With our inaugural awards approaching, we speak to Meriel Armitage, founder of the vegan Club Mexicana, about being rated the best street food stall in London by Time Out…
How did you get into street food?
When I returned to London after living in Melbourne, via LA and New York, I found London was years behind in terms of vegan food offerings. So I set out to change that, which has been a really exciting challenge. We’ve seen London come from that place to being named the world’s leading vegan city.
What are the pluses and minuses of setting up and trading in street food?
Putting up a gazebo every day in all kinds of weather can be challenging and exhausting, but the immediacy of placing your food in a customer’s hands and seeing their reaction just can’t be replicated anywhere else.
How do you do your NPD? What would you say makes a good street food dish?
I just make what I want to eat! My inspiration usually comes from things me and my wife eat out and about. We do a lot of travelling and a lot of menu shopping – such as standing outside restaurants playing ‘what would you have?’ – and talk about food all the time. So it usually stems from a meal and a conversation and I take it from there. I work with some brilliant chefs in my team now who can help me turn my ideas into reality!
The key with street food is to keep it really simple, because you’re going to need to feed lots of people in a very short space of time; we aim for 20 seconds per portion. However, you also need to make it bursting with flavour; it has to be good enough to eat on a cold, rainy London street; and it has to get people coming back for more. Our new burger bar in London Fields demonstrates this all very well.
You’re rated as being the number one street food trader in London by Time Out. How important are online reviews and social media to you?
Being named at number one has been amazing and the impact on our business has been invaluable. Getting that sort of recognition by such a huge force in London is something I never envisaged when I set up Club Mexicana five years ago!
On top of online reviews, I find face-to-face customer interaction incredibly valuable. All reviews are helpful, but I always try and talk to our regular customers about our food and our menus. We’ve got some amazing loyal customers who have been coming to us since we started doing street food at Kings Cross. It’s great to hear their thoughts on the evolution of our food and favourite dishes they’ve had over the years.
Social media is, of course, super-important too. It’s helped us show the world how beautiful vegan food can be and the slop it was perceived to be several years ago in the UK!
What one tip would you offer anyone who wants to operate in street food successfully?
Food is a constant evolution and you’re allowed to make some mistakes, learn and improve. The best thing about street food is that everyone – your customers, your fellow traders – want you to succeed. Everyone’s on your side and will help you every step of the way.
What does the future hold for street food and vegan dining?
It’s an extremely exciting time at present in London. It feels like we are finally catching up with other vegan hotspots around the world and are overtaking them in some respects – and I believe it will only get better and better. The demand for vegan food is now on the mainstream, right where it should be, and people are starting to realise that it can be fun, flavoursome and look great too. And at Club Mexicana we will continue to play a big part in changing these perceptions.
The StrEAT Food Challenge
This event gives 16 finalists from the worlds of street food and casual dining the chance to assemble their signature creations live at a cook-off competition. It will be held at Islington Metal Works in London on 8th May 2019, where finalists will compete to claim the trophy and the prize of £1,000 for creating the UK’s best street food dish.
Sponsored by Ajinomoto, Bewley’s, Electrolux Professional, Farm Frites, Frank’s Hot Sauce, Love Joes, Major and Planglow, you can find more information at www.streatfoodchallenge.co.uk.