Street food supremo Jonathan Downey on the launch of London’s latest Street Feast venue, Public, in Woolwich
Words: Emily Manson
Photography: Johnny Stephens
In all my time interviewing passionate restaurateurs, devoted chefs and gregarious hoteliers, I’ve never come across someone who is clearly having so much fun in their job. Jonathan Downey – or JD as he is known – is clearly in his element, having captured yet another pivotal zeitgeist moment in the capital’s culinary journey.
His new baby is Street Feast’s latest launch, Public, in Woolwich. The original concept of Street Feast was to provide a hub for street food traders, turning disused, derelict spaces into ‘places to be’.
‘StreetFeast is a new way of going out, socialising, meeting new people and your neighbours,’ he says. ‘Plus, there’s a vast choice of food and half a dozen bars to choose from in a variety of environments. The whole concept is very democratic. There’s none of this “you’re not cool enough” or “need to make a booking”. It’s just quality and fun.’
StreetFeast’s USP of doing up disused spaces on short (but very favourable) leases in unfashionable areas has allowed the projects to flourish, enhanced communities and been part of defining new cool areas within the capital.
The new Woolwich site has received overwhelming support. Downey notes that during his entire 20-plus year career, he’s never encountered such vocal and local backing. ‘Two local councillors, over 300 emails supporting us, even a local residents’ association set up with the express purpose of bringing Street Feast to Woolwich. I’ve never known support like it.’
Two local councillors, over 300 emails, even a local residents’ association set up with the express purpose of bringing Street Feast to Woolwich. I’ve never known support like it
So what’s driving this unprecedented local enthusiasm? ‘It’s a great way to connect with locals and people have seen how the concept becomes a real community asset,’ he says. ‘If we were to set up in Soho it wouldn’t change a thing.
For them, Woolwich ticked all the boxes. They fell in love with the building and believed they could make a real impact in the area. They were careful to preserve the integrity of the shell, but gutted the inside and success has been instant. With a plan for around 750 customers a day, their first weekend saw over 4,000 punters drop in for their special brand of cool.
‘It’s early days,’ says Downey warily, ‘but people loved it and we really hope it sustains.’ And it’s not just all foodie frolics and drinks at the bar. Downey has a savvy business head too. The addition of bars made the concept ‘commercially sustainable’, while their speed at turning venues around with modest investment is truly enviable – Public in Woolwich opened three weeks after getting the keys.
And they boast a list of backers that’s nothing short of a foodie celebrity Who’s Who, everyone he and business partner Henry Dimbleby approached for investment, invested (bar one). So Nigella, Jamie O, Nick Jones, Yotam Ottolenghi, Giles Coren and more are all involved and, as Downey points out, although it’s not entirely altruistic, it’s not because they need the cash.
‘Genuinely the most exciting bit is working with these passionate foodie entrepreneurs and seeing them catapult from 50-100 portions to 1,000 or more, which lets them give up their day job and follow their passion,’ he says.
So where to next for this dynamo team? ‘We get offered places all the time. There are so many opportunities – Manchester, Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Brooklyn, Miami… it’s endless,’ smiles Downey. ‘We want to do the ones that are exciting, where we can do the best job and which will work best for our traders… and are the most fun!’
Public is located at 14 Plumstead Road, Woolwich SE18 7BZ; streetfeast.com