“Stop me and buy one” is a slogan traditionally used by ice cream vendors. Now, you might also be likely to find coffee, bread, cakes, and sandwiches sold on your street.
A growing number of cafes and caterers forced to shut down during the lockdown are investing in vans fitted with espresso machines or reusing milk floats to deliver them to customers working from home.
Many are hoping to take advantage of the growing community spirit in cities, sparked by #ClapForCarers and the WhatsApp neighborhood groups that sprang up when the lockdown began.
In south London, Zoe Watkins, co-founder of Livewire Kitchen, is closing two of her three cafes and switching to a van – Little Livewire – selling coffee, superfoods, and natural and energy drinks.
“We’re talking to people locally to ask them where they want us to go,” Watkins said. “Each area has a Facebook community and we talk to them, saying we can come to one place every Wednesday morning, another place on Thursday, and so on.
The pickup has sides that fold down to reveal an espresso machine and has onboard water supply. It takes about 20 minutes to set up and Watkins is hopeful that a regular meeting point near the homes will help build community ties.
This is just one of many similar operations. The owners of the Dusty Knuckle bakery and cafe in east London have reused a milk float to bring bread and pastries to patrons across town. They publish a weekly schedule of where they will be so that customers can go out to browse the goods outside their doors. The experiment appears to be a success, with socially distant queues of people waiting to be served.
According to the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS), at least 3,000 food vans in the UK could provide a similar local service, but are hampered by bureaucracy. In addition to hygiene controls and food standards, mobile caterers also need a street trade license from each local authority area in which they operate.
“This is something that we plan to increase over the next few months, but the problem is licensing,” said NCASS director Mark Laurie.
“There is a lot of confusion over what is legal and what food vans are allowed to do,” Laurie said. “The boards are very busy and don’t have enough staff to handle requests.” Click-and-collect services do not need to be licensed, but stopping on the street requires a permit, although private land is exempt.
“There could be a major change in our economy. It happens a lot in the villages – fish and chip vans go around, a different village every day. But this has not happened so much in the cities. We think we should be able to apply for pavement permits.
“The viability of central London restaurants and take out restaurants is in question because office workers are not there. It makes sense to go where the customers are. “
Many workers are unlikely to return to their desks for months – if they ever do. Google staff will work from home until at least July 2021. Coca-Cola, Unilever, Vodafone, Pearson, KPMG and a host of other companies said last week that they would not reopen their offices until next year at the earliest.
Pret a Manger is closing 30 of its 410 stores and more businesses will likely follow when the government’s holiday program ends.
On Saturday, the government changed its guidelines to encourage employees to return to workplaces to help restart the economy of commuters. He had come under pressure from Conservative MPs like Iain Duncan Smith, who said employers were “absolutely crazy not to have more employees in return.”
Before the pandemic, around 1.7 million people worked mainly from home, according to the Office of National Statistics. In June, 49% of the working population – around 16 million people – worked from home for at least part of the week.
This represents a huge untapped market, says NCASS, but many members are unsure of the complex rules governing street trading.
Pete Hewitt, who reached the 2015 Chef final and won at the European Street Food Awards last year, has a Japanese-inspired food truck called Homeboys which is commonly seen at food festivals but has been on the streets of Nottingham. “We would have done more but the licensing was very complicated,” he said. “When the lockdown started, we found an old abandoned restaurant and started selling there, but we had complaints. The license costs £ 180 per year, which is good if you do it all the time, but at the moment no one knows what’s going to happen.
In London, Watkins’ mobile van is made by Big Coffee, which sells converted Piaggio vans to street traders and others such as Yorkshire Tea, Upper Crust, Unilever and Subway for £ 10,000 to £ 70,000. It also converts VW buses, taxis and campervans and offers a £ 6,000 pedal espresso trike for fit baristas.
“We’ve been going there for 20 years and it’s the busiest we’ve been,” said company director Rob Dixon.
“It’s not just coffee – we also make prosecco vans, craft beers, cocktails, food, ice cream. I spoke to someone the other day who is developing an app where people can order coffees and they will be doing a delivery tour. ”