A drive to do good in society is what gives Social Pantry an edge in the industry. We speak to owner Alex Head about hiring ex-offenders, staying sustainable and keeping the business moving
Alex Head established Social Pantry in 2011. From the outset she strove to build a company with social responsibility at its heart; and her work around the employment of ex-offenders as well as strong sustainability credentials have always stood the caterer apart.
Event catering has historically been the mainstay of Social Pantry and it works with venues including Guildhall London, the Serpentine, the Southbank Centre and Battersea Arts Centre. However workplace catering has been an area of growth and it has ambitions to achieve a 50:50 split across the business. It also operates Design Restaurant by Social Pantry and Dome Café within London's Design Centre; Crane's Kitchen by Social Pantry in Peckham and the Social Pantry Café in Battersea.
Social Pantry has seen growth of 30% year-on-year and its founder sees further potential in the market. She said: "There's quite a lot of opportunity and we are well-positioned to take it. There was a real shake up during Covid and actually people are looking to work with companies that are really sustainably- and socially-led. We completely fit that."
Social Pantry's workplace offering takes three forms, in-house catering with a team preparing meals on-site, a delivered offering set out and served by a front of house team, and a drop-off offering of pre-packed meals.
The majority of its clients have between 50 and 250 employees. Vibrant, seasonal food is at the heart of the caterer's offering, with dropped-off lunches packed in eco-packaging.
Head explains that the business is also pitching itself as a partner who can encourage employees back to the workplace and provide connections between those in the office and those working from home. She says: "Where we're teaming up and we're obviously feeding the employees that are in the office daily, but we're also working out how to support the employees that are working from home.
"So it might be as simple as teaming up with Oddbox and producing recipe cards to make sure that they're eating well at home. We're becoming that real catering partner rather than just a cater who dishes up some lunch."
Sustainability has always been a key part of Social Pantry's agenda, but in recent years those green, socially responsible credentials have moved to the core of its marketing as well as its strategy.
Head says: "Pre-Covid we didn't really talk about it that much, but [now] people have got budget and are wanting to spend and we've become a real go-to because of the sustainability and social side of the brand. Now, I would say probably 10% of inquiries actually do come to us because we're sustainably focused. It's important and definitely for corporate firms, they need to have a sustainable or socially led caterer that they're working with."
Social Pantry has a zero-waste mentality and works with partners to achieve this – for example, coffee grounds go to a worm farm – but it also has a digester that converts residual waste to water. Head explains that the business is "constantly trying to push boundaries" within its budgetary constraints and is currently on the path to achieve B-Corp status.
She adds: "We do everything we can that feels right within our infrastructure. It's constantly being reviewed and we're constantly challenging ourselves. We just think it's so important."
Since its inception Social Pantry has also offered training and employment to ex-offenders. While Covid temporarily put the brakes on efforts, Head explains the business is back driving this agenda.
She says: "Our work with ex-offenders will always roll on and it's quite good for us to be that voice of authority in the industry and lots of charities and prisons get in touch with us seeking employment opportunities. It will always underpin social pantry."
The business' first apprentice has also just completed her first year, something Head says was "a real success", with more set to follow.
With food inflation, spiralling costs and the lingering financial impact of Covid, pricing has proved a challenge across the industry.
Head says: "That was one of the hardest things coming out of Covid, that some of your clients didn't have any more budget. It's an ongoing conversation. We are constantly benchmarking, looking at our suppliers and, when they're increasing their prices, we do have to pass those onto the consumer. It's about delivering an incredible event or meal and doing what you can to deliver the best margin possible.
"If there is anything extraordinary, we have a conversation around it and try to work it out for both parties – it's not a position where you can just increase prices and that's it. It's a competitive market and you need to make sure you're competitive, but also that you're making a margin that will allow you to survive. Each month there are a mix of events and some have a lower margin, for various reasons, and some will have a higher margin. It might be economies of scale on a bigger event, or that you really want to work with a brand or a client. It totally depends, but you've got to make sure that over the month it all works out.
"Ultimately for us it's about striving to keep improving and keep thinking outside the box, being dynamic, keeping social pantry as lean as possible so we can be really reactive. We can change things quickly and that can make a big difference."
Inspiration comes from many places including Social Pantry's teams, competitors and sometimes form further afield. Head recently sent two team members to Helsinki to visit Nolla, a restaurant that shares Social Pantry's zero-waste ideology. Plans are also in motion for members of the team to visit LA and New York, while once a year an employee will complete a stage at Doug McMaster's zero-waste London restaurant Silo.
Head says: "It's about really nurturing and training your staff and really opening their eyes to these places around the world that are doing it brilliantly. Just observing that and thinking what can I take from that and actually what can I implement back here and what works within our budgets and within our capabilities. That's our kind of approach, keeping it quite fresh and quite exciting."
Alex Head's revelations
What's your favourite hotel?
The Beaverbrook, Surrey
What's your favourite restaurant?
River Cafe, Richmond
What's your favourite book or film?
Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill
What's your perfect drink?
I love a Negroni post-dinner
Which chef/restaurateur/hotelier has most inspired you?
Keith Floyd had a fun, inspiring, approach
What's the most important lesson you have learned in business?
I could write a book one all the mistakes I've made (perhaps I should!) But I'd have to say, surround yourself with the best people and team for a recipe for success
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