So you'd think that 45,000 square feet of prime estate between Borough and Elephant and Castle would be ripe for a couple of high-rises, with a few of penthouses thrown in to boot? Well, maybe one day, but for a disused paper factory on Newington Causeway a different type of development has taken root - a modern day squatter albeit with the permission of the landowner...
Enter Mercato Metropolitano – the latest 'Meanwhile Project' or pop-up space to grace London's ever-changing former industrial landscape.
Whether you are after a slice of wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, some freshly baked Foccacia, or something from the Argentine Grill – MM is the place to be. If you are interested in finding out more about the food on offer I've done the hard work for you! Click here, here or here.
As its name suggests, Mercato's origins lie in Italy, and the space attempts to create a vibrant and symbiotic relationship between good food, excellent local produce, and a positive social impact on the local community.
Sounds good, right? But what makes Mercato any different from the hundreds of pop-up 'street food' efforts that have descended on the capital in recent years?
I tracked down Mercato's founder, Andrea Rasca, and I suppose what he has to say might help you decide...
It was clear straight off the bat that this project is the culmination of a journey of Andrea's own personal development.
"I've been working on this concept for 20 years - focusing on internationalising small and medium producers of Italian food. When studying in Japan I realised that Italian food is the best eaten food in the world – or should I say 'most eaten' - the problem was that we were not organised. From the first moment other countries had big retainers around the world in terms of sales - there's a Waitrose in Bangkok for example – we didn’t have this for the Italian producer."
So how do you get Italian growers and producers on the map?
"We had a cultural issue with small producer and medium producers who did not have an export department. One way to sell is to invest in marketing and advertising. The other is to tell your story.
"How can a small producer tell their story without investing in advertising? So the idea was why don't you open your own store and tell your story. But to open a store in Bangkok as a small producer is impossible so this is the process."
Andrea tells me that a true telling of the story of MM would take a week so you'll have to have faith in my attempts to capture it...
Mercato is a movement for artisans
After studying around the world Andrea came up with another concept – Eataly - but this was swamped by so called 'big industry'. He decided to refocus his efforts elsewhere.
"In the end I wanted to create a multi-layered approach to the business. First of all it had to be a social approach. I believe that profit should be shared within the community which is why we choose abandoned places like this (the disused paper factory) and not Oxford Street. Some people think that this is the weak point of our business model but what they don't realise is that, for us, it is the strong point."
"The profits that we make allow us to invest in the local community" - more on that later.
Andrea is clear that the project has a unique selling point: Italy.
"Mercato is a movement of artisans so – let's be frank about this – Italy is the creator of good food – it's an intangible asset.
"From a marketing point if you want to sell food just say it's Italian. We use this to attract people but the knowledge we have, and the number of PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) foods is the highest in the world – there's no comparisons with the concentration of biodiversity. And the history of course. Italy is the country of 100 cities – a melting pot of culture"
"When we had our first trial in Milan – my thoughts were very clear: I did not want industries involved – mass produced cheap food that is unhealthy and destroys the environment. We are for honest, natural, good, artisan local food which is good for the environment and good for the suppliers. We want producers to not have to worry about selling to big retailers and supermarkets."
There's a simple methodology that underpins the ethos of MM.
"Mercato is based on three pillars: Eat, Buy, and Learn. First you eat – you like it but you don't understand what you are eating. Then you want to try it at home – you can buy it. But then, if you want to go deeper into it you learn and we show you that the best tasting pizza can be good for you too".
But it's not all about good food and education. Andrea is keen to impress upon me another aspect of MM that sets it apart - the atmosphere.
Do we really want another Wagamamas or Zara?
"We want to create a familiar and friendly atmosphere where families sit down together. This is the biggest differentiation between the likes of Borough market, which is fantastic, but doesn't have the social aspect. Half of the Italian diet is based on ingredients. The other half is all about socialisation – cooking together and eating together. This makes your life better.
"What we've been amazed by is that most of the people coming through at the weekends are families with kids."
Mercato has been allocated a two year lease– Andrea says that Peabody (who own the site) and the council have been very supportive of such a positive use of 'disused space' - and they are hoping that this the first of several Mercatos around London.
Andrea's last word on the subject, before he dashes off to one of many meetings that the day held for him, is... "do we really want another Wagamamas or Zara?"
Mercato's strategy dictates that they only go into areas that are undergoing 'regeneration' and that are struggling with deprivation and many social challenges.
So how does a street food and market venue tackle such issues? Luckily we have Vicki Exall, who is MM's Community Manager, to tell us!
"We want to be perceived as a valuable asset to the community; via, for example, providing space for local community groups to hold regular classes or meetings or working to employ the long term unemployed in the area. We are going to be running free workshops for the community. We are getting there – although we're not there yet."
"We've run free classes for children including breadmaking events, pizza making classes; we hosted a DEA music school concert, we had a book reading, we've had Halloween events – there is something for everybody."
Vicki is in touch with the community manager at Peabody regularly to discuss potential projects that they can get involved in and to identify groups that they should be talking to.
So what about an example of how they are reaching out to the local community?
"We have a fantastic resident who volunteers at some of our children's events who has put me in contact with local churches, who have taken advantage of our community growing space. We donated vegetables, salads and herbs from our garden for some of their events."
'Diversity' wouldn't necessarily be appropriately associated with my fellow diners
Vicki is keen to acknowledge the tensions that have inevitably come about as a result of their presence in the area – have they found it difficult to persuade people that they are not the big bad symbol of regeneration?
"We hear a lot about the backlash in the area about the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle – what our position is, is that people may look at this and say that it is out of reach financially for the local community but we've actually got pizzas for a fiver on site, but more than that we are putting on so many free events for children.
"Actually when people come here and we talk about what we have to offer – in terms of what we are trying to give back to the community – it's a relatively easy sell.
"We are conscious of the environment we operate in and, we are welcoming of everybody."
Whilst I don't have any plans to branch out into writing the type of foodie blog that may get me more followers on Instagram, I have sampled Mercato as a punter. What I did notice is that it is fair to say that the term 'diversity' wouldn't necessarily be appropriately associated with my fellow diners.
When I put this to Vicki she agreed - "A part of what we are trying to do is engage more with diverse community groups and we are doing this via developing relationships with local groups, including Community Southwark. It’s an ongoing process which will be helped by our new cookery school which will be opening soon. This will give us significantly more opportunities to engage with local schools and community groups and invite them to use our space.
"We're hoping that the revenue-generating events which will be held at the cookery school, will then fund what we really want to do which is setting up after school cookery clubs and weekend activities for local children”.
Some people reading this will argue that the terms 'pop-up' or 'street food' usually go hand in hand with terms like 'gentrification' and 'hipster' but Vicki ensures that this will not be the case at MM.
"We'll never host events with really modern live DJs and live music. This is a place for families to come and enjoy good food and spend time together. We don't have Wi-Fi because we want people to talk, laugh and enjoy spending time together rather than look at their phones.
"When I came down on Sunday I saw groups of friends and families talking, kids were running around- it felt like such a lovely relaxed place.
"We want to provide a safe, enjoyable place where families can come together to eat well and enjoy each other's company."
So what's in store for MM?
Andrea, Vicki and the team want to help educate people about how to eat healthily but also help people gain an understanding of where real food comes from and the joy associated with eating it.
"We know that childhood obesity is a huge issue in Southwark. There's a double whammy in some communities where obesity can go hand in hand with malnutrition. We are very realistic about what we can do but we want to help with that education process in a very soft way – come and have fun in an after school club – making friends and having fun.
"I see MM as a space that will continue to grow in terms of being a hub for the community and that's everybody in the community – people who live and work here. We want this to be a hub where people can get involved in lots of different events, enjoy good food with friends, in a great environment."
MM, in essence, has two audiences. They need footfall from consumers, but they also have local communities to consider. There is a sense that MM is still trying to find its feet in terms of balancing its 'Corporate Social Responsibility' arm with, what is in essence, a profit making business model.
But that is to be expected if we consider that they only officially launched in September.
Now I wouldn't want to generalise but there appears to be a bit of a distinction to be made between the foody types who would see this as a place to hang on a Friday night, and members of the local community who are being target by Vicki and her team for the events, training and workshops that MM are putting on. It is an uneasy statement to make but one that underlines the delicate balance that needs to be struck with a project like this. It remains to be seen whether such a balance is at all possible.
There is an inevitability about the direction that Elephant and Castle, and the surrounding areas, are heading towards as Southwark attempts to claw its way firmly into the bosom of central London. Many reading this will cite MM as another marker for the regeneration process that has seen communities, and the streets themselves, change beyond recognition.
But, as Andrea said, would we rather have another Wagamamas or Zara? Or would we want a company that, on the face of it, is attempting to support the local community whilst making money at the same time? MM are certainly attempting to provide an opportunity for people from all walks of life (especially children) to learn about where food comes from, and the process that needs to happen from when an ingredient is pulled out of the ground to it appearing on the plate. And you don't have to go to Shoreditch for the privilege.
Mercato Metropolitano are especially interested in supporting groups that work with women and children but wish to reach out to every corner of the borough.
If you are part of a community group reading this and want to get involved or use the space why not get in touch with Vicki at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about upcoming events, visit the Mercato Metropolitano website here.