Architect Helen Bird has an acute social conscience and discerning eye for innovative design, which tends to inform all her work and creative ideas. As a result, her food vendor bicycle project, Street Food Australia, has been recognised by the Ketel One Modern Craft Project and she has just received their $100,000 legacy. But it wasn’t until she was encouraged by a friend to participate that she began to really consider what being a craftsperson meant to her.

“I wondered about how the complexity of our project would be perceived given that it’s not one single object that is the craft involved – it’s a whole system,” says Bird, who runs the Street Food Australia project with business and design partner Billerwell Daye. Together they have created a system for designing and building pushbikes for street food vendors.

The vending bikes are built around the skeleton of Sorte Jernhest cargo bikes and fitted with mini-kitchen systems and crafted to the look and feel of a specific cuisine. Vendor licences are open to immigrants with diverse cultural backgrounds in an effort to encourage and develop street food within Australia. The aim is to support people hoping to embark on a micro-business and to enrich the cultural fabric of communities through street-food.

“My experiences from travelling the world and watching people with their food carts and food bikes was very positive,” says Bird, explaining the evolution of the Street Food Australia idea. “I loved the fact that people could create food villages and exterior food courts that allow people to eat really good food in really different places. Bikes are a great way to move things around without the huge impact of taking up road space, creating traffic or getting caught in it. They are lightweight, so you can go further with that, you can park on the grass in a park without hurting it – you’re much more mobile and environmentally conscious.”

Beyond the core design of the bikes, Bird wanted to develop a system for implementing them that would reach out to those who needed the most assistance because of language or cultural barriers.

“The part of me that is a social activist, that comes from a family of people who’ve always believed in helping other people. That is where the social enterprise aspect came in. I started thinking, ‘Who should be supported to do this?’ Anyone could, but who should…”

Working with local agencies that support recent immigrants, the project will equip vendors with appropriate accreditation and business plans, provide a hub where the bikes will be stored and maintained and run a central kitchen for food preparation. It’s a big project with many facets and challenges to the system as a whole. But it’s a challenge that has helped Bird develop as a modern craftsperson.

“The craft goes beyond the object level,” says Bird. “Yes, each bike is an intensely crafted object of its own, but to me the beauty of the craft is in more than the bike. It’s the bike and the system – the way the whole system operates. The craft has to extend beyond the bike in order for street food to continue to exist in the world. We can nurture it and bring it into existence in this country,” says Bird pointing out that Australia does not have a long history with street-food beyond the nostalgia of the Mr. Whippy van.

“It’s about crafting an industry, or crafting a system that can be sustainable and long lived.”

When Street Food Australia was awarded the $100,000 legacy, Ketel One recognised that modern craft is a celebration of processes and ethics as much as the finished product.

“We’re not talking about craft as it has always been,” says Bird. “We’re talking about a new way of interpreting craft and of delivering craft… the system is bigger than a pair of shoes, it’s bigger than a light on your table. I love the fact that this idea of modern craft is moving much more towards holistic systems of understanding, rather than just making stuff,” she continues, adding that the legacy will go towards establishing a base for Street Food Australia to operate from and house the bikes, as well as subsidising the cost of the bikes for vendors. “It’s only right to pass on the benefits to vendors directly.”

Street Food Australia is testing its wheels in Brisbane with plans to roll the system out in Sydney and Melbourne in the future.