It’s Tuesday 7th November and as I sit here trying to type this week’s post, I find myself procrastinating on Instagram yet again. In my defence though, I’m putting this one down to research.
As I scroll through the Instagram story belonging to Alex Head – the down to earth founder of Social Pantry and Social Pantry Café – I’m taken behind the scenes as her and her team prepare to cater for the launch of Gigi Hadid’s latest collaboration with Maybelline. With A-list guests roaming, press left, right and centre and paparazzi waiting to catch the money shot of the supermodel tucking into the feast; it’s safe to say that the pressure is on.
But for Alex and her team, events like this are all in a day’s work…
Operating seven days a week throughout the festive season (Christmas Day included by the way but more on that later), I caught up with the Queen of Catering herself in Social Pantry’s Wandsworth headquarters last Friday to find out what goes into creating a brand that is recognised as a pioneer in its space…
AH. I was really naughty when I was little so my Mum and Granny always got me cooking- I think just to keep me busy and out of trouble! I come from quite a big family so food, for me, is all about getting round a table for big family celebrations and great memories… I’ve always just loved it and grew up around it. Then when I was about fifteen I was expelled from school…
SC.SD. Oh wow! So you really meant it when you said that you were naughty then?!
AH. Properly naughty! I got expelled for the second time and my Mum just thought “oh my gosh, what am I going to do with you?!”
A visit to stay with her Dad in Riyadh during the school summer holidays gave Alex her first taste of running a business.
AH. Dad worked in a big office block and there was nowhere for them to go at lunch… I just thought ‘ok I’ll come up with some sandwiches’ and being a bit pushy I decided that I’d sell them- that’s how it started! It gave me a taste of on entrepreneurship I suppose! It was a challenge and I enjoyed it so then on the side of A-levels and uni, I had this little business which eventually got changed to Social Pantry.
Opting to study Hospitality and Business at Oxford Brookes, Alex continued to gain experience during her degree, working alongside her degree, in two of Jeremy Mogford’s boutique restaurants.
AH. As much as I loved the course, for me it was just about getting stuck in… I was cheffing and doing a bit of front of house in my third year- just so I could get tips which were hugely crucial to being a student! So instantly from the age of 18 I was in the industry…
SC.SD. What kind of restaurants are we talking? Fancy ones?
AH. Gees was quite boutiquey and Quod was a fast paced brasserie so that was a really ferocious kitchen. Being in there at 18-19 was just a great way to learn! I was the only employee there that hadn’t been to prison, I was the only girl, it was just a really challenging environment…
SC.SD. Did they go easy on you, given that you were the only girl?
AH. No! I fell out with the grill chef once and the Head Chef was so cross! He was like “right it’s Saturday night service, you’re going to do it with your legs tied together” so we did three legged service… by the end of it we were friends again!
SC.SD. Oh my gosh, that’s crazy!
AH. Can you imagine that happening nowadays?! The reality is that hospitality is really hard work and the team have to get on. There’s got to be respect within a team, it’s really important that you all work together. I think going into that environment naively, being young and not experiencing a kitchen before, was the best way though- I loved it. It was quite a shock but it’s what gave me a taste for it all!
After graduation, Alex moved to London and spent her early twenties opening restaurants for other restaurateurs (all the while taking on board lessons that served to help her later down the line). When the launch of a pizzeria off of Oxford Street failed, she made the decision to jump to catering full time.
SC.SD. Why did it fail?
AH. It was mainly the location- the council shut the pavement in front of us and people just didn’t walk around the barrier!
SC.SD. It’s crazy that something that trivial can affect a business like that!
AH. Completely, it’s such a shame. It has some great investors behind it, it was a really great concept but yeh… that experience dictated how I set up the café because I could see that this heavily invested in restaurant hadn’t worked. It had all this backing, it had great food, it had great names associated with it but ultimately…
SC.SD. You need footfall?
AH. Exactly! You’re vulnerable as a small business and it’s crucial to get people through the door!
SC.SD. Ok, so you hop over to catering… what were the initial steps you took to turn the project into a business?
AH. So I remember registering a bank account and then I got a website up and running, this is pre- smartphone…To this day though, it’s all about word-of-mouth. By this point, I’d catered for various people, I’d done weddings, I’d made lunches, and so for me the business was there.
It’s not like today where you’d do Instagram and make sure all that online stuff is sorted. Back then you just made sure that you had a good product and some people to feed and off you went!
Social Pantry’s first contract came in the form of a lunch order from a local Football Club. What started out as a week’s work making lunch for 35 people from her rented flat in London, ended up escalating to lunch for 120 people, seven days a week for five seasons. Not only did the contract force Alex to take on her first employee – a former chef that she had worked with previously – it also encouraged her to purchase her first overhead; a bench in a shared commercial kitchen…
SC.SD. Talk me through what that first year was like…
AH. At the beginning it was all consuming really! I was cooking, I was driving to the event, I was serving, I was managing temp staff on site, I was sending the feedback email after the event and doing that day, after day, after day! When it is just you, the thrill of it all gets you through because it is exciting; you always want to be saying “yes” to more clients, you always know that your website needs improving etc… but I think building a business from nothing, with no investment like that, is a great way to do it… but it’s definitely challenging!
SC.SD Did you have a plan at the beginning for how to grow it?
AH. I’d love to say I did but no..! I just thought as long as the food is good and the service is good people will want to use us again and they did! I think as Social Pantry developed and I rebranded there was more structure and we had kitchen space but originally it was just me at home doing it all.
My main thought when I started was ‘if I can just cover my rent I’ll be ok.’ It’s a step by step process really and it was just making sure that I didn’t take on too much before the business was secure…
SC.SD. Did you ever have any moments where it started to spiral too quickly?
AH. There are definitely points where I look back and would have done things differently. I think quick growth is great if handled in the right way but if you can’t quite manage it, not so much.
If I’m tendering for really significant contracts now, it’s important to know that my team and I can cope with it and that we can do it all properly. You can make the error when you’re small and recuperate but I was always aware of the danger of growing too quickly.
SC.SD. Absolutely. So it’s growing… let’s talk about when you decided to launch the café as well. What inspired that?
AH. I don’t know how honest you want me to be here…!
AH. The café is at the end of my road and I sometimes used to work in there… The old owner really wanted me to buy it but I didn’t want it, I was set on catering. Anyway six months later, I’d had a few glasses of wine, we were talking and he managed to twist my arm! I was like “Yeah! What could be so hard?! Fuck it, I’ll take it!” and that was it!
SC.SD. So you woke up the next day with a hangover and some keys?!
AH. Exactly! Literally that on a Monday morning!
Roping in friends and family to help with the café’s transformation, Alex shut the doors, covered the windows in newspaper and transformed the café in just two weeks, into the cosy space you see today.
AH. We didn’t have a till for the first year, we just had a cash box- it was all very chilled! What I didn’t want to do was to put loads of money into it for it not to work (like the pizza place)…
SC.SD. That’s understandable. Given how anti you had been about owning it previously though, how invested had you become in those two weeks?
AH. It had to work! There was no way that it couldn’t. I couldn’t fund it through the catering alone, we had to have a product that locals could enjoy! It had to have great coffee, we had to make sure that the service was fantastic… I just thought if the product is good enough and the food is good enough people will come and it will be a success.
SC.SD. That’s crucial isn’t it? There’s nothing worse than bad service…
AH. Totally! I just called on all my experience from working at the restaurants and I pulled in a few friendly faces. Patricia – who I’d worked with before – came in, did the first few months, trained the team for me and off we went really!
SC.SD. Do you prefer one side of the business to the other?
AH. Even though they come under the same umbrella, they’re really different. Ones about great food and service and locals and the other is catering which is far more complex. I don’t prefer either side, they both come with their different challenges but they also have great benefits.
SC.SD. How do you split your time between them?
AH. I’m here, there and everywhere! I just make sure I visit each site on various days in the week and then I will be at the events that I am required to be at- those that need support or where it’s a client I haven’t seen for a while…. my main office is here at the unit though. It’s where the majority of the meetings happen and where the tastings happen.
Starting with a team of six in her first couple of years- a couple of office based roles and three in the kitchen- Alex now employs a team of 30 and credits her experience running restaurants in her late teens to preparing her for the complexities of managing a team.
AH. We have quite a solid brand training so we try and get the café and catering teams mixing as much as we can. Managing people is one of the hardest things but you keep learning. Sometimes you get it right, and you learn when you get it wrong! When you start your own business, you potentially underestimate what it takes to manage people.
SC.SD. Where do you find your staff- I presume that you haven’t worked with them all before?!
AH. No! So I sourced a few people through Escape The City– it’s a great website for people who are experienced but want to jump ship from a mundane office job to working for a start-up. It’s such a great website and crucially they’re not expecting the substantial salary that goes with it… I wanted people with experience that were willing to take a bit of a risk and I’m so proud of the incredible kitchen team we’ve got.
They’re serious professionals and it’s no mean feat. They’ve done 30 events this week, the kitchen will be operating 7 days a week right through until January and they’ll be doing 5-6 day weeks themselves and every client is equally important. There’s a pressure that comes with each one so you need serious professionals which is what I’ve got.
SC.SD. How do you keep them motivated then because even if you love your job, long hours are still draining…
AH.`There’s a kitchen mentality. They love the food that they’re producing, they’re involved in the menus, they’re involved in the planning and ultimately they’re a great team and it’s all about the team. But only yesterday, Richard – the Head Chef here – and I were deciding where to take a couple of the guys for an inspirational dinner… Sometimes we have ‘Pizza Fridays’… It’s little things that are affordable for a little company in house!
SC.SD. I spied the croissants upstairs too…
AH. Yes, Friday croissants too!
SC.SD. What’s been the biggest learning curve since starting this?
AH. I think the main thing is that I’m always learning. I think when I started I assumed that I’d do a few years and then I’d know how to do everything but there’s so many food trends, it’s so fast moving, social media is something I’m always learning about- that’s been a whirlwind for the past 2-3 years as we’ve come up to speed with that! It’s just a case of recognising that you’ll make so many mistakes but it doesn’t matter if you’re learning from them.
SC.SD. Does it ever get exhausting having to stay on top of trends constantly?
AH. Haha yeh, it does! It’s only in the last year that I’ve learned to switch off. I’ve just been away though and – probably to a fault – I’m quite good at being like ‘nothing that bad can happen!’
If you take a look at Alex’s personal Instagram, you will see that she’s just returned from an incredible ten day trip to India…
SC.SD. So your phone didn’t go off while you were out there saying “help us!”?
AH. Luckily not! But it’s taken a while to get there so I don’t take that for granted. It’s amazing that I could go on holiday and not worry though. I was away for seven working days which is long in Social Pantry terms but I’m so incredibly proud to realise that they handled everything. They’ve taken on some mega events, we’re so busy at the moment- nothings been a problem. Coming back to that this week has been one of my proudest moments! There’s something so rewarding about it; they don’t need me and that is great!
SC.SD. Does a part of you not want to be needed just a little bit?!
AH. No! It’s exciting to me because it means they’re learning and growing and super passionate about it!
SC.SD. Food is something you can get passionate about though isn’t it!?
AH. Absolutely! Our clients are always celebrating something- it’s so cool to be part of it!
Conversation quickly turns to the social side of the business- the obvious inspiration behind the name.
AH. Naming the business is one of the hardest bits but we have such a strong social aspect to Social Pantry which ties it all in nicely. One of the best bits to my job which I love is actually now being able to employ ex-offenders…
SC.SD. Yes I’ve seen this online and wanted to talk to you about it! Does this stem from the naughtiness as a teenager…
AH. Definitely the naughtiness! I was given a good few second chances and I think it’s about realising that there’s some seriously talented gentlemen that are really switched on and driven. Ultimately they might have buggered up and that’s either through fault of their own or the environment they’ve grown up in but for us it’s all about looking forward and giving them a homely, safe environment to work and learn in. They’re part of a team, no one asks why or how and some of them are now my really valued staff members.
SC.SD. Why just boys?
AH. So there’s a much higher percentage of young offenders that are boys than girls. I’m mentoring a few girls though…
Working with a charity called Key4Life and directly with Brixton Prison itself, Alex has employed young offenders, repeat offenders and gentlemen that have just been released who are trying to acclimatise to life on the outside…
AH. I did once have a gentleman who came from Brixton Prison every day, on ROTL (Released on Temporary License) who had done a long stretch behind bars.
SC.SD. Was he escorted?
AH. No, he’d just jump on the bus! The prisons don’t do that as much anymore which is a shame but it’s great because they get to experience the industry and ultimately, it’s so hard to integrate back into society; especially if you’ve been behind bars for a long time…
For this particular gentleman door handles were beyond him because in prison there’s no door handles and Oyster Cards were alien… but it’s so important that if these guys are going to be released to give them experience and they’re just talented. A lot of them have worked in prison kitchens.
SC.SD. What does it feel like when they leave?
AH. It is sad, but we keep in touch with them all, they give me updates on where they’re at! But some do move on, whether they want to or whether they don’t. The reality of it isn’t overly glamorous. It can be a tough ride for them so we just try and support them. It’s an open door policy here and sometimes they turn up for staff lunch just to say hi! A lot have gone on to do great jobs which is so cool though.
SC.SD. That’s amazing; it’s such a good idea on your part. Let’s move on to personal relationships… how has your relationship with your family changed since starting this?
AH. My family are super supportive which has been and is so important to me. As the business has grown, there have been different stresses and strains along the way and you learn to manage the pressure. But, there were points years ago where I wasn’t handling it as best I could and I definitely relied on them. They were a great sounding board; for support or occasionally to say “chill out! Even if it all collapses, you’ve done well to get to this stage”… they’re so forgiving.
Family and close friends are crucial to anyone starting up a business. At the end of the day, things are going to go wrong, you’re going to have low moments and you need those people to reassure you that you’re doing ok.
SC.SD. Like a safety blanket?
SC.SD. Any relationships that have gone in the opposite direction? Where you thought you’d get support but didn’t?
AH. Not really. I think there’s admiration which is really nice and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve actually noticed that… Pretty much all my siblings and most family friends have worked for Social Pantry at some point though; whether I’ve roped them in as a waiter or waitress… if they’ve ever been made redundant at some point, they’ve come to work here!
SC.SD. And they respect you in the boss role?!
AH. Totally! I think they just know that if they ever need a job quickly, I’ll sort them out! They’ve played such an integral part of the support and without them it would have been incredibly lonely and almost impossible I think…
SC.SD. You said that it’s only recently that you’ve learned to handle the stress. What was it like when you couldn’t?
AH. When you first start it’s ‘gosh, can I pay my rent?’ and fast forward six years and it’s just different pressures. We did an event for Rhianna a few weeks ago…
Social Pantry catered for the launch of Fenty Beauty- Rhianna’s make- up range that launched in Harvey Nichols in September…
AH. We had people in New York on the end of the phone, and I’m chilled about that sort of thing but it’s a totally different pressure to when you’re starting and no pressure is easier or harder to handle at the time.But… I have six years of experience now so I can trust myself to handle it better. I now know when to say “no, I’m not going to do my emails tonight, I’m going to go for dinner with a friend” or “no, I’m not going to that meeting, I’ll go for a swim this morning instead.”But I definitely struggled with anxiety a couple of years ago…
Recognising this, Alex signed up for a course run by the NHS which over the course of six weeks- one morning per week- was focused entirely on managing stress.
AH. I was quite anxious going into the course but I came out the other side and just thought ‘god that was the best thing’. I’m so grateful that I could find the time to go on something like that. It keeps you level and knowing how to handle yourself is so important.
SC.SD. Definitely. Whilst we’re on the topic, I saw on your story that you went to an awards night on your own recently and were nervous going alone- I was nervous for you! How do you find that side of being self-employed?
AH. That was so scary! But at the same time, putting myself out of my comfort zone is something that I’m used to doing and it was so lovely to be invited that the privilege of that overcame the fear of walking into a room! Even if everyone was wearing black and I was wearing this bright orange dress like ‘Hi guys! On my own over here…!” I guess you just have to remember the benefits that come out of it…!
SC.SD. Haha definitely! Obviously you’ve mentioned how busy you and the team are at the moment so let’s talk about Christmas!
SC.SD. How far in advance do you start to plan for seasonal festivities?
AH. We do so many press days, usually about six months in advance and then we do menus about 3 to 4 months ahead of time. We try to keep things super seasonal but we’re quite organised when it comes down to it. We do menu packs, we do photo-shoots, we do press breakfasts where we host the press here and talk about food trends and sometimes we’re led by press days that make us think that little bit further in advance… for instance this morning I was talking about Easter themes!
SC.SD. Wow! And Christmas Day is spent…?
AH. Last year we had 3 events on Christmas Day so once they were all signed off I was like wooo! We have systems in place here that mean it all runs pretty smoothly whether I’m involved or not but Christmas day is my responsibility because it shouldn’t be anyone else’s burden! All of our team went home and I got temp staff in so that they could enjoy it.
SC.SD. And that’s the same again this year?
AH. Yes! New Year’s Eve is a big one for us this year too so we’re getting all those plans in place now!
SC.SD. What will Christmas Day look like to you this year then?
AH. So I’ll come here, get the vans all packed and send them off in their different directions making sure that each client and their requests are met! Often there’s a concierge or PA in between making sure that everything is communicated. Last year we did one for a couple who wanted a private caterer right through to a meal for 35! I mean, I don’t blame them- if I had 35 for Christmas I wouldn’t want to cater for that on my own!
SC.SD. Yes, that’s a lot of pressure!
AH. Exactly! Once they’re back here and checked in I can relax and have a wine! I do close the café for a good ten days though. It’s minimal staff here but there are still people to be fed so ultimately we maximise the potential from that!
SC.SD. Absolutely! You mentioned that you’re already talking about Easter, how do you know what the trends will be by then? Where do you look for inspiration?
AH. We turn to New York a lot- they’re often slightly ahead of the trends, but generally it’s just what we’re loving at the time plus general trends that we can put our twist on… It’s so key to keep ahead of the trends. It’s what makes Social Pantry so current. If we were to be slow on the uptake we wouldn’t be the go to caterer… I also travel quite a bit….
SC.SD. Did you bring any ideas back from India?
AH. Yes! I learned loads about cardamom for a piece I’m doing for a brand at the moment so we’ve made a cardamom eggnog… stuff like that!
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite dish that you do?
AH. I just love having lock ins at the café and for that I always do really chilled sharing dishes down the table! We call it “drinking till we dance on the table” so it all gets quite merry…! What did I do the other day? Oh… a warming moussaka, wild rice salads, nutty pesto… I just chuck the tables together and get a few bottles of wine out- it’s so simple. I don’t have a lot of time but there are some sweet little ways to make the guests feel really special; whether it’s little place names, or candles, or the dishes you’re putting things in… I enjoy both the cooking and the setting of the table!
SC.SD. That sounds so fun! What does success look like to you then?
AH. I think it’s making a difference. I can feed all these glamorous people and that’s great but making a difference along the way really matters to me.
SC.SD. Are you in this for the long haul then?
AH. It’s really interesting… for us we’re just looking to get through Christmas right now (!) but looking ahead to next year; we’ve got some really exciting plans in the pipeline! I never want to say too much because I don’t want to jinx anything but we’re definitely gaining momentum and there’s so much more potential and scope.
The London food scene is so cool to be involved with. It’s a privilege to be catering for it and to be sat amongst the main competitors and even for the main competitors to know who we are- I’m so flattered! There’s no reason to change anything right now!
With brands like Habitat and Anthropologie vying to work with her, Vogue listing her as one of “The Wedding Caterers to Know Now” and Time Out voting the café number one in Battersea, whatever Alex is doing, she’s doing it right.
Having worked her way up in an industry that favours the resilient, built a little black book of contacts that she can draw on for support and learnt from every mistake that she’s made en route; the rebellious nature of her teenage years has found an outlet in the contemporary and disruptive menus that she creates today.
The transformative effect on the ex-offenders she has taken under her wing is clear to see and the respect she has for her team is undoubtedly reciprocated.
She is a true innovator in the event and catering space and whilst her favourite quote isn’t perhaps the most motivating I’ve heard (!), I wholeheartedly agree with it nonetheless.
AH. “All the best people love to eat!” by Julia Childs.
For more information on Social Pantry or Social Pantry café, visit their website here or find them on Instagram: @social_pantry