On Yer Bike

Picture: Karma Cans by Issy Croker

Published: 14/06/2018

Benjamin Cullen says ‘velo’ to the new wave of pedal-powered provender peddlers.

In the early twentieth century, before motorised vehicles fully seized the streets, cobbled roads were full of plucky vendors on bikes, laden with fresh produce, loaves and meat, bellowing persuasive, cockney cries to attract passers-by. In the late 1930s, 4,000 ice cream tricycles graced the streets of the capital, while beret-clad ‘Onion Johnnies’ (French onion pedlars) used Gallic charm to sell their eye-watering bulbs, unwittingly enforcing French stereotypes in the process.


Now, a new breed of budding young food vendors is rekindling the time-honoured, two-wheeled tradition of bringing variety, taste and vibrancy to our streets, markets and offices.

For a bespoke (ahem) super-healthy catering service, Eccie and Gini Newton of Karma Cans are sisters doing it for themselves. While at Mumbai University, Eccie came across the city’s ingenious tiffin service, involving around 4000 dabbawallas delivering more than 160,000 home-cooked lunches with astounding efficiency to urban workers direct from the kitchens of suburban wives and mothers.

“It was pretty inspiring,” Eccie says. “It made me think about the way we eat lunch in London and I wanted to change it. All those plastic bags, forks, and packaging replaced with something reusable”. It is this dedication to sustainability that defines Karma Cans. Their produce is seasonal and locally sourced; their meals are explicitly healthy and packaged in reusable tiffin tins, deployed by a tight-knit team of cyclists. “We live in a polluted city, in world battling climate change. In this context, reducing carbon emissions should be at the forefront of any business’s long term strategy,” adds Eccie.

Pedal and pour

“Our bikes give us plenty of freedom”, beams Ed Godden, one-half of The Travelling Gin Company. “Travelling through the London traffic with ease, putting our stands down and serving almost immediately from arrival is a great feeling.” Since 2011, Ed and Joe Lewis have been serving classic cocktails out of the baskets of their vintage Pashley cycles. “The idea was born during a cycling trip to Amsterdam,” Ed says. “Joe bought a 1948 postal bike, attached a £5 spirit dispenser to the frame, added gin, and provided mates with checkpoint G&T’s. Everyone loved it!” This quirky concept swiftly became a fully-fledged business, and now they pedal and pour everywhere, from street festivals to wedding receptions.

If you want bikes and booze-free beverages, then Square Root London are your guys. It’s from under a railway arch in Hackney that Ed Taylor and Robyn Simms experiment with fruit, flavours and fizz to create their distinct artisanal sodas. Once juiced, carbonated and bottled up, their pop is delivered on their beloved 95 year old tricycle called Elsie. “Elsie was a rusty, retired Hovis delivery bike when we found her,” says Ed. “But with some TLC and a lick of paint, we transformed her into Square Root's one of a kind mobile soda bar. Ultimately, our tricycle set-up reflects the core values of our product: time-honoured, homespun soft drinks. Elsie is a great vehicle for this message.”

Pros and cons

Other than the obvious green credentials that bicycles bring, it also makes perfect business sense. “It saves so much money,” extols Martin Hardiman of Bermondsey-based bakers The Little Bread Pedlar. “There are no congestion fees, not much vehicle maintenance to be had or insurance costs on drivers.” Well they do say torque is cheap!

But surely there must be some drawbacks? “Pollution!” exclaims Eccie, “and HGV’s.” Cycling can be a perilous pursuit, but it’s getting safer. With investment pouring into the cycling infrastructure of London, the creation of ‘cycling superhighways’ and other safer routes, it looks like the capital is on its way to becoming a mass cycling city much like Copenhagen. With this positive development, alongside the emergence of new culinary entrepreneurs, donning the helmet and saddling up seems like the best way forward.


More biked bites

E5 Bakehouse
Real breadwinners in east London who deliver their famous bakes on Dutch bikes

Lunch BXD
Vibrant and nutritional lunches peddled freshly to your desk

Cycling Veg
The environmentally minded, bike-wielding greengrocer

Home Cooking SE24
Slow Food approved, Italian cuisine lovingly made and peddled to your door

This article first appeared in The Jellied Eel magazine issue 48, August 2015.