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10 Years Later: What serving Sheffield has taught Street Food Chef

If we haven’t made our fortune, then what have we gained in the past ten years with our independent food business?

DA STREET FOOD CHEF 26

I have always said that starting a business is like deferred gratification for grown-ups.

The common wisdom that you won’t make any money until year three is accurate, and if you hop onto the growth gravy train, any money you do make is pumped straight back into the business.

Richard and I set up The Street Food Chef in May 2010, serving freshly-made Mexican food from our 3x2m trailer at events and festivals in Sheffield. A year later we opened a temporary pop-up kitchen on Pinstone Street, where we traded until 2018. A year after that we opened a canteen on Arundel Street. A central kitchen and two more shops followed in 2015 and 2016.

In 2020, we have slimmed down to two shops, one on Arundel Street and one on Sharrow Vale Road. Now, alongside everyone else, we are lurching our way through a global pandemic.

If we haven’t made our fortune, then what have we gained in the past ten years?

First, a little wisdom, and a deeper trust in our own instincts. We realised it’s vital to run your business in line with your own values, so we needed to understand what those values were.

For example, on our first outing we used some ready-made products. We sold out, but on the way home admitted to each other that we were not proud of what we had sold that day. We stayed up till 2am making fresh salsa and two important Street Food Chef lessons were learnt: first, we needed to feel proud of our product; second, everything should be freshly made, where possible from local ingredients.

I also learnt the relevance of that age-old cliché that there is power in action. Getting out there and doing it is the best way to learn your trade.

Setting up and running your own business is like supersizing your personal journey. The life lessons come thick and fast: the value of partnership; learning what you need help with, and getting that help; listening to your instincts whilst filtering out the unhelpful critical inner voice; so many new skills – cashflow forecasting, strapping large catering equipment into a van, recruiting, training and paying people, marketing, how to cook rice properly – the list is never-ending.

There are two business mantras that I reject: ‘find your passion’ and ‘a good business must grow’.

I wasted so much time worrying that I wasn’t following my passion, regardless of the fact I have no idea what my passion is. My view now is that trying stuff out - cooking, event catering, writing, swimming, drawing, charity work - is the only way to find your passion.

And if you never do, who cares? It was fun in the meantime. Some people do find what they are passionate about and are lucky enough to find a way of making money out of it. The rest of us must simply have fun searching. Maybe I am passionate about living.

I feel less qualified to comment on the core belief that a business needs to grow in order to survive. The aspiration for growth is all-consuming, and consuming is what we need to do less of. It can make you feel unsatisfied with what you have and envious of your neighbour. My question is: is it possible to run a successful business that makes a great product, is kind to the environment and continues to be current and relevant, whilst remaining small and stable?

St Food Chef brendon tyree food photography 0
Brendon Tyree Food Photography

Perhaps the most important thing Street Food Chef has gained is a place, a rooting in the vibrant food and business community of Sheffield. This was unexpected and something we both treasure.

The final word must go to our current situation.

Who knows what the next ten years will look like for the Street Food Chef. Being a small independent business has meant that we have always been able to react to what is going on around us. The pandemic requires us to be in a constant state of flux, hopefully something we can manage as we are naturally nimble compared to the huge national and international chains.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Every business and every person experiences this through their own lens, with specific needs and fears. When the pandemic hit we closed both shops to protect our staff and customers for the longer term, and to do some drastic streamlining by closing our unit in Attercliffe. We have re-opened one shop tentatively, planning only one month at a time, constantly re-assessing the external situation and also our needs as a family and as a business.

Perhaps within this situation is the answer to my question about the health of a business being reliant on growth. Our quest for ever-continuing growth, ever-continuing consumption must stop. We need to define new goals - goals based on sustainability and community.

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