Last updated Apr 03, 2024 and written by Tom Richardson

I’m setting up my own pop-up food stall: is it worth it?

Food stalls are a great example of vibrant entrepreneurship. Whether you’re serving in a street food market, private celebrations or a music festival, it’s clear that the food pop-up industry is taking the cultural world by storm. 

And let’s be real, who doesn’t love a good food stall? The chance to try the latest food trend, taste a cultural cuisine that is harder to find in your country? Business owners and foodies are all on board with this trend. 

Setting up shop as a pop-up food stall owner can be super appealing to many people. It’s the perfect opportunity to carve out your own niche and showcase your culinary skills, all while potentially becoming a hometown hero. The best part? The start-up costs for a pop-up food stall typically fall in the low-to-mid £1,000s, and if you’re successful, you could see profit margins of around 20%. So yeah, it’s definitely achievable.

But let’s not sugarcoat things. There are some major hurdles you’ll need to overcome if you want to make it in the pop-up food game. There’s a web of laws and regulations to navigate, and you’ll need to make sure your food stall serves up top-notch grub. 

So, in this article, we’re going to dive into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a pop-up food stall owner and how to overcome the challenges that come with it.

Starting out: understanding the regulations

Much like restaurants and food factories, pop-up food businesses in the UK are subject to a fair amount of regulation. As consumers, this is something to celebrate: our food is handled to a high standard. So as business owners, this is something you should navigate carefully and thoroughly.  

Due to the scope of regulations and laws out there, this process can be challenging. To try and mitigate these struggles, think about joining trade associations like the National Caterers Association. Getting help from associations like NCASS is always a good step for a new business: they can offer plenty of advice to help you start off on the right foot. In the beginning, though, there’s plenty you can do off your own bat to set up smoothly.

Your first step as a new food business is to register with your local authority. After you’ve applied, the Environmental Health Office (EHO) will contact you to arrange an inspection. You’ll need to secure a licence from the EHO in order to operate legally, and will only be permitted to start trading 28 days after that licence has come into effect. Tax arrangements must be made separately, by registering with HMRC as either a sole trader or limited company.

The second step is to make sure that everyone working at your business has undergone hygiene training in line with Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidelines. Typically, a Level 2 Food Hygiene certificate will be required for all staff who routinely come into contact with ingredients, and a Level 1 certificate will work for those who don’t.

Some further requirements will include employer’s liability insurance (you’ll need a certificate to display prominently in your stall), and regular health and safety checks carried out by either yourself or a hired specialist. What’s more, if you plan on having five or more staff working at your stall, you’ll also be obliged to create a Health & Safety Policy Document. Daunting as that may sound, you should be able to fit all the required info onto one or two sides of A4.

Choosing a location and product

Complying with regulations is a critical first step for any pop-up food business — but this won’t do you much good from a commercial standpoint unless you can identify the right market and develop the right product.

Understanding your potential location and demographics is an incredibly important part of succeeding — but it can also be complicated. There aren’t any set rules for going about this, and it can take a year or two to get this right. Nonetheless, a good place to start is market research: take a look at your competitor’s stalls around the area, in addition to other restaurants and similar establishments.

A simpler task, and likely the source of your reason for starting a stall in the first place, is knowing what to actually sell. It’s important to keep in mind here that, as a food stall, your customers likely want something quick and easy. Don’t overwhelm your potential customers with an unnecessarily long menu, and keep things simple. Focus on quality not quantity. After all, some of the most successful food stalls have a 4-5 item menu which they do exceptionally well, think of Pizza Pilgrims in their food van days

The bottom line

Considering the large amounts of regulatory and business challenges that go hand-in-hand with setting up a pop-up food business. You might well be wondering: is it actually worth the effort?  

There are definitely benefits that come along with running your own pop-up stall. You’ll get to be your own boss, you’ll have the flexibility to work however suits you best, there’s reduced business risk compared to a traditional restaurant, and of course, there’s the opportunity to make good money and gain a great reputation. On the other hand, there’s a sense of security that can come with having a regular paycheck, and by running your own food stall you might not have that.

At the end of the day, setting up your own pop-up food stall can be a rewarding, yet stressful, experience. There are regulations, laws, and admin to get right, in addition to actually running and cooking food, hiring staff, and so on. 

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