Launching a food truck in London: Authentic Greek Souvlaki
A rush of energy sweeps through the room. There is no hiding or running from the fact that Kostas Vais is an uncontainable source of enthusiasm and excitement. One thing is on his mind: making the most authentic Greek Souvlaki in London. He speaks quickly and often goes on engaging tangents, excited by the stories he is recounting, the ones that have motivated him to get to where he is today. He is opinionated about everything and uninterested in subtleties, a candidness that is invigorating and fun.
I’m always eating out and 7 times out of 10 I’m disappointed with what I eat.
Tell me about yourself – What lead you into food?
When I was younger I studied construction. I thoroughly enjoyed it because you could see things conceived, created and given life – it’s a finite and rewarding journey. That’s probably what led me into hospitality. My father died when I was 22 which made me re-evaluate things. I decided: ‘I want to travel’. I came to London in 1995 and started working in a bar. It was just, me! I loved the environment and the atmosphere and it just suited me, it was fun…you met girls! [laughs]
People ask me what I studied to get where I am in the food industry…I say, nothing! It’s just my energy and passion. It’s not difficult to connect to people when you love it. People saw it was natural. I wasn’t a great manager when I started out, I screamed a bit. [laughs]
Since returning to London from Australia, people around me suggested I do something on my own. I’m always eating out and 7 times out of 10 I’m disappointed with what I eat. My favorite restaurants are not Michelin starred… Too many people don’t know what good food is and rely on reviews, ending up in places that they are told are cool. When I arrived in London in 1995 the energy and the chaos was fun, but there was no culture of food. Many people don’t know flavour… But I find and befriend people who have a great understanding of flavour. It’s not difficult to do: just keep it fresh.
As soon as you know who you are – you have to live that life.
Why did you choose a food truck?
Because I didn’t have ￡300,000 to open a store! [laughs] My friend convinced me to open a van. People in markets want cool vans – I got that. People want great food – I got that. The main reason why I wanted the van is to gain momentum.
I’ve got a lot of big opinions and I’m doing the food truck to prove a point to myself that this passion cannot go wasted. The world needs more doers. I’m giving away a good salary and my holidays but I don’t care! I’ll be over the grill all day and I love that. As soon as you know who you are – you have to live that life. I might be boisterous and opinionated, but at the end of the day I can’t change who I am. I love looking after people; I love serving people; I love cooking for people: I love it.
…There is no good Greek food in London, we are being misrepresented. I know Greek and I wanted to make authentic souvlaki.
Is it hard to get a food truck? What does the process involve?
You get a headache! [laughs] I thought I was going to launch in March last year, and here we are today, on the verge of finally launching. The process of getting a food truck is not difficult. You build or choose your food stall, store, or food truck. You apply to the local council where the business has been registered. The council comes to inspect and gives you a food hygiene rating on cleanliness, food handling, fire safety etc. Everyone who works with food also needs to pass a Level 2 Food Hygiene test.
For one I grew up in a Greek household. Secondly, the romantic in me wanted to recreate the nostalgia of my life in the 70s – I wanted the charcoal, the cooking, the simplicity of the souvlaki and its flavour. These days there is too much chilli and spice in everything. Lastly, the business part of me said: “There is no good Greek food in London,” we are being misrepresented. I know Greek and I wanted to make authentic souvlaki.
So – what IS souvlaki?
I should have studied for this! A souvla is a piece of meat cooked on a large skewer over a charcoal BBQ on a spit. Souvlaki is basically the small version. Nobody in London makes good souvlaki with authentic pita bread. I don’t want to give it all away by saying too much, [winks] but I think I’ve found the perfect combination of Greek flavours. I want to make souvlaki to order and use a charcoal grill because that’s what it looks and tastes like in my memories.
Nobody does naked souvlaki like I do, because the flavor is exposed, and I’m not afraid of that. When you do something, if it’s not the best – don’t do it!
What has been the biggest challenge and what the greatest reward?
The biggest challenge has been simply getting things done. The one thing you don’t realize working in a big company are all the things you just get [as part of the package]. Marketing, accounting, legal… Now I need to do everything on my own.
The biggest reward has been the day of the food truck launch itself. I told my team that day: “we can look a bit messy, we can be a bit delayed but we have to get one thing right: the flavour. I’m not going to compromise on that.” And we nailed it. Everyone was like, “wow, this is different…” And that’s the seasoning! The feeling that I got that day is the best. The encouragement I got from people saying that I’m onto something. Nobody does naked souvlaki like I do, because the flavour is exposed, and I’m not afraid of that. When you do something, if it’s not the best – don’t do it! People may think they know Greek, but that’s not good enough. You have to be the best.
And this is the problem: when you try to get in [the market] with a small startup you can’t, because of the pre-existing structure [favouring industry giants]. The local council could help by limiting the number of large chains and give young baristas, souvlaki bars, cookie shops and all small food makers a chance to show what they are doing.
What is your ultimate goal for the business?
My ideal scenario would be to manage two trucks and two stores. I would make sure not to get too big: you have to be on it all the time to make good food! But, also, I want to give back. I want to do charity work, I want to support the NHS and do good. Once you realize you don’t need a million dollars to live, it’s a very liberating feeling. If you’re not having fun in your career – stop doing it immediately. Life is too short. I believe I know good food and I stick to what I love.
On the way back home, before the town started getting busy again at 5pm, we would see the food vendors and ask my grandad, “Can we get a souvlaki?”
What is your favorite thing on the menu?
Naked pork souvlaki with sourdough pita. When I was four years old my family took a trip to Greece for 6 months – my parents and two older brothers. During siesta time we couldn’t sleep, and my grandad Dimitri would take us to the playground during the hottest hours. We would play in the park and then sit around listening to him read us a story, often The Three Little Pigs! On the way back home, before the town started getting busy again at 5 pm, we would see the food vendors and ask my grandad, “Can we get a souvlaki?”
Picture this: a stick with chunks of meat and pita bread on the end, charred. We would remove the bread and eat a piece of the meat, alternating. You would eat it like that. That was the original memory. This is the trip – at 4 years old – that left those memories. I want to bring that memory alive. I know who I am, I know where I belong. When I get to the van I can’t wait to work – it’s not working, it’s an extension of my life.
To meet Kostas at The 3 Little Pigs Truck and have a taste of his amazing souvlaki and authentic pita, join him on Saturdays at Brook Green Market & Kitchen from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm or on Sundays at Camberwell Market.
Tell him SideStory sends you for some extra Greek love.