Founded in 2011, Social Pantry began as a catering company and now includes several cafes and restaurants in London. Founder and head chef Alex Head discusses her career, Social Pantry's charity work with ex-offenders and her passion for food.
Alex wears: Cotton Poplin Shirt £55
Could you tell us a bit about Social Pantry and how it started?
Social Pantry is a South London based events and corporate catering company and café in Battersea of the same name. I was quite (really!) naughty as a child and after I was expelled from school, started making sandwiches to sell to office workers at lunchtime from the back of my bike. It gave me a taste of entrepreneurship; it was a challenge and I enjoyed it! Following cookery school and a LOT of hard work, Social Pantry was born. Social Pantry is now based across various sites in London and we’ve just opened our gorgeous new restaurant – Soane’s Kitchen in Ealing which is really exciting!
What does an average day look like for you now?
At the beginning it was all-consuming because I was cooking, I was driving to events, 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! I used to be in the kitchen a lot but now I am all over London at all sorts of meetings; from sourcing new suppliers to tendering for big contracts, I do it all. I employ lots of ex-offenders, so one day I will be in prison interviewing a candidate and the next I’ll be in a VIP tasting. It’s all very fluid, as and where needs me I will always try to be at. I have an incredible team of skilled, supportive and flexible staff who allow us as a company to be very reactive.
Have you always loved cooking?
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… When I was younger and being naughty, mum tried to keep me busy in the kitchen so I developed a passion for food from an early age. I suppose it was a natural path for me and I felt confident in the kitchen; there’s nothing I love more than seeing my friends and family enjoying good food.
What would be your advice to someone wanting to start their own business?
Give it a shot, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work as long as you try. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes along the way as long as you learn from them and take something away. Make sure you love what you do as you will work harder than you can ever imagine. Plan and always have a contingency fund as you never know what is round the corner. Last just to ENJOY it; you’ll meet some great people along the way.
Your company ethos places an emphasis on being socially aware and working with charities, especially with ex-offenders. Is this something you always set out to do or did it happen organically?
I love this side of the business, it is my real passion, I was given plenty of chances, so now I offer chances to others who join Social Pantry. I visit gentlemen in Prison just before release as part of the recruitment process as well as meeting them on their release. I try to maintain 10% of my workforce being ex-offenders. They are fantastically passionate, talented and driven employees who I am proud to employ. The reality of working with ex-offenders isn’t overly glamorous. 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 as an employer makes me so proud.
What’s your career highlight? Or do you have a stand-out memory?
Oh gosh, there have been so many highs and plenty of lows too! Catering the Battersea evolution venue for Brides the show in 2014 was a great stepping stone, opening Soanes Kitchen in Ealing this July was a recent high.Helping ex-offenders still remains my main passion and continues to be a highlight.
Can you share your go-to summer meal for cooking for friends?
I’m a big fan of sharing salads that guests can help themselves to; it’s a far more interactive way of eating and visually, looks super impactful on the table.With so many British classics in season during the summer months, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh and delicious ingredients. At the moment I’m loving whole roasted cauliflower with a tahini dressing, homemade cucumber pickle and a big green herby salad with peas, thinly sliced raw courgette and watercress topped with toasted nuts.
What’s next for 2018?
There are so many opportunities for Social Pantry and Soane’s Kitchen; we’re constantly looking ahead to what’s next and ways to get there. I would love to see Social Pantry in more great London venues over the next year and we’re planning some super exciting events that I can’t wait to share with everyone.
Personally, I would love to write a cookbook and share my great insider tips on entertaining and taking the fear out of cooking for a crowd, I’d also love to become a TV presenter!!
What are your favourite pieces from the Great Plains AW18 collection?
There are so many gorgeous things it’s almost too hard to pick! I can see myself wearing the pale pink Chunky Cord Trousers to so many different events – they’re the kind of piece you can wear in summer with a pair of sandals or trainer and then in winter with a pair of chunky boots. The Lace Detail Wrap Jumpsuit is another super versatile piece, it’s perfect for going from a day in the office to a drink in town with the girls.
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