Netflix have just launched a series on street food. It contains important insights into the mindset of stall operators, the intimate relationship they enjoy with their clientele and of course the importance of taste and constant innovation.
What is less well acknowledged, but equally important, is that several consumer brands have made this channel central to their success.
I found the first episode featuring a wiry, 73 year old Thai chef, called Jay Fai, fascinating.
The programme takes us through Jay Fai’s culinary journey, from first experimenting with the wok, taking a loan to open a stall, going upmarket with large tiger prawns to developing a crab meat omelette, one of her signature dishes. We learn the importance of ‘rich and tasty stock’, attention to detail in ingredient preparation and constantly listening to customer feedback.
The food photography was stunning with mouth watering shots of boiling curries and drunken noodles, all deftly prepared on flaming charcoal.
The street food business involves unsociable hours, a 7 day work week not to forget the heat and humidity. Landlords and Government regulations are a constant headache. However Jay’s passion and energy shine through.
Over the years I’ve sat in focus groups and heard consumers replay their associations with food, consumption occasions and brands. Some of the most indelible involve street food. One reason is taste, the food is freshly cooked and served immediately. Another is the social aspect, it’s an informal, relaxed and familal environment with friends, relations and children.
Recently, the perception of street food has improved dramatically. Far from being cheap and dirty, the best outlets have become culinary destinations for locals and tourists alike. A number of street food chefs, like Jay Fai have won Michelin awards. Like craft beer breweries have become renowned for novelty, street food is at the cutting edge of experimentation.
As a westerner coming from a country with very little street food (Britain’s closest would be fish n chips or perhaps Balti in Birmingham?), street stalls never struck me as an important Sales or influencer channel. My thinking was narrow minded and misguided.
Later when I worked in Nestle Malaysia did I see first hand the huge business Milo enjoyed because of its penetration with vendors. Soy and chill sauce, mayonnaise, cooking oils and stocks were also big. Brands like F&N’s 100 Plus and beers like Tiger have this channel in their DNA.