31/5/14 – the date that Sticky Beaks went from being a dream to a proper bona fide street food trader. Last Saturday we sold our first sandwich to the public – a blonde girl in Fulham Broadway, who wasn’t wearing any shoes. She wanted meatballs, but they weren’t hot enough yet (more about that later) so she went for the Vietnamese pulled pork sandwich instead. It was an incredibly satisfying day, it certainly won’t be our most successful afternoon sales-wise, but definitely the most triumphant feeling we are likely to have after a market day.
This may come as a surprise to all of you, but it turned out, we didn’t know everything about selling sandwiches on a market stall. I know, we were as baffled as you. I’d say we probably learnt more over the weekend than in the last 6 months of researching the business. Here’s a quick rundown of the key moments on a learning curve so steep, Red Bull will probably be televising someone sliding down it very soon.
1. You should probably start cooking food earlier than 3pm the day before trading – it had been an incredibly busy week making sure all our stock was ordered, equipment arrived and we knew how to set up the gazebo properly (we didn’t). So on Friday, it was pretty late in the day before I started to make 3.5kg of lamb into nearly 200 meatballs, 5kg of chopped tomatoes into a thick, spicy sauce, before even considering mixing the minted yoghurt, spicy dressing, let alone toasting almonds. It was a late night, not helped by a bread delivery from the bakery at 2:45am.
2. It’s not as easy as you think to put up a gazebo – In the midst of setting up before trading, we were pretty happy with how it was all going. The tent and tables were up, menu written on the blackboard, business cards displayed proudly at the front of the stall, when James, the market runner, comes over asking “what’s wrong with your gazebo? It looks a bit saggy on top”. It turns out the pole that fell out when we were doing a dry run in our back garden was actually useful as opposed to ‘probably not important’. It props up the apex, to make it look like a proper tent, rather than something a couple of drunk guys put up after a late night, drunken arrival at Glastonbury.
3. Chafing dishes take longer than 30 minute to heat up food – There was a slight panic at 11:30 when people were starting to show interest in the food stalls around Jerdan Place and we had put the heat under our meatballs and pork around half an hour earlier, and they were both stone cold. So we added a third… then a fourth pot of fuel underneath each one, but it still took until about 2pm before everything was hot enough to serve at a proper temperature. We could whack the pulled pork on the griddle, but it’s quite hard to heat up the meatballs in sauce on a flat grill. When we arrived at around 8:30, the hog roast stand guy, who’s been doing it for years, was set up, with his chafing dishes already going, and instead of taking it as a sign, we both thought “look at that chump, his meat’s gonna be well dry by the time it comes to serving”. Hmmmm.
4. Explain yourself better! – Annoyingly the stall sign we ordered was ready but not delivered for Saturday, so nobody knew we were called Sticky Beaks. We had a blackboard written with our menu on it, but working on a budget meant there wasn’t much left in the pot to buy anything else. The other stalls on the square had big, bold signage which inevitably was going to attract more customers, but it’s something we will get right and be able to compete with in time. Better explanations of our menu will also go a long way to attracting customers. We know what a Banh Mi is, a sandwich sent by the French and Vietnamese gods for us all to be thankful for, but it’s dangerous to assume everyone is on the same page. This weekend, a new sign shouting about the pulled pork element, giving us the chance to sing the praises of its accompaniments should be a more effective way of bringing in the passing trade. The lesson learnt is you can’t boast about yourself enough, something one half of Sticky Beaks (hint: it’s not Laura) should be well aware of.
5. Your friends will come through for you every time – It was 12:30, the meat was cold, we hadn’t sold a sandwich and the Venezuelan food stand and hog roast appeared to have swarms of customers, there was a look of mild panic on our faces that we’d made a mistake setting up a business, all ridiculous considering we were an hour into our first market, but we were still worried. Then people we knew started arriving. People we knew but weren’t expecting, arrived. Quite a few of them. A couple of them even came back for seconds. Neil (the friend building our website for free) started taking pictures and the gathered people started making yummy noises when we served them. It felt like we’d actually arrived and were proper street food traders. It didn’t matter that it was friends eating our food, because that’s the kind of support network you need when starting up. We are supremely confident about having food good enough to impress the public, but that confidence is shrouded in the uncertainty of not knowing if everyone else is going to think that. We need people to spread the word about Sticky Beaks and those who know us the best are going to be our primary marketing tools in these early days, and we love and appreciate everything they have done, are doing and will be doing for us.