Streets ahead: 10 years and counting for KERB

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Street food hall champions KERB founder Petra Barran and CEO Simon Mitchell on the future

Related tags KERB Petra Barran Simon Mitchell Food Hall Street food

Over the past 10 years KERB has evolved from street food champion to business incubator, food hall operator and event caterer. Founder Petra Barran and CEO Simon Mitchell look back on the past decade and discuss what the next one might hold.

You started KERB 10 years ago. What have been some of the most significant moments in its history?

Petra Barran:​ The first one would be changing from to KERB. I had this thing that my world knew about and that I had been working on for two or three years and had been gathering momentum and then I had to create a whole new brand. But then to launch KERB to such an amazing response with all the trader on board was magical. The start-up energy was really special. Another was making KERB more commercial to ensure its survival and deliver more commercial opportunities, so I made the decision to bring in an MD in Simon [Mitchell]. He came from a corporate background and that brought a big change in culture. One of the first things he did was get Camden Market, which was a huge opportunity for us. It was a seven day a week, 364 day a year market and we’d never done that before.

Opening Seven Dials Market in 2019 was another milestone…

PB:​ It was another ramp up of things we’d never done before. We got the keys to a building with a 20-year lease and that meant a 20-year risk and all the changes that come with that. We thought, ‘this is bona fide, we can make stuff happen here’.
Simon Mitchell:​ Seven Dials was the thing that changed everything for us. I was on a mission to get that space for years and opening it and making it brilliant changed a lot of things. It was only open for six months before the pandemic hit but very quickly after doing the first one, we were thinking about what’s next.


How has it evolved since the pandemic?

PB:​ Some traders have come and gone but the biggest change has been with Cucumber Alley. Covent Garden has a really active local residents association who are really important to the estate, and we wanted to give them an amenity where they could buy items such as fruit and veg and meat. But realistically there was not enough people wanting to buy legs of lamb in that part of London or there was not enough runway to make it work before the pandemic came along. We made the decision to do hot food and grab and go and it is working much better.

Do you plan to open any more food markets?

SM:​ We want to build these big iconic city centre food halls, that’s what excites us. To do something half or quarter the size [of Seven Dials] regionally is probably as much hard work as doing a 25,000 or 30,00sq ft site. A lot of cities in the UK couldn’t sustain a seven-day a week operation, which is crucial for our model, so we made the decision very quickly to not be defined just by England. We had a site in Edinburgh that fell through and now we’re looking internationally. We are about to sign a lease on a 30,000sq ft site in one of the most iconic food cities in Europe. After that the next one could be in Manchester or Edinburgh, but if we found the right site but equally it could be in Paris or Madrid, we don’t want to restrict ourselves.

Are you looking beyond Europe?

SM:​ Yes. We will be opening in San Francisco in 2023. We’re in a management agreement with a big global company that has asked us to create a food hall for them under their brand. It will be very similar to what we already do; it will be very local but it will also have a big sustainability angle, so we’re going be very heavily plant based. We’re also going to be looking at our waste more so than we have done before.

Will international markets be a challenge?

SM:​ I don’t see opening in [another European country] is that different to opening in, say, Manchester. I’m talking to local vendors and saying this is what we do in London, do you think it will work? We’re a London-based company, but we’re not proposing to bring loads of London-based businesses to where we want to open. Everything will be local. We want it to be authentic. When people hear our story and that actually it’s not just a big private equity backed land grab and that there is some authenticity behind it, they have been receptive. With our first European site we’ve had a long lead time - we first looked at the site in early 2020 and it’s not going to open until 2024 so we’ve spent a lot of time in that city to ensure we get it right.

What other plans do you have?

SM:​ The biggest part of our businesses is events catering, we have absolutely supercharged that since Covid and we will continue to grow it. We signed a partnership with [foodservice business] Compass Group and that has opened up many more opportunities for us, especially in sports venues. So, if you go to Tottenham Hotspur on a match day outside the south podium you’ll get two or three KERB vendors. At Aston Villa there are four local traders outside and four on the inside concourse and we’re really working at putting these brilliant independent businesses inside stadiums. We’re also at Watford and at the Aviva stadium in Dublin for the autumn internationals and Chelsea will hopefully happen soon. Compass has recognised that giving people something local and authentic inside stadiums is what the fans want. They make less margin but realise it’s better to outsource it.
PB:​ We have to keep the trajectory going but in manageable steps, so we don’t lose the things that made us special in the first place. We’ve got to be really measured about that because we realise we can’t just grow for growth sake. We’ve got to double down on our roots and why we started in the first place, which was to create a platform for independent traders to thrive from the kerb up.


How has the street food sector changed since KERB began?

PB:​ The opportunities have completely changed. Ten years ago, hitting the streets with a food idea was the way to go, but it’s not necessarily number one on people’s lists these days. Although we have loads of people through our Inkerbator programme, which includes trading in one of our markets, it’s about where they want to go next. Do they want a kiosk in Seven Dials market? Do they want to be an event caterer? Is there a Shopify platform they want to push stuff through? There are so many other ways of making your business work. Many traders operating before the pandemic have realised that. There is definitely a smaller number of traders coming in that just want to make their money on the streets.

And how has the food scene in general changed?

PB​: London is gaining more confidence as a culinary hotspot in a way that even 10 years ago it didn’t have. I see that only as growing with more and more space being opened up and claimed by people who would never have dreamt of opening a food business. I’m really excited by Black Eats LDN, which is running these amazing events in east London with all black-owned food businesses. They are really starting to delve into regionalism in cuisines such as Caribbean and Africa and also China and India. It is getting much more specific than just going for an Indian meal or jerk chicken. London is going to get more exciting despite the headwinds of the recession, but also because of it.

To mark its decade, KERB has just launched KERB LIFE, a three-part podcast series. Click here ​to listen 

Related news

Show more