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Signs: illuminating Britain’s high streets

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Signs have long played a part in the history of British food and drink. One significant milestone in this story is King Richard III’s1389 decree that made it a legal requirement for ale brewers to make their trade known by adding signs to their shops.

Centuries on, the luminescent signs of restaurants and takeaways now light up local high streets across the country from Glasgow to Gloucester. The UK is home to thousands of signage producers, and British businesses are among the world’s biggest spenders on promotional signs.

Signs have become an important commercial sector providing thousands of jobs to people across Britain. The industry is now so large that there is even an umbrella organization called the British

Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA) that supports and represents businesses in this field. According to the BSGA there are presently around 4,000 or so actual sign companies, but the total is around 13,000 if you include print companies that also offer signs and graphics. There are no cut and dried figures, but a few years ago, government statistics suggested that the sign industry employs around 22,000 people.

The UK sign sector is estimated to be worth £500m. Today, signs are one a prominent part of modern Britain’s commercial and social fabric. They are now a feature of urban life and reflect many sociological phenomena telling story after story.

One such story is that of the numerous migrant communities that brought varying kinds of kebabs to Britain from the Mediterranean, Middle East and South Asia. Some kebab shop signs for example show how popular dishes such as doner, shawarma or gyro kebabs are no longer seen as foreign but have gradually become integrated into Britain’s late-night food and takeaway culture.

The signs used by many doner vendors for example, simply show fluorescent outlines of the iconic rotating spit used to cook the dish. This style is reminiscent of the colourful fish-shaped signs often displayed outside fish and chips shops. What’s more, common shop names among some Turkish-owned doner sellers in particular, also reflect this trend. These shops tend to have simple or quickly recognisable English language names such as Best, Star, King, Crystal or Turkish Delight.

With signs and names like these, the message is easy, “we’ve got the dish you want, come and get it!” Other restaurants specialising in kebab types such as shish, kofte or regional dishes tend to use their names and signs to share a different message. These restaurants often advertise links to their home countries and cultures to showcase the authenticity of their food. Take Iranian restaurants for example, some use decorative signage featuring names such as “Rumi” after the renowned thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet to situate their dishes within a historic, sophisticated cultural tradition.

Likewise, some Middle Eastern and South Asian kebab restaurants choose names that connect them to famous places in their countries of origin to highlight the traditional-style food they offer. Syrian, Lebanese and Moroccan restaurants often pick names of historic cities including Beirut, Damascus and Marrakesh to convey this message.

Afghan and Pakistani eateries have done something similar, opting for names such as Kabul, Lahore and the Khyber Pass among others. Plenty of the Turkish restaurants in north London’s Harringay Green Lanes, Tottenham and Stoke Newington are part of this trend too.

Many of these eateries have adopted fine dining or sit-down meal concepts, so their owners tend to prefer names and signs linked to their home cities in Turkey’s south east, which is renowned for being a culinary hotspot, including Urfa, Antep, Adana and Diyarbakir to mention just a few. Sometimes signs can tell us much more than just directions!

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