African cuisine that’s set to arrive in London later this year.

If the original Dubai branch is anything to go by, it will be home to some cutting-edge vendors. There, traders include Tasty Goat, which offers a nose-to-tail menu, and Shoebox, which showcases African bakery. Dishes at Penja, which brands itself the home of “innovative African cuisine”, include sweet ‘gbofloto’ doughnuts and a cuttlefish fricassee.

For Caddy, the arrival of such a venue in London is symbolic of the growing UK interest in exploring new cuisines. “We are seeing emerging cuisines such as Caribbean, Moroccan/African and Korean, continue to gain popularity both in terms of restaurant visits as well as takeaway and home delivery orders,” she says.

This can only be a positive for the street food scene, which has always been fertile breeding ground for relatively unexplored world cuisines and concepts. For Caddy, it’s one of the trends that shows its potential to thrive in the post-lockdown world.

All in all, confidence is high in the ability of street food to not just recover from the pandemic, but to grow beyond pre-pandemic levels. Lumina expects the market to be worth £1.6bn in 2024. That Boxpark is investing in a new concept – its “premium food and beverage” Boxhall sites will arrive in both Liverpool Street, London, and Bristol in 2023 – perhaps says it all.

Feast It’s Ebsworth, for one, is dismissive of any suggestion street food is in danger of stagnating or reaching saturation point. “I used to be a street food trader between 2014 and 2018, and there was talk of saturation back then,” he recalls. “But we’re seeing the opposite – so much demand coming through.” His only warning is “you have to be make your content stand out a bit more” in this increasingly crowded market.

“The companies with the greatest success are ones that are able to tell their story the best,” Ebsworth says.

Kerb’s Mitchell has seen the same phenomenon. “People want to know the story,” he says. For him, it’s all part of a growing desire for food that is genuinely independent and authentic. “People in my crowd are much more inclined to go to a brilliant independent rather than Wagamama,” he points out.

Independent vibes

For operators such as Mitchell, this passion for independence represents one caveat to their enthusiasm for the growing street food scene. Its very ethos risks getting lost as large-scale developments crop up across the UK, he believes. “I worry these places are becoming inaccessible,” Mitchell says.

After all, it’s easier for vendors with sizeable backing – he cites Wahaca spinoff DF Tacos – to afford rents on the permanent plots that tend to characterise these spaces. For up-and-coming independent traders who are used to travelling around in a van, not so much.

It could make it much harder for traders to start out with simply a truck and an idea. Jack Brabant, director and founder of Digbeth Dining Club range of venues in Birmingham, which includes Hockley Social Club, has been mindful of this danger when sourcing traders.

“My worst fear is that street food may evolve to a high-street standard, losing its diversity and the passion of the people originally behind it”

“Street food has been a bit bastardised in the past few years. We’ve got every restaurant saying they’ve got a street food menu and it’s become a buzzword,” he argues. “But we’re an authentic brand. We’ve been there since day one and we pride ourselves on having the best local traders.”

Matt Bigland, director at GPO Liverpool, also talks about the “bastardised version” of street food. “My worst fear is that street food may evolve to a high-street standard, losing its diversity and the passion of those people originally behind it,” he says.

At the same time, he believes the public shares his overriding passion for independent, exciting operators. “The real growth will come from people cooking food that is authentic and true to where they come from,” he sums up.

It’s important, given that Kerb’s Mitchell points out many of the UK’s most exciting restaurants and chefs have started out with just a stall. So if the street food was to decline in size or quality, the entire UK food scene would suffer.

But if he and the key operators defining the post-pandemic scene have anything to do with it, the excitement around street food is in no danger of stalling. In fact, its recovery from Covid may be just the beginning.

Six street food venues opened during and post-pandemic


Source: Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Opened: October 2020

Where: London Bridge

The food: A single street food vendor of choice sets up in the premises for a six-month stint. Mr Bao was there for the initial six months, and it’s now partnered with Da Ja, which specialises in south-east Asian cuisine. Delicacies include a ‘Konnichiwage’ Dipping Chicken Burger and Sesame Halloumi Sticks.

What makes it different: It’s located in a 17th century church, for starters. Amazing Grace has been keen to make the most of its unique venue, says marketing director Sammie Ellard-King. The site is known for its music as much as its food – regularly hosting events such as gospel brunches as it aspires to be seen as a “premium jazz café” .


Escape to Freight Island

Source: Escape to Freight Island

Escape to Freight Island

Opened: July 2020

Where: Manchester, just a short walk from Piccadilly Station

The food: The site houses 10 traders. Leading the lineup is grill specialist Carnival, a collaboration with Hawksmoor co-founder Richard Turner serving the likes of pork chop with apple tamarind ketchup and lobster with wild garlic. It’s joined by burger specialist Burgerism and American bakehouse Batard.

What makes it different: Housed in the regenerated Depot Mayfield, a former disused railway depot, Escape to Freight Island oozes an industrial feel. Plus, it’s gone all-out on entertainment. It’s opening a roller skate rink this spring and holds regular Sunday festivals, on top of Thursday comedy nights and Friday residencies with local performers.




Source: GPO



Opened: July 2021

Where: Liverpool’s Metquarter

The food: Customers can choose from 10 independent businesses including Indian specialist Chit ‘n’ Chaat, which serves ‘the ultimate Bombay grilled sandwich’, and Korean vendor Love Kimchi, serving glazed chicken baos and Katsu fries.

What makes it different: GPO director Matt Bigland, who also manages Cutlery Works in Sheffield, is big on the community side of street venues. As such, his premises are “backing food banks, hosting STEAM classes for the family, music classes for children, art workshops and offering ‘kids eat free’ at our establishments” he points out. Plus, it has a strong focus on supporting independent traders.




Source: Hatch



Opened: July 2020

Where: Weymouth

The food: Fresh seafood is the entire premise behind Hatch on the Harbour, which opened during lockdown to showcase what the local fishing boats had to offer. The prepared meals range from grilled lobster to scallops with salsa verde.

What makes it different: “Seafood is always best served fresh, so we source ours straight from the local inshore fishing boats – which isn’t difficult since they land their catch right outside our windows every day,” Hatch says. “We can tell you where and when your meal was caught, and most likely exactly who caught it too.” It’s a powerful USP as diners increasingly look for freshness and transparency – and it’s sustainably sourced, too.



Hockley Social Club (1)

Source: Hockley Social Club


Hockley Social Club

Opened: May 2020

Where: Birmingham, close to the Jewellery Quarter and Snow Hill stations

The food: Digbeth Dining Club, the Birmingham street food business that runs the Hockley site, prides itself on attracting independent local vendors. Hockley Social Club has four kitchens, two bars and a coffee shop, some of which run on a residency basis. In May, it welcomed new resident Street Souvlaki, which specialises in Greek barbecue fare.

What makes it different: “We wanted to create a more adult version of street food, like the places you see in Berlin and Amsterdam,” says Digbeth Dining Club founder Jack Brabant. As such, it stages regular live music performances – and has a record shop to boot.



Lalaland credit Nic Crilly-Hargrave-1

Source: Nic Crilly-Hargrave



Opened: May 2022

Where: Shoreditch, London

The food: The venue currently houses 15 vendors. These range from pulled duck specialist The Duck Shed to Trinidadian vendor Saga Boy. Meanwhile, Gua Bao will be serving up hot steamed buns.

What makes it different: “Our vision was to create a unique urban oasis in the city,” says Conor George, director of LaLaLand. The promo shots for the market, which launched to VIPs on 11 May, certainly suggest it has delivered on that front (there will even be a waterfall at the entrance). But it’s not all about the aesthetics. The ultimate aim is to “explore delicious food, drink and memorable music and entertainment”, says George.