It’s easy to get caught up in the cyclical movements of life, existing rather living. Quite often we shield ourselves in a protective bubble, and only when that bubble bursts are we called into question about what it is that we really want from life. I’m a firm believer of inviting those changes in, but even for me, sometimes the thought of confrontation alone is enough to keep me flailing within the undulating parameters of so-called ‘real life’. Call them silver linings, but the universe has a way of always having your back. That’s why when something bad happens – you get laid off, go through a breakup, or suffer loss – there’s always a lesson to be learned, and with those lessons come growth and understanding.
Alex Head has always been entrepreneurial minded—her first venture, aged fifteen, was selling sandwiches from the back of her bike while growing up in Saudi Arabia. Now living in London, she heads up Social Pantry, a catering company that’s recently added a charming Battersea cafe to its roster. Alex worked in restaurants during and after university, but it was a failed business venture that forced her to really consider catering as a career path. “It forced me to take the plunge,” she says. “Every cloud!”
Alex describes the food she creates through Social Pantry as “accessible, unassuming and fun” and that’s how she plans on keeping it. “With all my recipes, I want to take the fear out of entertaining and show just how easy it is for others to jump into the kitchen and cook a feast for a crowd,” she says. “Life is all the better for it.” Alex talks to The Lifestyle Edit about how meaningful the medium of food can be, why you should always move forward and worry about it later, and how important mentorship is to her and her team.
THE JOURNEY LEADING UP TO LAUNCHING THE BUSINESS: It all started in Saudi Arabia. I was so lucky to be able to live abroad when I was younger, it exposed me to so many different cultures, cuisines and people – this must have contributed to me being confident from a young age. I suppose I wasn’t intimidated by the unknown and only saw this as a challenge. When I was 14 years old, I did my very best to avoid school homework and instead, decided that my time would be much better spent trying to make some pocket money. So, I started my first business at the age of 15, selling sandwiches from the back of my bike in Saudi Arabia. Fast forward a few years, and I had a stint at Ballymaloe and during university, spent most days working in Quod and Gees – two Oxford restaurants owned by Jeremy Mogford. After a new London restaurant venture I was involved in didn’t work out, it forced me to take the plunge and turn to catering full time. I now own and run Social Pantry, a London-based event and corporate contract catering company with a fun little café on Lavender Hill in Battersea – best known for its hit-the-spot brunches and sell out supper club evenings. Social Pantry was born out of an adoration for fresh, seasonal and delicious food; after a lot of hard work and late nights, I have gone from hand-delivering sandwiches to now owning and running my own catering business with a café in Battersea. I learnt so much through those earlier roles: always appreciating the produce and ensuring you work with the best quality suppliers was instilled in me from the beginning. I love checking all the deliveries and appreciating what is coming through the door. I love the idea that you can make a meaningful impact through the medium of food, this combined with my love for the social aspect of cooking and the diversity that a pantry can offer gave me a great starting point for the business.
DON’T WAIT UNTIL THINGS ARE PERFECT – JUST START: When I launched, the importance of social media was still undiscovered, I would have jumped on the band wagon earlier had I known how crucial it is to a small business. To start it was all pretty basic. I developed a website and got started the moment I secured my first contract, which was with Brentford Football Club. I didn’t have a kitchen space at the time so I did have to store some whole salmon in my local pub fridge at one stage! The trick is to not overthink it. The sooner you can get a product out there, the better; you can develop, update and amend details once the orders are rolling in! When I first started catering, I was lucky enough to be shown round the Rhubarb catering unit and I was in total awe. I dreamt of being that successful – they had shelves full of wonderful props and styling, an office full of planners and a busy kitchen full of smart chefs. Lucy Gemmell the founder of Rhubarb, is one of my idols. Through hard work and sheer talent, she grew an incredible catering company from her kitchen. I am still on that journey! London is a competitive place to run a business, especially in the food industry, but the way I see it is that a little bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. I take a lot of inspiration from the large catering companies. It’s a great city to live in with a fantastic food scene that provides an endless source of inspiration. Of course, this does come with its challenges as clients also have an endless list of food vendors to choose from, but if your food is good and you offer a reliable service, your clients will always return. I have smaller shelves full of gorgeous styling, a smaller team of wonderful planners and a brilliant kitchen full of great chefs, which is exciting when I stop and think about it.
FOLLOW THAT INNER VOICE: Growing a business is one of the hardest things to do, I have made many mistakes and am always learning. I often go with my gut feeling. Knowing the market and capacity of the team, I will recruit as and when I have a new venture or when we are at full capacity and completely run off our feet. One thing a caterer never has is time, so there is not a huge amount of planning which means each decision carries a risk factor. Some pay off, some don’t.
ON HER COOKING STYLE: Well-fed people are the best to be around. Having grown up with the kitchen being the heart of the home, food, for me, is a beautifully delicious catalyst for enjoying other peoples’ company. Lots of my fondest memories involve food, I loved cooking with my mum from a young age and love entertaining with good food. I love a fun (and often boozy) dinner and since my teenage years, cooking and entertaining for others has been a huge part of my life. I would always only ever have one night off so combining a catch up with all friends in one night was always the aim, a big lasagne normally works to go round one big table. When I started Social Pantry, I was determined to never venture too far from my roots; food should always be shared and menus should be accessible, unassuming and fun. With all my recipes, I want to take the fear out of entertaining and show just how easy it is for others to jump in the kitchen and cook up a feast for a crowd. Cook, be merry, and keep a close group of great friends well fed. Life is all the better for it.
THE CHALLNGES AND OPPORTUNITIES THAT COME WITH RUNNING A BUSINESS: I would love an IT department and a HR department but the biggest difference is definitely budget. With a small independent company, you do not have the financial security larger companies enjoy, this means all your decision have an impact that directly affects you and the team. There is a lot of pressure that comes with running your own company – you cannot just go home, switch off and forget about it over the weekend! For me, the opportunities I can now offer others is probably one of the most rewarding differences. Growing up, I was lucky enough to be given plenty of second chances in life and it’s incredibly fulfilling to now be able to offer someone else another chance. Whether that’s someone looking to escape the city and join our office team or one of the young men I employ through Key4Life [which offers job opportunities for former offenders], each and every person at Social Pantry is given the same opportunity.
THE POWER OF MENTORSHIP: I have always tried to personally support my employees throughout their Social Pantry journey but as the business has grown, I can’t personally always be on hand. So instead, I have tried to infiltrate this same ethos with my team by introducing a mentoring scheme. All staff, at all levels, are given a mentor on arrival. They’re their go-to person if something’s not quite right or if they’d like to develop a set of skills. I love that our drivers come to wine training and KP’s to coffee training. Each mentor will be on hand for a friendly coffee every month while people are settling in and as a go-to throughout their time with Social Pantry.
WHY HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE IS EVERYTHING: As the business has expanded, I’ve learnt just how important it is to have a strong brand DNA and ethos. It’s equally important that each and every staff member has bought into this and know exactly who we are and what we’re about. Your staff are an ambassador to your business. With five to six events in one night, I can’t be at them all so it’s essential that everyone from the chefs in our kitchen to the event planners in our office team right through to the event managers on site, is a shining example of the SP brand.