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Making a market for street food

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Urban Lab alumna Petra Barran’s KERB has put the trader community at the heart of a flourishing street food project.

Making a market for street food

Urban Lab alumna Petra Barran at the KERB Camden launch.

Credit: Jason Bailey

In 2012, Petra Barran set up KERB after completing her Urban Studies MSc at the UCL Urban Laboratory, a lab set up by colleagues at The Bartlett and the Department of Geography in 2005 and supported today by four faculties across UCL.

KERB brings together some of London’s best food vendors and has since grown into a business employing more than 20 people operating pop-up and permanent markets across the capital. But for Barran, the wellbeing and success of its members remains at the heart of KERB.

Making a market for street food

KERB at Kings Cross.

Credit: John Sturrock

Making a market for street food

KERB's 'inKERBator' programme to develop new ideas.

Credit: Jake Davis

What was the vision when you set up KERB and how did it differ from other street food initiatives?

It came about from me being a trader; I’d been selling chocolate from my converted ice cream van since 2005. Around 2009, I had a lightbulb moment: I realised us traders would get so much more done, make so much more impact and raise standards so much higher if we agglomerated.

[Street food catering initiative] was created soon afterwards, then came my MSc in Urban Studies at Urban Lab, which helped propel forward my vision that food, people and cities equated to vitality and street life, which I believed was needed in any healthy urban organism.

In 2011, I quit Choc Star to focus on, then formed KERB in 2012 with my sister, Millie, and my MSc course buddy, Ian Dodds. It was the first organisation that could really be called a street food initiative in London and the first – and to this day only – one to be formed by a trader for traders, and with a social agenda – we founded it initially not as a business, but more as a movement.

Making a market for street food

Chinese comfort food inKERBators, Rice Guys.

Credit: Jake Davis

How have you made sure those social values have remained part of the business?

It started with community at its heart. The trader community is what enabled the thing to take off and we have grown from there, keeping relationships strong and seeking out traders who have that extra something that’s more than just how good the food is.

We run workshops to get people started and the “inKERBator” programme to develop ideas. We take successful ones on as members to accelerate their growth and then bid them farewell as they fly out of the door on their way to a restaurant or similar glory. We also do lots of mentoring, trading, promoting, and sharing of information and resources. The KERB Caters arm now accounts for 50% of the business, providing a reliable source of income for our traders.

Making a market for street food

Mexican street food traders, Luardos.

Credit: Kate Beard

To what extent has your work been informed by your studies at Urban Lab?

Massively. On the course I discovered so many great viewpoints– in particular, Kenny Cupers and his ideas on the co-production of space; Carolyn Steel’s book Hungry City; Mike Davis and his comments on the ‘tropicalisation of space’ via his book Magical Urbanism. This has had such an impact on KERB as I have sought to ‘tropicalise’ London with a glorious palette of colours and bring life, flavour and soul to the frozen grey concrete.

Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century by Leonie Sandercock was huge for me, as were Hannah Arendt, Jane Jacobs and Sharon Zukin. All of these and more helped build a picture in my head of how to marry my passion and expertise with a clear and applicable cultural, social and economic vision.

How has the business evolved over time?

So much. From a community, to a hunch, to a collective, to nearly quitting the whole thing, to a relaunch, to having employees. From trying things that didn’t work and many that did, to rolling with the street food tidal wave, to working out how to stay relevant, to nearly going bust a few times and then realising I needed a more commercial head at the wheel to take it to the next stage.

It’s evolving all the time, but the vision remains the same. We have 23 in the team now, so we have to be more commercial, while also doing work we care about.

What happens next?

More inclusivity, more control of the spaces we operate in, greater educational reach to those who need the incubation the most, and a legacy that shows how a company can make a difference to the way we eat and enjoy food in London.

Urban Laboratory is a collaborative cross-disciplinary platform to promote critical and creative urban research, teaching, practice and participation. It is supported by four faculties at UCL: The Bartlett, Engineering, Social & Historical Sciences, and Arts & Humanities. Find out more:

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