From a choc-mobile ice cream van, to a huge membership organisation owning London’s street food scene, KERB has now found a permanent home, having opened a huge 23,000sq. ft bricks-and-mortar site in Seven Dials. Founder Petra Barran talks about humble beginnings, finding a flagship, and a genuine passion and excitement for good food.
KERB street food markets are a London staple. Whether you’re in King’s Cross,West India Quay, the Gherkin or St Katherine Docks, you’ll likely have come across a group of gazebos and vans selling anything and everything from burgers, to bao buns, to biryani. KERB has been going in London for seven years now, and for two years before that as Eat.St. Over that time it has blossomed into something huge and wonderful, and it’s now put down roots in Seven Dials Market.
KERB founder Petra Barran grew up in a little village in Suffolk in the middle of nowhere. She also lived in Africa, and Italy, and then moved back to Suffolk. It was a country life: “We always had a connection to London, but we grew all of our own fruit and veg. My dad picked up road kill, or shot stuff, or rummaged around in Co-op in the ‘reduced to clear’ section. It was all sort of rough and rustic. Food was – and still is – a big part of my family and I was surrounded by it a lot, we talked about it a lot, but my dad did all the cooking.”
Food was at the centre of Barran’s life growing up, and as her parents had friends from all walks of life, it influenced her philosophy which she has brought to KERB, the hugely successful street food member organisation based in London. “No-one is any better than anyone else – treat prince and pauper the same,” Barran says.
Barran’s first job was in the local tearoom. She’s done stints as a waitress, been a runner for a production company, helped her auntie with her florist, worked at the Music Exchange in Notting Hill, sold sausages in the West Country, spent time as an assistant casting director, and worked on yachts. After working on boats came the plan to work in the food industry: “One day I had the bright idea that I was going to start my own chocolate business.” And so, she bought a van, which was in Scotland, brought it back down to London, and Choc Star was born.
“People think it’s a wonderful fantasy to start your own food business, but it’s really hard. It’s really good fun and you have the time of your life doing it and you get to explore Britain through all these events, but it’s hard. It’s physically hard; it’s emotionally hard; and you’ve got the adrenaline of serving customers which needs a whole other level of energy. The beer at the end of the day never tasted so good.”
The birth of KERB
So how do you move from running a street food business, to founding the huge street food organisation that is KERB? After losing a pitch fee from a failed music festival and being sick of people saying how bland the food was England, Barran wanted to change perceptions and improve things for the UK’s street food scene: “When you’re out on the beat there’s a sense of community. It’s us against the elements.”
It was a perfect storm. Street food came along as a new way of operating, along with the rise of social media. Barran didn’t know what she was trying to build at first, but knew something bigger and better could come from a group of people putting their heads together. Out of this came Eat.St, where a group of traders would pitch up wherever they could, but together.
From there, a King’s Cross developer got in touch to talk about contracts and other serious things. It all came together, and suddenly Barran was running a market at King’s Cross a few days a week with fve or six traders at a time. “I thought, this could be a business, so I sold my van to a friend.”
Due to the nature of the street food world, Barran had a lot of contacts and friends, so the business grew organically. Everyone wanted more opportunities and to work with something that was flying the fag for really great, high-quality street food across London.
More than its markets
KERB has traded with some incredibly popular businesses over the years, who have gone on to open restaurants, chains, or who are joining KERB in the new Seven Dials Market. Pizza Pilgrims started out on the streets, as did Bleaker Burger, Bao, Bif’s Jack Shack and Club Mexicana. And things show no signs of
Today, KERB has grown to be so much more than just its markets. As well as being a member organisation, it runs workshops, an InKERBator programme, operates public events, and 50% of the business is private catering. “There are lots of great markets we love, but you can’t compare to them because we are a different business. Our lunch markets are our shop window. They are where we come from and they are a window into a lot of other things we do. It’s got a lot of tentacles this business,” Barran says.
And of course, there’s the very difficult task of balancing expansion, while ensuring all the vendors you work with are delivering quality products. “Overall, it’s about making sure each trader is handling their business on all levels. Our market managers are incredible and really into it themselves. But every trader is their own entity. We’re not trying to manage their operations, we’re just trying to make sure standards are good, operationally safe and aesthetically on point. The biggest challenge for us is walking the line between totally understanding how it feels as a trader trying to just make some money and realise your dream, with us needing to be a professional outfit.”
To get into the KERB club, members must go through the inKERBator programme. It’s a three-month programme designed to give early stage businesses with raw talent, but maybe not much experience, the chance to accelerate their growth. There are intakes every quarter, and KERB bring them up to standards with market pitches, mentorship, access to resources and ongoing feedback. “We only take about 5%. There isn’t a rule on who we do take, but you know it when you see it: people with a really clear vision and passionate approach to whatever they’re doing. There has to be an energetic force,” Barran says.
What really comes across from Barran is her genuine excitement and passion about good food, and getting good food to the people. “Food represents such an amazing arena within which to connect, because it is literally such a large part of everybody’s day… I’m into businesses that feel good as well as look good and taste good. I’m interested in food that’s cooked by people for people, that feels real. I’m into places that feel like they belong there and are going to be there for a long time.”
KERB finds a flagship
Speaking of being there a long time, KERB has launched its first bricks-and-mortar site. The Seven Dials Market – or Thomas Neal’s Warehouse – was tipped to be a clothes retail space, but the landscape shifted and it became clear it wasn’t what people wanted. “People are looking for more ways than ever to be around one another and sharing in something… It’s about how you get creative around the things that are long lasting, and creating spaces people love and cherish. That needs to be the focus for all industries, but especially food.”
Barran describes Seven Dials Market as a “beautiful space”. It’s a 19th century ex-warehouse that used to store bananas for ripening, along with cucumbers, as well as books at some point in its long history. So of course, there’s a Cucumber Alley, a Banana Warehouse, and a market bookshop. All homages to what was there before.
“I’m fascinated by the whole of Seven Dials and its design. It feels really good to be in a space that has a bit of history to it,” Barran says.
Over two levels, there will be 25 vendors on site: 13 food-on-the-go, and 12 produce. Upstairs, the venue has Pick & Cheese with its 40-metre cheese conveyor belt; Club Mexicana has its first indoor space; Claw is serving up lobster rolls and crab mac n’ cheese; Big Shot Coffee has coffee and donuts; Square Roots brings a bar for the sober and sober curious; and Monty’s Deli has a Jewish deli counter with its famous sandwiches.
“Monty’s traded with us when they first started in 2012. They would sell 30 servings of salt beef
sandwiches at King’s Cross and they would always sell out. We would say: ‘You should make more!’ They’d say, ‘We physically can’t! We do it all ourselves!’. It’s lovely to have them back in the fold and working with us with this different level of security.”
Downstairs, there are another seven vendors. Ink is doing fish and chips; Petare is doing fried chicken – “they won our Bucket List event two years running”; Truffle doing truffle burgers – “he’s this young guy who is 23 and has been with us for a year and a half. He’s really on it, ambitious, really positive, and up for making it work”; Strozzapreti pasta from the Franco Manca founders; Nanban Central from Masterchef winner Tim Anderson doing “on-acid style ramen”; Yum Bun – “she’s gone on to have multiple locations and is just a joy”; and Rice Guys, doing Chinese rice bowls.
And there may even be an homage to Choc Star, with hot chocolate and the odd frozen chocolate-dipped banana on sale.
There aren’t plans to rotate the vendors in the Seven Dials Market venue, although a couple of shifts are expected. “I think you want places that evolve. People might head of to open an actual restaurant and create space for a new kid that’s ready. We have a lot of people coming through the ranks, and we are excited for who we have coming through,” Barran says.
Barran is keen to make the Seven Dials Market a space people feel they can use: “There’s not that many spaces where you feel like you can do that round there.” It’s meant to be a place people could be in all day. Do some work, grab some food, grab a drink, meet your friends later, buy a book, listen to some music. “We don’t want it to feel exclusive, we want it to feel inclusive and fun, and somewhere that serves really great food and drink.”
Speaking of drinks, KERB is working with brewers from Gipsy Hill who are supplying the beer lines and bringing in smaller brewers which would never have been able to set up tap, as well as serving cocktails that are, “really good and interesting without trying to be too wacky.” Who knows where KERB will go next, or which of the traders it works with will be next to open a restaurant, but taking over 23,000sq. ft in central London is leaps and bounds from a group of traders pitching up on a tow path in east London.
“There are a lot of exciting opportunities to take a space like this in the centre of London and mould it into something that feels independent, collaborative, and that comes from the streets,” smiles Barran.