This month, as part of our Women That Inspire Us series, we caught up with ebullient Alex Head, founder of events and catering company Social Pantry, which has served up tasty dishes to the likes of Rihanna, Gigi Hadid and David Attenborough among many others. With a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients and minimising waste, Social Pantry creates delicious food with a conscience. We loved hearing all about how Alex also works with a band of enthusiastic ex-offers – who make up 10% of her workforce – in order to give them the opportunity to not only earn a living, but also to succeed.
What drew you to working with food and subsequently led you to setting up your own catering company?
When I was 15, I lived in Saudi Arabia. I had nothing to do and needed to make some cash. The first thing I was drawn to was to sell food to my dad’s co-workers at his office. It was hot, the sandwiches weren’t great and I made little money, but it taught me to work hard and to keep at it. Following that, when I moved back to the UK I then knew I wanted to work in food. I set up Social Pantry in 2011 in a café based in Battersea. From there, with our dedicated team of experience chefs, event planners and waiting staff, we’ve become the go-to London caterer for weddings and events.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Maintaining the culture and core values of Social Pantry as it expands. That is always challenging especially as we have grown quite quickly. I make sure that each and every staff member that joins the team know exactly who we are and what we’re about – that’s been really important as your staff are an ambassador to your business. With multiple events at the same time, I can’t be at them all, so it’s essential that everyone from the chefs to the event planners are a shining example of the Social Pantry brand.
How as a small company do you strive to be sustainable?
One thing we do promote across Social Pantry is Zero Waste. We really try to use all the trimmings and products that usually would be thrown away. For example we make lemon peel syrups for gremolata’s, broccoli pestos and both meat and veggie stocks from offcuts and surplus produce. As a small company we try to do our bit to make a difference, every little helps.
Following in Social Pantry eco-conscious footsteps, what small steps can we all take at home to be greener?
“Ugly veg” is one thing that is trending at the moment and something everyone should get involved in. Supermarkets waste a vast amount of vegetables to sell perfect-looking greenery, “ugly veg” are the funny looking ones that get thrown away even though they are just as nutritious and tasty. I would recommend doing your food shopping from local market vendors, where possible, they always sell the best produce and don’t mind a few misshapen veggies either! Often the misshapen veg are cheaper too.
Where do you go to for food inspiration?
I love to eat out when I can. It is the best way to see what the food trends are, how people are experimenting and what with – seeing all that really excites me. It’s also good to see how businesses balance great food, staff and atmosphere. I often gather ideas when I am out that I later implement into Social Pantry.
Your brand has gone from strength to strength with so much success since launching, what has been your most exciting achievement?
As a business owner, employing ex-offenders has been the hardest but most rewarding thing I have done. To be able to see some of these guys come out of prison and succeed when others may not have given them the opportunity makes me very happy. It’s hard work, but when it works its very fulfilling. Oh, and doing an event for Rihanna wasn’t too bad either…!
You are an ambassador for the Key4Life charity and employ ex-offenders to work for your catering company Social Pantry, can you tell us a bit about this partnership?
I’ve always believed in giving people a second chance. From a young age I was always very naughty and I had a few near misses at school – so I have had a fair share of second chances myself! – since then I have always wanted to incorporate helping people into my work. From the moment I set up Social Pantry, I have employed ex-offenders, and I have mentored some of them for to up to five years. For example, Sulhail joined four years ago as a Kitchen Porter and we have worked together to get him up to Unit Floor Manager – this has been such an accomplishment for him and shows that what I’m doing with these guys can work.
What should we all be eating this summer and how?
Jellies are wobbling back into style! They’re an up-and-coming food trend and the diversity in how you can work with them is both creative and fun. I rediscovered how fun working with jelly is recently on a shoot for World of Interiors magazine (out in October – shhh we might have a jelly feature…!)
You have lots on your plate with Social Pantry Crane’s Kitchen, Pitzhanger Manor and Soane’s Kitchen, how do you balance your time and make sure you are as efficient as possible?
To be honest it’s pretty bloody hectic! I do work from the minute I wake up to the minute I close my eyes, however, the best thing for me is to know I have the best team behind me to support me in the SP journey, without them the finesse and quality of events and sites it just wouldn’t be the same. I do balance my time over each site as I know how important it is for all my staff to see me and interact, this way I can see how everyone’s getting on and if they are able to give me any feedback they can!
You have just received £1.1m funding – huge congratulations – so what’s next?
A few more sites, lots of brilliant events and most importantly some more great people joining my team.
Which Davina Combe pieces do you have your eye on and how would you wear them?
I love the Palermo Multi-Disc bracelet, it is so elegant and simple, this paired with the necklace and worn with a lovely long summer dress and some bright flats would work a treat. The rainbow collection is really fun too – especially the Sienna Halo ring, I would wear this with a smart white shirt to make the colours really pop!