Branding

May '24

The art of experiential street food dining and what other businesses can learn from it

Tom Bradley in Marketing, Branding, & Signage

Street food

In the last few weeks, our home town of Lincoln has seen the launch of two impressive food and drink markets offering up delicacies from every corner of the world.

Between us, we’ve sampled a fair few stalls and already have firm favourites that we’re returning to on a regular basis. So what makes one street food stall stand out amongst the rest? Does it just come down to the flavours or is there something more going on?…

Why are food markets so popular at the moment?

Street food markets are certainly all the rage with new locations popping up all over the country and growing ever grander in scale (Sheffield’s Cambridge Street Collection boasting to be the largest in Europe for instance). 

This rise in popularity goes hand in hand with the rapidly evolving experience economy that has taken the world by storm in recent years. At the heart of this movement is the search for the unusual, the authentic and the altogether more ‘real’ which has led to upsurges in the likes of backpacking holidays, escape rooms, pottery making, adrenaline sports and, you guessed it, the exciting unpredictability of street food.

A strong brand identity

The beauty of food markets is their ability to broaden horizons and transport diners to brave new worlds via their tastebuds. But is there more to it than just the food? Do we, for instance, inevitably opt for the stalls that we identify most with personally?

Could you open up a new stall with no brand, no identity, no menu and expect the same results? - quite possibly, but this anti-brand approach would in effect become your brand and would appeal deeply to a particular type of audience looking to challenge the status quo. 

Standing out amongst the eclectic atmosphere of a bustling market is all about drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘ok this is us, we do this, if you like that sort of thing you’re gonna bloody love what we’re offering’. To do this effectively, you must put in some thought: Who are we? Who do we appeal to? Why? Why? Why?

By going through this process, you’ll not only give yourself a stronger identity but you’ll understand your tribe more fully. 

For example, imagine I’m opening up a new coffee stand. There’s already hundreds of coffee stands in this market - why would someone pick my stand over ‘Java Joe’s’ next door?…

Who am I?:

I’m a local, independent coffee roaster. I only use the best quality fair trade and sustainable coffee beans. We only use compostable packaging. We are passionate about crafting the perfect coffee and go to great lengths to achieve it - this is reflected in our price, more expensive than most of the other local coffee vendors. 

Who do I appeal to?:

People who value quality, sustainability, flavour, fairness and local independents.

Why?

Because my audience has tried the cheap stuff and it’s not worth saving a few quid for, they’re foodies, they care about the environment, they care about the producers behind the ingredients and they prefer not to buy from big corporates that don’t pay their tax bills.

Why?

Because they think responsible businesses have more integrity and authenticity and want more of those sorts of values in their lives.

Why?

Because it makes them feel like they’ve made a positive difference in the world, one sip at a time.

Once you’ve got to the crux of it, you can develop everything around your ‘Why’. Your product, your messaging, your language, your visuals etc. and you will connect more deeply with your target audience.  

So whether your identity is calm serenity, purposefully pretentious, confrontational or social - identify your tribe and speak to them in a language that resonates.

Bike food sign

Authenticity

We’ve already touched on how authenticity is the cornerstone of experiential dining, so how can you ensure that your food stand provides the right feeling? The answer is to speak to all the senses:

Sight

As the old saying goes ‘we eat first with our eyes’ and this isn’t necessarily limited to the presentation of the food itself. If I spot a vibrant taco van in the distance, I can already imagine the sorts of flavours I’m going to experience when I get there. So it’s about the branding, the menu and the artwork, it’s about the space that you’re creating, the authentic open kitchen, the lighting, the uniforms - everything. All these small details will leave some sort of lasting impression so think back to your tribe, think back to your shared values and dress your business accordingly.

Sound

What is going to provide the most authentic experience here? Is it the sound of hot sizzling pans, is it the cooks laughing and joking together, is it banter with the customer, is it a particular style of music? What energy do you want to bring to the experience?

Smell

Smells have the power to draw people towards your stand as they follow their noses. There’s a well known fudge shop in Lincoln that uses this marketing tactic perfectly. Every day they’ll make up a fresh batch of sweet fudge in their shop window and whilst doing so - they open up their window as wide as it’ll go. It’s almost impossible to walk past that shop when it’s in full gear!

Touch

Tactile design can also make a difference to the customer experience. A shiny, chrome bar makes me feel like I’m visiting the local chip shop. A rustic wooden bar transports me to a coastal crab shack. A beer in a plastic cup makes me feel cheap and untrustworthy - you get the idea. 

Taste

It goes without saying that even if you nail everything else in this list, great tasting food is the difference between visiting once and becoming a regular. One thing I know for sure is that expectations will be high so you’d better bring the flavour if you want a repeat visit or a recommendation! 

Branded greaseproof paper packaging

Packaging & sustainability

We’ve just touched on the tactile nature of the experience and this extends to your packaging too, as does sustainability. The environmental credentials of your packaging is becoming ever more important to takeaway diners. Compostable, biodegradable and recyclable packaging has now become the norm to the extent that being presented with a plastic fork or polystyrene cup often results in a negative judgement of your brand - in the UK this will most likely take the form of an eye roll and/or an audible tut - but the judgement will remain and will put a stain on the experience.

When you’ve gone through all the effort of providing the very best, most genuine experience possible - don’t mess it up at the end with your packaging. Remember, this is the thing that diners are going to take with them after they’ve paid, they will likely spend more time with your packaging than they did at the stall itself - so it needs to be just as considered, not an afterthought.

Your packaging also presents an opportunity for additional branding. Make sure your logo is visible on the outside of the cup or bowl so that when others are peering over the shoulders of your diners to see what they’re eating that smells so good - they can see exactly where it came from.

Happy barista

Service & speed

Two final important pieces of the experiential puzzle are service and speed. Was my server friendly and personable? Were they passionate about their craft or did they seem bored and annoyed? Was I made to feel welcome or did I feel like an outsider for asking about an ingredient or mispronouncing one of the options? Customer service, as with all industries, can make or break an experience. 

With regards to speed, there are two sides to the equation - how long did it take to order? and how long did it take to cook? Fortunately the answer to both issues is the scale of the menu. Inevitably, stalls with smaller menus streamline both the ordering and cooking processes. 

For those with larger menus, make sure that your options are clear, concise and that any special requirements or processes are clearly marked out for all to see from the back of the queue. 

A couple of good examples of this would be the fish and chip shops that prompt you to shout out your fish order as you enter the shop (even from the back of the queue) so that you’re not waiting around when it becomes your turn to order. Or the burrito place that stumbles to a halt when you get a new customer that doesn’t quite understand the array of options and the flow of their burrito’s construction. 

It’s all about communication - don’t assume the customer knows what to do in these circumstances, it’s up to you to spell it out to them as quickly and easily as possible.

In conclusion

Creating a standout street food stall is about much more than just the food. It's about crafting a memorable and authentic experience that resonates with your target audience. From the allure of your branding to the tactile feel of your packaging, every detail counts.

It’s easy to see parallels with businesses in other sectors too - audience understanding, targeted branding, building powerful connections, storytelling, authenticity, good service and so on. 

If you're looking to elevate your own street food business (or any other business for that matter), our studio is here to help. Contact us today to get started.

Thanks for reading

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