Good food? It’s a wrap for this street food start-up. 

Meet Rob Fenton, founder of Wrap Ninjas, who switched careers to connect more people to good food in his home town. Closing Loops Engagement Coordinator Nina Osswald spoke to Rob about his business, his passion for good food and people and what it takes to run a successful food startup during a cost of living crisis.

N: What is Wrap Ninjas and what motivated you to start a street food business?

R: Wrap Ninjas is a Lancaster-based street food business. I go round to lots of different local events, markets, weddings, private parties and so on. We serve up gourmet, top-notch wraps, with a focus on food being fresh, reasonably healthy and full of flavour really. How did it come about? I spent most of my life working in office-based jobs, and had some good, interesting, fulfilling and fun jobs in my time. But over recent years I felt that it wasn’t really all that exciting for me, or that rewarding for me, and I felt – it just wasn’t really what I wanted to do. So about two years ago I launched Wrap Ninjas.

N: So you don’t have a food background, from your career?

R: No, but food has always been a big part of my life, and I’ve always loved cooking and sharing food with people as well. You know, I started cooking when I was twelve, thirteen, helping my Mum out around the house, so that’s always been important to me. So, when I knew that I wanted to start a business, a food business was the obvious choice. I decided on street food because I’ve lived in London for seven years and I had seen the street food scene there growing and growing, and I’ve always been drawn to the sort of more casual dining side of things, so street food was kind of perfect for that.

Once I had decided that street food was the way to go for me, I made some moves to get some good experience to help set me up for success. I went and did a summer season as a chef in the French alps in an English pub selling home-made gourmet burgers and other English classics. And then the following season I got a job for a friend who runs a food truck to get some experience in mobile catering. And that’s where the idea for Wrap Ninjas was born.

N: Do you have a “typical” customer? And in your experience what are people most interested in when it comes to the food they eat?

R: I don’t necessarily have a typical customer base, because I do different types of events, in different locations, my customer base is quite wide. I guess my audience would largely be between 18 and 60, the majority of them, but apart from that it’s a fairly wide audience. I guess my food does probably attract people who are more interested in fresher and healthier food than people who would just go for something a little more basic, like a burger. I feel that more and more people want to eat more good quality, fresh and healthy food (without compromising on taste and satisfaction), and I certainly aim to cater for that. 

N: How did you get involved with Lancaster’s seasonal markets, and what do you enjoy about them?

R: I think I found out about them through researching markets in Lancaster, when I first started the business. I’ve done probably most of them over the last two years since I started Wrap Ninjas. 

I enjoy them, for me it’s nice because I don’t get a chance to do markets in central Lancaster very often. I like to be able to bring my business to the centre of my home town, and it’s a nice and relaxed market with a nice community. The whole ethos of the markets fits well with my own personal ethos and that of my business, trying to connect people to good food. Also part of my aim for my business is to continually look at my sustainability, to minimise the negative impact of my business while increasing any positive impacts. And while I‘ve still got some work to do in that area, the more events that I can align to, that fit with that ethos, the better.   

N: Can you go into more detail on what efforts you make in terms of running a socially and environmentally sustainable business? And also where the bottlenecks are? 

R: Sure, I would say sustainability is a core element of my business, from the very beginning. One thing we do well is we have very low food waste. We manage our stock carefully, and compost quite a large amount of any scraps and leftover compostable food. We also offer surplus food on the Too Good To Go app, and I have dropped off excess fresh produce at Eggcup before.

So low food waste, number one. Number two is really quite low waste to landfill for a food business. I’m pretty vigilant about recycling as much food packaging as I can, through the normal council routes and Bay Area Recycling, the local community recycling scheme. Anyone in the Bay area can use them to recycle a wider variety of products. They take a lot of my wrap packets, like hundreds and hundreds of wrap packets and various other things, and I think they send some stuff off to Relic Plastic as well. 

All the packaging we use is either made from recycled sources or recyclable or biodegradable or all three, which is good in principle. But the challenge the street food industry faces is that even if you’re giving customers these biodegradable alternatives, 95% of people will put them in the bin anyway. So that’s a challenge. 

And then there’s a few small things we do, like our prep kitchen is run 100% on renewable energy, and I bank with Co-operative which is one of the top three ethical bank accounts in the UK, so they don’t invest in fossil fuels, arms companies and so on. I’ve actually got a sustainability principles document which I can send you. There’s bound to be things I’ve forgotten because there’s quite a long list on there. 

N: You mentioned composting, where do you do that? 

R: Just at my home. Every now and then I have to stop, because my compost gets full. I did go to the Closing Loops composting for business food waste focus group last year and fed into that. I think that some sort of local community-run composting schemes which businesses and residents can use are an excellent idea. 

N: Can you say more where you source ingredients? 

R: I use Lancaster’s award-winning butchers, Gregory Williams Butchers, a local supplier for all my fresh meat and get eggs from a local supplier too. But my supply chain is an area I need to do work on. I’m still relying on either wholesalers or supermarkets for lots of fruit, veg and salads. And that all comes wrapped in plastic packaging, and it feeds into that whole sector – something I don’t feel comfortable with given the negative impact supermarkets have had on our high streets, small businesses and local sectors. It’s something I’m looking to tackle this year. The challenge is getting the products from elsewhere. I have ordered once from The Plot and I’m keen to use that a little bit more in the future, the challenge is— and I’ve looked at a couple of local-ish farm shops, but there’s just not that much in the Lancaster area for locally grown food suitable for a business. And I’d probably be looking at spending 20-30% more on my salad and veg, which is a big extra cost to bear at the moment. 

N: Apart from availability and cost, what are the things you would need for local sourcing to be feasible?

R: The other thing is price transparency. Knowing in advance how much things are going to cost. Price transparency and availability of prices early is important for my business. Another thing would be delivery. Small businesses like mine don’t have a lot of time for going round collecting things from different locations. And I would say the availability of delivery on – ideally – any day of the week to meet the needs of the business. 

It would be useful to know in advance what product range and quantities are available at different times of the year. It would be great if local growers could inform small business customers about seasonality, what’s going to be available when. Recently The Plot sent me their growing and harvesting schedule, which I found really useful. 

N: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a small, local food business? 

R: For me personally one of the biggest difficulties is time – and finding enough of it to do the work. For a street food business it’s long hard hours, when you’re trading, and you’ve got prep days as well. And it takes a huge amount of time trying to fill your diary – all the event research, applications, correspondence, payments, etc. To generate enough income to make a living, without having lots of regular pitches, takes up a lot of time and energy. 

As any small business owner will know, then there’s a lot of admin, finance, research, filling in application forms, sending quotes – a huge amount of back office work. And actually finding the time for it all is a big, big challenge. 

Finding good staff and keeping them is a challenge. I’ve got two dependable staff members at the moment and have had some great staff working with me in general. But in the two years that I’ve been in business I’ve had to recruit three or four times already. It’s a bit of an ongoing process in hospitality.

One thing I find hard is just knowing you’re on the right path. Running a small business on your own, you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off, share your successes with, have a rant at, and that can be quite challenging and even a little lonely at times.. 

N: Could the FoodFutures network meet that need for you to some extent? 

R: Yes, probably to some extent. But actually another challenge is being able to go to these [FoodFutures] events, expanding my network and doing these longer-term things. I’m so busy just running the business that it can be difficult making the time for long-term planning and things like that. Going out there and meeting new people, meeting new businesses, it can be really difficult to find the time, and justify spending time for that. 

N: How has the cost of living crisis impacted your business? 

R: In the last twelve months I’ve seen the cost of my ingredients go up anywhere between 5 and 15% across the board. And I’ve increased staff wages twice this year because I’m keen to pay the real living wage. The challenge with that is that I just don’t feel I can increase my prices in the current climate – and I know a lot of other small businesses are feeling the same squeeze. 


N: What do you think are the key ingredients to make it through difficult times like that? 

R: I think one thing is resilience, and that can mean facing up to difficult circumstances but it can also mean looking after yourself and knowing when to allow yourself to step back a little bit from things. Adaptability – luckily I’ve not been in a crisis situation, I’ve not had to make too many adaptations but I’ve watched other businesses do that over the last few years and some of those that have been able to adapt quickly have done very well out of difficult circumstances.  

I think being quite customer centric is important in any situation – you’ve really got to look after your customers. And that can be small simple gestures – for example we give umbrellas in the queue when it’s raining – or replying to emails from customers quickly, doing giveaways, things like that. 

N: What are your plans with Wrap Ninjas for the future? 

R: This year my plan is to make real progress on the sustainability of my business, even if it’s just lots of small changes. I also plan to be more targeted with the type of events I do, working with events and organisations which best fit my ethos around fresh,healthy food and environmental impact. So that’s fitness events, hiking events, outdoorsy things, health events, things like that. I’m also keen to increase our private event work – weddings, parties and corporate events. And then the final thing is just continuing to strengthen my team and focus on their development and growth, because if I’m growing the business I need a really strong and dependable team.

N: How can people get in touch if they would like to book Wrap Ninjas for their event?

R: People can reach me at wrapninjasuk@gmail.com or find Wrap Ninjas on Facebook @wrap.ninjas and on Instagram @wrap_ninjas. And please come for lunch at our stall at Lancaster’s Spring Market on 15 March!

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