So you want to open a… food van
How two young professionals tired of the urban grind began touring the country in a vintage campervan.
It was the summer of 2011 when my partner Richie, a graphic designer, and I (an event manager on the Country Living Fairs) started to think about a change of direction. We wanted to change the way that we lived, have more flexibility, work for ourselves and most importantly do something with food. Neither of us are trained chefs but we love cooking, eating out and experimenting in the kitchen.
Our talents are also complementary – Richie is creative, I am organised, and we are both very driven. Our thoughts turned first to whether we wanted to stay in London. The daily commute and urban grind had lost its appeal slightly, but neither of us felt quite ready for rural life. What would provide the variety and flexibility that we craved, as well as the foodie element?
Months went by as we worked out our finances and discussed different ideas. It was Richie who first suggested we buy a Citroen H van. We had discussed the possibility of a mobile catering unit but we knew we didn’t want the standard trailer. As soon as he showed me one at a fair I loved it and was all for the idea. That was our first great decision.
By now it was May 2012 and we’d developed the idea: our plan was to serve great coffee, sandwiches, salads and wraps at fairs, festivals and shows all over the UK. We had a look online with the idea of buying a van in its native France and bringing it to the UK, but we soon realised that would be fraught with difficulties. We wouldn’t know what sort of quality the van was until we got there. But what about the legalities, the language difference? Then I found a dealer who specialised in them. I asked if we could go and meet him. That was our second great decision.
Once we had been twice and looked at a few options, we chose one, paid a deposit and started the process of registering it in the UK. The DVLA were really helpful, and we dutifully ordered number plates and started researching where we would have the van converted. In its present state ‘Dany’ was a 1967 cream camper van, owned by a pair of French Citroen enthusiasts who had lovingly toured with it for many years.
We needed someone who could transform it into a modern catering van, whilst being sympathetic to its great vintage features. That ended up being Towability (our third great decision) in Northampton who were really inspiring when we went to meet them – perhaps a little too inspiring, as we came away with plans not for a coffee and sandwich conversion, but for a big wood-fired oven! We left the van with them in mid-July and were prepared for a bit of a wait whilst conversion took place. It was over two months but when we finally went to collect it, we were so pleased. Marcel had been sending us updates as the weeks went by, but standing in the van with the hatch open was so exciting!
We decided to start by serving wood-fired pizzas, and then experiment with more as time goes on: anything that you can cook in a standard oven can be cooked in a wood-fired oven but with the added bonus of that beautiful smoky flavour. And it’s quick! Only a couple of minutes for a pizza. For our first outing we chose Mold Food Festival, a relatively small event but food focused and affordable and we loved it. There were some stressful moments, which was to be expected, but the response to the food (especially the fennel salami, and Welsh blue cheese and air-dried ham pizzas) was fantastic, and even Aldo Zilli enjoyed one. Our plan now is to attend a variety of festivals, food shows, street markets and private events all over the UK, bringing food from the wood-fired oven to as many people as we can.
We are using seasonal ingredients, locally sourced wherever possible, which we think is crucial for delicious, interesting food and flavour. The plan doesn’t end there, as we are planning to extend the brand with a range of vintage and vintage-inspired homewares and tablewares.
While it’s been a longer process than we anticipated when we first tentatively discussed the possibility, we are so glad we chose quality over speed every step of the way, as now we have a van and a product that we love and are proud of, and we are getting a brilliant response from so many people.