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What the rise of food markets teaches us about social eating

Posted by the Wi5 Team27th November 2019Opinion

Food markets have grown from casual collections of food vendors to vibrant culinary communities boasting cult followings and bringing social eating to the forefront of booming business. In the UK, their market share grew by nearly ten percent between 2017 and 2018. We shouldn’t be surprised by the success … we’re seeing it first-hand here in London. Borough Market has been in business for around a thousand years, while the much more recently-established Mercato Metropolitano, which happens to be around the corner from Wi5 HQ, sees 60,000 visitors per month. The iconic and diverse  Camden Market (pictured above) has revitalised its food stalls in recent years and welcomes a massive 28 million people a year. 




The trend isn’t limited to the UK, though – it’s global. Singapore’s ‘hawker centres’ have become tourist destinations that people will happily travel across the world to see, while AirBnb’s ‘Experiences’ tab is peppered with street food tours guided by locals.


The social draw of efficiency and convenience

When the success of the food market model is broken down, the factors that make it unique become clear – as do the takeaways for restaurants and cafés. Success lies in informality, convenience and experience. Deloitte’s Lead Partner for Casual Dining, Sarah Humphries, has this to say about the sector:

‘We see some key consumer trends emerging that casual dining operators can capitalise on…these include a desire for more healthy eating, informal and experiential dining experiences, as well as increased consumer focus on food provenance and sustainability.’

No wonder, then, that food markets have done so well – they frequently tick all three of those boxes, offering visitors a front row seat to food production and a chance to interact with the people behind the dishes. Customers can see what goes into their food, watch a ‘cooking show’ and ask any questions they like about their meals, all at once.


Convenience is another string to the food market’s bow. According to research conducted by Caterer.com, just 24 percent of market visitors have to wait more than ten minutes for their food. For traditional casual dining restaurants, that number jumps to 46 percent. In our own consumer research, we found that 66 percent of people would rather find somewhere else to eat than wait in a long queue. A massive 69 percent are actively frustrated when they have to wait longer than they’d like for the bill

The advent of contactless and mobile payment promises to make the process even more efficient. Singapore’s aforementioned hawker centres – amongst the most famous food markets in the world – recently adopted a system that gives patrons 23 different ways to pay.


Removing the barriers to social eating

Social eating is important. It’s so important, in fact, that University of Oxford professor Robin Dunbar says:

‘…making time for and joining in communal meals is perhaps the single most important thing we can do – both for our health and wellbeing and for that of the wider community.’

A study conducted by Cornell University saw its impact in the workplace, too – employees that regularly ate together saw a significant productivity boost. Food markets help to remove these barriers to socialisation and promote communal meals.

The reservation-planning, time investment and cost of a formal dining experience suits it to ‘special occasions’, but doesn’t make impromptu get-togethers as easy as they could be. Food markets represent the blend of easily-shared experience and convenience that people have been looking for.

This idea is backed by research. 61 percent of people think of street food venues as ‘a great place to meet new people’, while 57 percent say they’d go to a market for after-work drinks (Caterer.com).



All that social eating translates into street food success: surveys suggest that the average vendor can expect to make over £100,000 of revenue each year. The success of food markets tells us people are often looking for a mixture of fun, flexibility and informality when they eat out. It’s these elements that create a memorable shared experience.

The food market experience has been translated to physical restaurants before – the now-famous MEATLiquor empire started in a food truck, and now sees a £12 million turnover in their brick-and-mortar restaurants. Promoting social eating at your establishment doesn’t have to mean rolling out the red carpet – instead, try to bring experiential dining, customer engagement and convenience to the fore.


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