Considering setting up a street food stall? Anna Clark from Anna Mae's Mac n Cheese tells us which skills you need to succeed and why every work day is different.
Seasoned festival-goers will recognise the van with a warm glow of affection – a comfort food haven dishing up hot, cheesy carbs for the hungry masses. Anna Mae's owners Anna Clark and Tony Solomon are mac 'n' cheese experts, known for their imaginative toppings from The Don Macaroni (crispy bacon, basil oil and fresh basil) to The Spicy Juan (chipotle, jalapenos, sour cream and coriander). Below, Anna explains her top tips for setting up a food truck business, what she loves most about her job and why battling the British weather can be problematic...
How did you start out in the food industry?
I was working for a women’s organisation and although I was a committed feminist, I needed a change of direction. I quit my job and worked for a few different people – at supper clubs, festivals and so on – and then decided to have a go at doing something myself. I was passionate about cooking and eating, and having dipped a toe in the water, took the plunge and started Anna Mae’s with just a table, a pot and a burner!
What do you like most about your job?
No day is ever the same and you learn how to turn your hand to anything – I have picked up some odd skills along the way! You also find yourself in some pretty peculiar situations in this job: being towed up a Welsh mountain in our gold van, Burt Reynolds springs to mind, as does raiding a Tesco superstore for its entire stock of ice when our fridge van broke down. But the feedback we get from people is really the best bit – when customers enjoy what you do and tell you about it, it's awesome. We have a recipe book out and it makes me so happy when someone puts a creation from the book on Instagram, I smile all day!
Is there anything you don’t like about your job?
Running a business can be time-consuming and stressful. We are also subject to the weather very often. A whole event can be wiped out by rain or worse, wind, and if you’re relying on that job or have invested a lot of money in it, that's a huge pressure. Although, as I said, I love the variety and learning new things all the time, but there's a flip side to that – sometimes a bit of regularity and routine wouldn’t go amiss! But in reality I know I’d go crazy if I was doing the same thing everyday.
What is an average working day like for you?
There's no such thing! We can be doing anything from painting menu boards, applying for festivals and jobs, sourcing vintage American flags, making T-shirts and designing stalls to dealing with dairy suppliers, invoicing clients and working out staff rotas. When we’re in full back-to-back festival swing we’re focused on keeping the show on the road and looking good, so we’re doing constant repairs, van loading and event logistics on a tight turn-around. It’s like a military operated circus but with great food!
As well as your street food business, you’ve also co-authored a book of your legendary recipes. What would you say is the secret to your success?
We’ve always tried to be very true to ourselves and who we are, use our own voice, and be authentically us. When myself and Tony started the business we had no plan, we just genuinely were excited about what we were doing and wanted other people to enjoy it too – this is still the case and we also have an awesome team who part of Anna Mae’s as much as we are. We hope that this comes across in the way we communicate and it’s just the best when you can see customers enjoying being involved along the way.
What is special about street food to you, as opposed to other food establishments?
Street food is a hard business: you stand there in all weathers, sometimes you sell and sometimes you don’t, and it's physically punishing. Every trader works incredibly hard and you can be sure that with every meal that goes out there, there's nothing that hasn’t been meticulously thought through. We put our heart and soul into what we do and we really do care that people are having a great experience. Things don’t always go to plan; you can't always account for your gas running out because it's windy and you’ve used more flame than you thought, or your dairy not turning up so having to drive across town to source stock or else lose out on a days trade. But you can guarantee that the portion in your hand has had a lot of love and care put into it. That’s why it’s so important to support small businesses.
What would be your advice to young people looking to start up their own food truck?
Take it slow and start small! Don’t go out there and spend a lot of cash on an untested product in a market you know nothing about – go and sell some food, see what works and even more importantly, see what doesn’t. Talk to other traders, especially established ones, you can glean so much from their experience. And last but not least, always be nice!
What kind of skills and personality traits does someone need to develop in order to set up and run a food truck?
What skills don’t you need? A calm disposition, flexibility, a good sense of humour, quick decision-making skills, a taste palate, determination, good people skills to name a few. If you’re going to make it work, you’ll learn the right skills pretty sharpish on the job.
What is the biggest misconceptions that people have about your job?
It always makes me laugh when we get people coming up and saying how easy it is that we just rock up to an event, sell mac 'n' cheese and go home again. If they knew what goes into running a street food business emotionally, physically and financially they might not be so quick to judge!
What do you think is special about mac n cheese in particular?
When we started out we were the only people specialising in mac 'n' cheese in the industry and it was really exciting. It’s an incredibly versatile dish and we love playing around with flavours and combinations – we had loads of fun recipe testing for the book. To be excited about what you do is really important and we’ve always tried to keep this originality at the heart of Anna Mae’s.
Do you eat other street food, and if so, what are your favourite dishes or vendors?
Of course! One of my longstanding favourites is a Pakistani kebab stall on Church Street Market who I have been frequenting since I first moved to London. They make their own roti, and their chai is so good – it’s my comfort hangover food of choice. I love trying food from new traders and will often go on research trips (which is just an excuse to have a nice lunch out and see what’s new).
Who is your food idol?
There are so many people that I admire within the industry who are producing amazing food or working with people on awesome projects. There is a growing gang of women working within the very male-dominated food business who are becoming more and more visible for their originality and just for doing great things. They deserve a bit of idolatry!
Feeling inspired? Whatever your skillset, we've got plenty of insight into kick-starting a career in the food industry:
Are you thinking of starting up your own food truck, or are you already a street food seller with tips to share? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below.