Kerb founder Petra Barran is a doer.
Since she first originated the Kerb concept from a single ice cream van in 2010, the business has grown exponentially.
It currently works with approximately 120 partner traders – a pool of street food ideas that is constantly expanding - has five permanent street markets across London, one foodhall, and a substantial corporate catering arm.
So, as a business so well adept at evolving at pace, it’s no real surprise that after five months of closure, Kerb is itching to kickstart its recovery.
From 5pm today, Seven Dials Market – the group’s indoor foodhall in London’s Covent Garden – is reopening its doors, and whilst “there is a bit more to it than this,” Barran and her team “ultimately, just wanted to get this thing moving again,” she tells MCA.
Completely aware that the levels of London footfall are still eye wateringly low – at -46% of pre-coronavirus levels last Saturday, according to the latest data from Wireless Social – Barran feels it is time to stop staring at the problem, and be a part of the solution instead.
“We know we won’t be at the levels that we were at before, but we’re just going to give it a go,” she says. “We want to work in tangibles at this point rather than wondering and questioning.”
“Lots more of the restaurants in the [Seven Dials] area are about to reopen, and we feel like we want to be a part of helping to get central London back on its feet again.”
“That’s not going to happen without people taking the first step.”
The market will initially open on limited operating hours Friday to Monday, and for the first time, will allow for bookings, cashless orders via click and collect, and table service.
Whilst these new features, considered by many as a necessity in a time of social distancing, might seem at odds with the ‘traditional’ market model, Barran is not afraid to tweak tradition if it enhances consumer experience.
Bookings are optional, but they “will definitely stay,” as will table service if people respond well.
But any new changes, she is keen to stress, must enhance, rather than replace, what the concept has always been.
“Part of the USP of a foodhall is that you can just rock up and roam, so I think there will be a mixture of people who want to pre-book, and those who will just naturally show up,” she says.
“We will keep on doing bookings for as long as we can, and then, maybe, we will continue to do them because they could become a more natural thing to do.
“And we’re going to see how the click and collect goes. We want to make it as seamless as possible whilst not taking away from the human interaction side of things.”
Unfortunately, whilst the business is in a position to reopen and adapt its Seven Dials site – due to a mutual desire by Kerb, its landlord Shaftesbury and its traders to get trading – the same cant be said for its all of its markets.
The group has five street markets located in, historically, very high footfall areas – Kings Cross, West India Quay, The Gherkin, St Katherine’s Docks and London Bridge – but given the disappearance of tourists and office workers from the city, Barran says there are currently “no plans in sight” to reopen four of them.
In September, Kerb is planning to reopen its site in West India Quay, which will operate alongside both Seven Dials and a pop-up ‘micro-market’ that is currently running outside The National Theatre.
But for the rest of the estate, Barran explains, a number of factors are working against any chance of a relaunch, not least the fact that “it’s very political.”
“It isn’t just a case of us deciding that we’re ready to reopen, it’s also dependent on the landlord wanting us to come back, and at Kings Cross at the moment that isn’t the case,” she says.
“Markets are a pain in the arse for retail food places, and they always have been. There are campaigns all over the world to get rid of street food because it’s a nuisance and it’s taking the trade and paying less rent.
“That’s definitely something that’s going on at Kings Cross.
“Whilst we were brought in to activate the space early on in its development, they’ve also brought in various different tenants, so [the landlord] has to manage all of that in a time when people are more anxious than ever to get customers in.”
Despite these challenging circumstances facing the market sub-sector, only exacerbated by the other safety, hygiene and monetary pressures facing the industry as a whole, Barran remains confident that its survival is a given.
For her, it isn’t so much a question of business durability but of a “fundamental human law,” and she is of the opinion that a few months of diminished contact is unlikely to change years of social development.
Markets have served as catalysts for cities and societies for thousands of years, and given their central role in human history, Barran is certain that, virus or no virus, “they’re not going anywhere.”
“We need to come to a point where people are given the agency to manage things between themselves,” she says. “That’s why people love markets and that’s why they work, because you feel like a human being and you feel like you have agency.
“Being dictated to about where you can and can’t go isn’t human, it isn’t enjoyable and therefore you’re not going to want to do it because it’s against your instincts.
“We’ve all seen how people have started gravitating more towards each other, it’s human will. I don’t see how that will ever not be the case.”
And beyond recovery Barran is hopeful that, as devastating as the coronavirus has been for the sector, when it comes out the other side it may well change for the better.
The contraction of jobs, she says, could prompt a growth in ideas, and with the true vulnerability of the sector laid bare, there will be new impetus to improve, support and solidify it for the future.
“The really exciting area is going to be in the incubation and germination of ideas,” she says. “We’re going to see a lot more of that from really varied people.
“And there will be a greater desire for people to create more inclusive environments for food businesses to thrive and create opportunities where they might not have been possible before.
“At Kerb, we want to create pathways from organisations that aren’t immediately in front of us.
“We want to go much deeper so that we can not only say that we taste like London, but that we look like London as well.
“Beyond just surviving, we want to consider what kind of business we want to run, and what kind of impact we want to have.”
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Kerb founder Petra Barran: Food market survival a “human imperative”
Kerb founder Petra Barran is a doer. Since she first originated the Kerb concept from a single ice cream van in 2010, the business has grown exponentially. It currently works with approximately 120 partner traders – a pool of street food ideas that is constantly expanding - has five permanent street markets across London, one foodhall, and a substantial corporate catering arm. So, as a business so well adept at evolving at pace, it’s no real surprise that after five months of closure, Kerb is itching to kickstart its recovery.