Beware the homogenized high street: Putting independent food businesses on the map

Hey, I’m Rob. A food fan who dabbles in design between meals.

I love all types of food and enjoy learning about different cultures through different cuisines; even giving them a go in the kitchen when inspiration strikes! So I’m pretty happy about the waves of incredible Streetfood that have landed in London and for having the opportunity to discover such an incredible variety of interesting eateries.

But I’m also concerned.

Three years ago, I was hopping between contracts — working for agencies and start-ups in different pockets of London — which conveniently gave me the chance to scope out what was good to eat in all corners of the this city.

This one time, I returned to a start-up in Central London to find that the little family-run Indian deli I had frequented (home-cooked vegetable curries like you would not believe) was now:

dum, dum….duuuuuummm………..

A PRET A MANGER!!*

*Now, I should say I have nothing against Pret at all. They do very pleasant, fresh food and I would quite often “grab a Pret” at that time.

My heart sank a little.

I actually felt a bit annoyed. “What have they done with my dosas?? I’m bored of this!” etc.

I also wondered what had become of the proprietors. Had they been priced out? They always seemed like part of the furniture and colour of life on that street. If Penny Lane was about this street, they would have got a line.

This was another chain moving in. And I could see another restaurant just like it if I looked down the street towards the main street at the end. At least that’s how I remember it.

As I walked past in search of something else, I considered the spread of chain restaurants across our towns and cities and it occurred to me that we could be sleepwalking into a future of consistently adequate eating, but dull experiences.

I say ‘sleepwalking’. because what I’m talking about is by no means new or undocumented. Food writer, Jenny Linford warned of this character-killing globalisation effect in the first edition of Food Lovers’ London back in 1991! Factors are complicated, but we’re not powerless as consumers – especially if we think a bit more more about who’s coffers we’re filling and where that might lead.

Of course, part of the reason chains are chains is because they got a succesful formula down to a fine art and there are definitely lessons there for smaller food businesses.

However, certain compromises have to be made when scaling up a supply chain. There’s not really room for idiosyncrasies, experimental dishes and small talk at the counter when the name of the game is efficiency and you have shareholders to satisfy. As a customer you’re much more detached from the people who do the cooking — and they’re detached from the people that write the recipes anyway.

Depending on your approach to eating you might not miss the quirks at all, but no-one one ever raves about “That time in Starbs” or says “Remember when we went to EAT?” 3 years on, do they? It’s the differences that make for memorable experiences, right? The singing chef, the injera bread you shared with your hands or that slightly strange take on interior decor.

So like SJP, I got to thinking… What if we made a map without chains? A view of London that’s independent only. A counterpoint to mega marketing budgets and flashy frontage. Your only choice would be to support the little guy! Maybe you would eat more interesting that way too? Hidden gems n’ all.

“Let’s do this!!” I cried.

Two years on…

I still hadn’t actually built anything, but I had read Dave Gorman’s fantastic, forewarning book “America Unchained”, where he attempts to get from West to East coast without using any chains — even for gas! The diversions are hilarious, but the underpinning message is clear:

If we don’t want live in a place where every town looks and tastes the same, we sometimes have to go out of our way to support small businesses.

When my fiancée and I did our own road trip in the US we managed to mix it up, but I could see what Dave meant. You drive in to a lot of small towns and it’s the same supermarket and the same Wendy’s that greet you with an underwhelming welcome.

A town called Independence. Dave was right, there’s nothing there!

Incidentally, I tried a Wendy’s breakfast to-go, but as I stared down at the broken dreams of so many chickens in a cardboard box, I immediately wished I hadn’t bothered.

June 2016 (2 months ago)

I came back to these thoughts in an old sketchpad and thought this might be one of my better ideas. My passion for discovering new places to eat was stronger than ever, I’d picked up a few coding skills and I reckoned I could put out an MVP pretty quickly.

The restated goals:

  • Help foodies connect with each other, to…
  • Promote amazing independent food, so that…
  • Everyone can find more interesting eats

So 3 weeks ago, at the beginning of August, we launched tweatslondon.com. Woo-hoo!! (I usually turn stuff around a bit quicker than 3 years)

It’s early days and we will be adding new features soon, but we currently have a Twitter account, Instagram and a map crowdsourced food map of London with 407 delicious pins and counting.

The whole concept is for foodies, by foodies and I’ve been delighted with the engagement so far. Do you like to eat?? Please use our hashtag #tweatslondon on Instagram to get your streetfood, cafe, deli and restaurant finds pinned on the map at TWEATSLONDON.com

Let’s see where it goes!

What I’ve learned already is that it really is important to get your ideas out there, because you don’t really start learning until you start testing. I thought I knew that before, but Tweats has put that into sharper focus and I think lots of us have experienced living with ideas that never launched!

Another benefit is all the fantastic people I’m meeting ‘off-line’. Stall holders, chefs and business owners are very open to sharing their passion for their product and every one of them has their own back story.

Special shouts for chef Smokey Smokes from OTR cafe, lovely Lee from Mama’s Jerk and Nim from Indian street food purveyors, Chai Naasto.

Also: Rikke from ustwo for a fantastic talk that made me realise I should pull my finger out, Corey from Food on Foot tours NYC for one of my most memorable food-based experiences ever and the team at getsparkle.io for their awesome aggregator tech.

instagram.com/tweatslondon

twitter.com/tweatslondon

tweatslondon.com