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Vintage vehicles: The catering trend

PUBLISHED: 11:58 02 September 2016 | UPDATED: 11:58 02 September 2016

Karen Evans, from Canterbury (left, with her daughter Gabriella Evans), owns Bessie the Caravan, a 1960's Cheltenham Fawn caravan, which mainly serves tea and cake - although a glass of bubbly is also often on the menu

Karen Evans, from Canterbury (left, with her daughter Gabriella Evans), owns Bessie the Caravan, a 1960's Cheltenham Fawn caravan, which mainly serves tea and cake - although a glass of bubbly is also often on the menu

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

A popular choice for summer weddings, village fêtes and festivals, vintage vehicles of all shapes and sizes are getting a second lease of life as trendy catering units. Words Caroline Read. Pictures: Manu Palomeque and the owners

In an era somewhat obsessed with vintage fashion and all things retro, it’s no surprise these days to turn up at a summer wedding and find guests lining up at a 1960’s ice cream van.

Pop down to your local music festival and you might treat yourself to a crêpe cooked in a converted 1950’s Citroen van, or a cocktail served from a mobile bar aboard a 1970’s VW campervan. Once you start looking for them, you’ll notice them everywhere.

The trend for posh ‘street food’ served from a vintage vehicle developed at festivals a few years ago and has since moved on to private events. When it comes to weddings, more and more couples in particular are moving away from what’s traditionally expected and choosing fun and quirky ways to celebrate.

But while the term street food probably conjures up images of floppy hamburgers served in soggy napkins, you’re actually more likely to find Champagne bars and mobile catering units fully kitted out to serve artisan meals.

Inside Bessie the CaravanInside Bessie the Caravan

Karen Evans, from Canterbury, owns one such vehicle. Bessie the Caravan is a 1960’s Cheltenham Fawn caravan, which mainly serves tea and cake, although a glass of bubbly is also often on the menu too. “During 2012, I decided to create a new business venture that would combine my love of vintage, my enjoyment of the countryside and the joy of baking,” says Karen.

“I was lucky enough to have a beautiful smallholding in the Kent countryside and wanted to utilise both the space and the foodie resources it naturally provided me with. The idea of Bessie was born and I haven’t looked back.”

After a lot of late-night searching online, Karen finally found a little caravan that appeared to fit the bill. Picked up on a trip to Bristol, it was refurbished with the help of friends and family, creating a tiny retro wonderland adorned with bunting, antique linen and vintage china.

In the field where Bessie is usually based, visitors come together to celebrate hen parties, baby showers, birthdays and anniversaries, with the caravan also getting out and about all over the UK to weddings, vintage fairs and classic car events.

Mark Ashworth of Brenchley based Ooh La La Street Food Vans not only sources vintage vans for customers, but also renovates and converts them, or fixes ones they've already boughtMark Ashworth of Brenchley based Ooh La La Street Food Vans not only sources vintage vans for customers, but also renovates and converts them, or fixes ones they've already bought

“I must admit I’ve got a bit of a Cheltenham caravan addiction now and Bessie has been joined by three others,” she says. “I have fully restored Bessie Buttercup and Bessie Blossom and a rather rare model is awaiting my attention.

“These original vintage caravans just seem to bring a smile to everyone’s faces. They relax and enjoy a little nostalgia and peace. I often hear tales of childhood memories and it’s a wonderful way to work, meeting interesting people and seeing new places with every event.”

Another vintage vehicle owner is Joanne Bater and her husband Paul. Among their collection of mainly wartime cars and Jeeps is the NAAFI Wagon (Navy Army Air Force Institutes), one of only five mobile canteens surviving from the Second World War. This one dates from 1941 and was issued to the National Fire Service for use in London. It’s shown today as an example of the many mobile canteens used by support organisations throughout the war years.

“We originally bought the NAAFI Wagon as my husband loves wartime vehicles with a difference,” says Joanne. “We didn’t think of working it; we just wanted to show it. But the first day we were inundated by people trying to buy cups of tea! On our way home, we had a chat and got the ball rolling and 10 years later our beloved NAAFI Wagon is being worked at shows, hired out for film work, private events, weddings, charity events, you name it.”

Joanne and Paul Bater own this 1941 NAAFI Wagon, now being worked at shows, hired out for film work, private events, weddings and charity eventsJoanne and Paul Bater own this 1941 NAAFI Wagon, now being worked at shows, hired out for film work, private events, weddings and charity events

The wagon is fully operational, serving refreshments in period enamel mugs with a wonderful collection of memorabilia on display. Joanne works the canteen dressed in wartime NAAFI overalls and original bunting is hung around, together with bill boards showing wartime posters. They were even invited to take part in the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle earlier this year.

“Everyone loves the NAAFI Wagon. If they have been in the services, some remember the NAAFI coming on site and serving teas and ‘NAAFI wedding cake’. The younger generation are fascinated with it and want to come in and have a look. Everyone loves something old. It conjures up feelings about the ‘good old days’, the days when people knew their next-door neighbours and respected each other.”

And probably nothing quite sums up those happy nostalgic feelings than the chimes of an old ice cream van. By far the most popular choice at weddings, and always a big hit with guests, vintage ice cream vans serve everything from classic ice creams and ice lollies from the 1970s to retro sweets, organic artisan ice creams and even alcoholic frozen shots.

There are dozens of companies hiring out vans to suit any taste but one established Kent company, which has diversified from running a modern ice cream business to hiring out vintage vehicles, is Tonibell.

Gary Rich's Tonibell vans have appeared on dozens of TV shows, in photo shoots and are hugely popular at weddingsGary Rich's Tonibell vans have appeared on dozens of TV shows, in photo shoots and are hugely popular at weddings

Once one of the country’s best-loved ice cream sellers, those iconic bright pink vans of our childhood are still going strong. In fact owner Gary Rich points out that his son is taking the Tonibell brand into its third generation now.

“Our Bedford models are the most popular,” says Gary. “They date from the late ‘60s and are original, factory-made in Crewe, and we also have 1980’s classic vehicles. Hiring one of our vintage Tonibell ice cream vans, the history and nostalgia just creates magical memories.

“Our menu has all the remembered ice creams as well as our original point-of sale-stickers of teddy bear lollies, the green genie and more. At weddings we’ve been described as the next best thing to the ceremony itself!”

Wedding guests are always entertained by the old vans and memories of childhood excitement are easily jogged when the chimes play. Gary’s vans have appeared on dozens of TV shows over the years, in photo shoots and the brand has even had a book written about its history.

His company is always on the look-out for old Tonibell vans in need of restoration and a good home, but many of the street food vehicles you’ll see at events weren’t originally intended for that use.

Citroen vans and VW campers are particularly popular choices when it comes to converting old vehicles into new mobile food and drink stalls. So if you decide a new business venture in street food is for you, and you happen across an old vintage van in need of restoration and conversion, where do you go?

It’s such big business now that there are a few specialist companies out there who do just this. One such company, the charmingly named Ooh La La Street Food Vans, based in Brenchley, offers to either source the vintage van for the customer and then renovate and convert, or to fix up one they’ve already bought.

Owner Mark Ashworth describes himself as ‘an old school motor mechanic’ and is passionate about his new enterprise. He says: “There are a few companies out there, but most of them are dedicated mobile catering unit builders that have jumped on the back of the rising popularity in the use of vintage vehicles. It’s unlikely they have the skills to support the vehicle.”

As he points out, these vehicles (some more than 60 years old) don’t just need to look good on the outside; they need to be carefully restored and maintained in driveable condition.

As well as his years as a mechanic, Mark was also a shop fitter to the catering industry for a time, making him uniquely skilled when it comes to creating street food vans.

“The vehicles we work on are varied, from the iconic VW campers to the much-loved Citroën H van and anything in between,” he says.

“We would have no interest in converting a modern Ford Transit, for instance, although we do have a Mark 1 transit coming in – that gets us motivated.”

Having been responsible for ‘Mother Truck’, the high-end Citroen street food van owned by the I’ll Be Mother group which runs restaurants including The Beacon in Tunbridge Wells and The Swan at Chapel Down, Mark’s reputation for creating these vehicles is spreading.

Pete Cornwell of I’ll Be Mother is so excited by the concept that he intends to add to the successful Mother Truck with a series of other converted vans from the craftsman.

“The tired and greasy wedding buffet served after dancing has seen its day, really,” says Pete. “We can cater for all tastes and requirements and have some really exiting menus to offer. There’s also the theatre element.

“Mother Truck is such a handsome boy with his distinctive corrugated body work painted in a deep stone grey. He’s a real talking point.

“We often have wedding couples wanting to pose for their photos next to Mother Truck, especially when he’s glowing with fairy lights on a balmy summer’s evening.”

Mark at Ooh La La Street Food Vans is currently working on a couple of Citroën H-vans – one for a client in Norway and one heading to Edinburgh – and is converting a derelict double horse trailer into a bar. His theory as to their popularity is a simple one.

“If there is one thing this country does well and loves, it is nostalgia. Look at an event with a burger box sited and next to it a beautifully restored vintage van selling the same burgers. The queue will be at the vintage van; the smiling faces will be at the vintage van; the happy vendor will be inside the vintage van.

“The vendor’s only problem is moving the customers along because they all want is to chat about the van and their memories of it!”

Find out more

See more of these beautiful vehicles by visiting their websites.

Bessie the Caravan: www.bessiethecaravan.co.uk

The NAAFI Wagon: www.naafiwagon.co.uk

Tonibell Ice Cream Vans: www.tonibell99.co.uk

Mother Truck: www.illbemother.co.uk

Ooh La La Street Food Vans: www.oohlalastreetfoodvans.co.uk

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