Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I started going about with my friend, Stan, on his hot dog van, this being an old Mini van with a fibreglass shell fitted to the back. I didn’t get paid, but being out and about was better than watching telly at home. We parked outside various pubs and clubs in the area, and on Saturdays we went to St James’ Park if Newcastle were playing at home.
It was while we were at one of these home games that Stan asked his boss if I could have a burger barrow of my own, and I was delighted when he said yes. This was in the early 1980s, a period when football hooliganism was rife at English grounds, but I was happy to take the barrow because I would earn a bit of cash, and get to watch the football free gratis too. The rates of pay were 12.5% of the take, which rose to 15% if I passed the £100 mark. I only ever achieved this higher rate a few times.
My routine was to turn up at the ground at about noon, three hours before kick-off. The burger barrows arrived in a Luton van, and I would help unload them with other vendors. The company that owned the fleet had a franchise with the football club, and they operated from a base in a blue painted snack hut that stood in the Gallowgate end of the ground. We were each given stock and a float and sent on our way.
With my burgers bubbling and sausages simmering, I hit the streets and set about selling my wares; hot dogs 35p, Westler’s hamburgers 50p, and a cheese slice on top for an extra 10p. It was hit-and-miss trying to find a pitch that wasn’t encroaching on those of my better established colleagues, but I found a few decent spots.
I never had any real trouble while on the barrow, but I did have to put up with drunken shenanigans occasionally. One time, a group of, shall we say high-spirited fans started wheeling my barrow along the street while I was serving a customer. It was a nuisance, but it wasn’t malicious. As it happened, the day I made the most money on the barrow was also the day I had my most frightening experience.
It was a fine winter’s afternoon, and Newcastle were playing host to Exeter City in the fifth round of the FA Cup. The Grecians, to give them their nickname, played in the third tier of English football, one below the Magpies. This factor, plus the away fixture, made Exeter rank outsiders. There was a bumper crowd of over 36,000, and I’d made a tidy sum in the pre-match bustle. Everyone seemed happy, including those who turned up in black and white kilts.
At three o’clock, I would take my barrow through a narrow gate, and park it up by the blue hut. Then I could go and watch the game from the Gallowgate end. The only downside to this arrangement was that I had to leave about ten minutes before full-time in order to take up my position ready to serve the exiting hordes.
With the Exeter game under way, I parked my barrow as usual, and went up the Gallowgate steps to watch the match. I don’t remember too much about the action on the field, but when I left, Newcastle were winning one-nil, courtsey of an Alan Shoulder goal. Back at the blue hut, I lit the gas on my barrow and wheeled it out of the ground into Strawberry Place, where I parked right outside the gates. My friend with the van was next to me.
As I was serving, there came an almighty groan from the crowd above; Exeter had equalised very late into the game. The mood of the crowd changed in an instant. It was now dark, and disgruntled fans flooded onto the streets. I had a crowd of youths around my barrow, all asking to be served at the same time. It was difficult to deal with, but I kept on. I don’t know which impoverished parts of the city some of these young urchins came from, but there were several requests for a bread bun dipped in gravy, which I sold buckshee for 10p. One lad who asked for a bun dip ran off without paying when I handed it to him. I wondered why he didn’t ask for something more substantial.
Then an argument broke out at the next barrow along from me, between the vendor and a customer. Things turned ugly and a scuffle broke out. During the melee some youths made off with the barrow, and it ended up on its side, its hoard of meat products disgorged onto the road in a stream of boiling gravy.
I stopped serving, and closed the lids on my barrow. Stan had seen the trouble too, and he took refuge inside the mini. I parked up my barrow in front and climbed into the passenger seat.
I have never seen such a free-for-all. Scavenging hooligans ignored scalded fingers as they pulled burgers from the steaming gravy. The vendor, who stood out in his white overall coat, tried to plead with the mob, but for his trouble he was dragged onto the road and pulled to the ground. The change in his overalls pocket scattered all over the road, and this made the mob even more clamorous, as burger-chewing thugs picked up what change they could from the road. Finally, the police broke up the mini-riot, and we helped the vendor get his barrow back on its wheels.
I came away with over seventeen pounds that day, my highest ever earnings from the barrow, and easily enough for a good night out back then. A few days later, Newcastle went down to Exeter for the replay, which they lost 4 – 0.
A few months after this incident, Stan inadvertently left the hamburger gas ring on in the van overnight, a careless act that left the entire interior covered in a thick layer of soot. He was sacked for this and my days on the barrow came to an end.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the burger barrow’s days were also numbered. With the coming of the Sky generation and the abolition of the terraces, the matchday experience became geared less towards fans and more towards customers. Football clubs now award huge catering franchises to companies that can deliver a wide range of good, if hideously expensive, food and drink.
The old school burger barrow like the one I operated is a rare sight outside the ground these days, as people take advantage of pre-match food and drink offers in local bars. I have heard though, that if you listen carefully on an autumn Saturday afternoon, above the rustling of leaves being blown about in Leazes Park, you can sometimes hear a man’s voice, low and rasping, say:
“D’ye want onions on that, mate?”