INDONESIAN STREET FOOD
AT ITS VERY BEST
I have always been passionate about food and spent lots of time watching and learning in my Mothers kitchen as a child. I’m always reading food blogs, watching cookery programmes on TV or visiting food markets around London. However, despite the diversity of the London street food scene I was unable to find any really good or genuine Indonesian food. I started to cook at home and experiment with different recipes and then would invite my Indonesian friends over to sample my dishes and that’s when one of my friends suggested that I should start to sell my food and make it into a business.
What were you doing before you started?
I first moved to Europe in 2001 where I studied International Hospitality Management at hotel school in Switzerland. I then moved to London in 2003. I was studying and also working for celebrity Chef Brian Turner and then Herbert Berger. So it’s always a fine dining experience. After several years of working in this sector I decided that I wanted to work in the “casual” dining sector. I noticed people going out to dinner more often but to less formal restaurants, so I moved to a Sushi restaurant in the heart of the City. My last position in full time employment was as a branch manager for one of the High Street brand Japanese chains.
We are currently trading from a mobile gazebo – there are 3 of us in the business, Stuart, Nacho and myself. We had been contemplating the idea of setting up for sometime and were looking at various options when we saw a street food trader set-up for sale; this included a van, cooking equipment and a gazebo we bought it. Using a gazebo is the easiest way to start but we would advise to invest a little more money and buy a decent one.
How is your catering set up working for you?
We have a great set-up but it is rather big – a huge gas-jet BBQ, 3 gas burners, 3 rice boxes, 5 cool-boxes and 2 bain-maries as well as 4 catering tables. A lot to fit inside a 3m x 3m gazebo. Despite the size and the time it takes us to set-up each time, this allows us to offer 4/5 dishes and have a capacity for 500+ covers.
Explain the good points and bad points of the trade
Being my own boss is the best aspect of this trade, although it can be hard work and there are long hours spent in the kitchen doing the prep work it is hugely satisfying when you see people enjoying your food and of course when we have a sell-out day. I also enjoy meeting new people and the community spirit amongst the other street food traders is fantastic; I have learnt a lot from other traders and their support has been fantastic; we also regularly swap dishes so we get to try all sorts of delicious food.
It was always my dream to have my own business so now I am living that dream.
The street food scene is hugely competitive and it is important to be in the right market; there can be too many traders. Also some people are not familiar with Indonesian food and thus are sometimes reluctant to try our food. Because some of our ingredients are imported, such as Kecap Manis (sweet soy sauce), It is difficult to keep the costs down for our product. Additionally, we have never wanted to cut corners in terms of quality; we always try to use good quality chicken. Even the boxes that we use to serve our food are more expensive as we feel that it is nicer to eat your food from a quality, deli style card-board box instead of a cheap polystyrene container. Because of the competition it is sometimes difficult to pass these costs on to the customer but we don’t really want to compromise on our core values of offering good quality and tasty food.
The Bad point has to be The weather – need I say anymore.
Have you had any previous experience in mobile catering?
No experience in mobile catering at all but I do have more than 10 years in the hospitality/ food industry.
It is difficult to get onto some of the popular street food markets and you need to build up a reputation before you will be invited along; it is advisable to accept some smaller jobs at the beginning and build that reputation – if you have a good product then word will eventually get around and you will be able to get onto the bigger and more popular markets
As the street food scene has gained popularity so this has attracted more event/market organisers. Unfortunately this has brought some unscrupulous operators who are just trying to make a quick buck; there are certain operators who demand huge upfront fees with no guarantee of footfall or some that want a percentage of your sales – I heard recently that one event organiser was demanding as much as 40%.
The important thing to understand is your basic cost and where your break-even point is. As always you will have to take some risk and be dependent on the Great British weather.
What makes your business stand out from the crowd?
Our Identity, brand, we have such a catchy brand. Ayam Happy as pronounced ‘ I am happy ‘ in Indonesian Ayam means chicken, so its the Happy Chicken. We like to do some play on words as well. apart from the food we have been busy making 2 type of sambal chilli sauce called ‘killing me softly’ and ‘ OMFG ‘ I’ll let you guess which one is the spiciest one.
Have you won any awards?
Not yet, hopefully one day. I would like to apply for the young British foodie award next year, but for the moment I just would like to focus and concentrate with the day to day operations and let the public judge my food instead.
Festival organisers are looking for traders with good ‘Green’ credentials, do you use biodegradable products etc?
All of our packaging are eco friendly. We could have used other disposable products made of foil or Styrofoam but we rather pay something a little bit more expensive but more environmental friendly. We have a ‘no waste’ policy in our kitchen as well.
What resources do you use to find events / advice / legislation etc.. for the day to day running of your business?
I swear by NCASS. I also like to do networking, from the event and also from twitter. Twitter is such a great way to communicate to public and making new friends. I got lots of encouragement and support from other fellow traders as well.
Has your journey so far lived up to your expectations?
It is harder than I had anticipated, everyday throws up a new challenge and is never the same. You can analyse every single aspect of your business but there will be something that you hadn’t thought of. On our first event we thought that we had everything that we needed but ran out of rice in the middle of the service; it was a big panic and meant borrowing a rice cooker from another trader and buying some more rice from a local convenience shop; it turned out to be record day that day but we learnt a lot; it has been a steep learning curve but overall an enjoyable one.
Where next for Ayam Happy?
I would like to have another set up in addition to our gazebo. And longer term to see Ayam Happy on every street corner in London.