Street-food markets have quickly become a popular part of London’s ever-changing dining scene – and in the vanguard of the revolution is the roving KERB enterprise. We meet its founder, Petra Barran.
Petra Barran is the founder-director of KERB, which curates a number of street-food markets in London.
KERB is still a very young company, but has a strong presence in the public spaces of the capital and across social media. Petra has been recognised in the Evening Standard‘s list of London’s 1,000 most influential people, and is as responsible as anyone for the boom in mobile catering over the last few years. She advises new food start-ups, and through KERB facilitates innovative catered events and parties for companies and private individuals.
KERB’s stated aim is “to agglomerate and promote talent in order to animate and transform space between buildings”. That means they negotiate the use of otherwise unused urban areas and turn them into spaces where the public can mingle, and where their network of traders can work and thrive.
Petra has a team of six who help her do this, along with 55 innovative traders that they call on. They’ve laid on regular lunchtime food markets in King’s Cross, Canary Wharf, at the Southbank and the Gherkin in the City. Night-time events have taken place in Granary Square (King’s Cross) and Peckham. From July, they will be trading once a month in Spitalfields too.
Part of KERB’s work involves negotiating with landowners and councils to create opportunities. This is a tricky area full of red tape, and not without its frustrations. “Spatial politics is a challenge,” says Petra. “There are lots of opportunities now, as councils definitely realise that street food offers an amazing value proposition. But this is London, and everything comes with a price tag.”
On the other side, curating and promoting street-food businesses requires an objective selection process and quality control. “We’ve always been fussy, but we’re getting even fussier,” explains Petra. “We want and need food to be worth talking about – that promotes great British food. We have to ensure standards are high, avoid street-food-by-numbers and remain progressive. The skill is ensuring that we get the overall balance of the offering right.”
KERB traders pay a daily rate for their pitch. As well as getting a site to sell their food, they also operate under the banner of KERB and benefit from centralised marketing.
The public are KERB’s indirect client – they’ll only keep turning up if there’s food they want and enjoy, served hygienically and efficiently. Among this writer’s culinary highlights from KERB events are: Korean burritos from Kimchinary; lush meatball subs by Capish; fresh and vibrant filled naan rolls from Rola Wala; perhaps London’s best burger from Bleecker St. Burger; and brilliant Taiwanese steamed buns from Bao. Good & Proper Tea is a great idea – ditto You Doughnut.
How they got here
Petra had a spell working on super-yachts, and travelled extensively. She came back to London because she wanted to start a food business. Gut instinct led her to set up a food van called Choc Star, working at festivals and occasionally on the street when opportunities arose. While doing that, she had another strong idea: that this style of eating, and use of public space, could really grow if someone were to connect like-minded, ambitious traders and make them more visible. Petra formed a collective called Eat St, later forming KERB on her own.
Studying for a MSc in Urban Studies at UCL has had a significant impact on her approach, informed her vision and aided the growth of KERB. “I probably wouldn’t be running things without the course,” she says. “Urbanism helps to explain and make sense out of cities and people. It’s useful in terms understanding how food fits in.”
Petra clearly takes a considered, studied view of the sphere in which her business operates. Cities like Portland, Oregon are inspirational, as are organisations such as The Street Vendor Project and The Centre for Urban Pedagogy in New York. “I really admire organisations that demystify and create access,” she says.
KERB is adding to the number of sites on which it operates and the regularity of its events. Spitalfields is the latest place you can grab a KERB-curated bite: on 2 July there was the first monthly Wednesday lunch on Lamb Street, just between Old Spital Square and Commercial Street. Petra wants to push more evening event opportunities too.
As for longer-term ambitions, she says: “We need more security – a more permanent space that we can really develop and have some kind of ownership/longer lease.”
Watch these public spaces.