Alex Head on how she started Social Pantry

Published 20 April 2020

What does it take to be a successful female entrepreneur in the hospitality industry? Alex Head started Social Pantry five years ago and has grown her business enormously… whilst also giving a work opportunity to ex-offenders.Here she explains her life in a day

My first prison visit was almost 5 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday, nerves and anxiety almost getting the better of me. HMP Isis is next to HMP Belmarsh and still now, on the days I visit Isis, the imposing prison buildings are a clear reminder of the journey someone has come on when they start work at Social Pantry as an ex-offender. After meeting and employing Ruben and Suhail in 2015, my first two ex-offenders, I have not looked back; 32 hires and counting.

With over 80 full-time employees, one of my main challenges is staff engagement and maintaining the strong company culture. Hiring the right people and firing the wrong people has been one secret to my success, being decisive is tough but imperative. Everyone has to buy into the vision, quality and culture of what Social Pantry embodies and employing ex- offenders is something that makes us unique.

When I started Social Pantry, I was getting up at 5am to load the van and head to events, which I had done all the prep for, I set up the event and ran it from start to finish. Now I’m up at 5am changing a dirty nappy! I head into the Battersea kitchen for 9am when there’s a kitchen and events planner meeting to discuss the upcoming events for the week ahead. On average Social Pantry will cater for between 25 – 35 events a week. It’s fast paced, challenging and never boring. To grow a company from my at kitchen in South London to a 3,000sq ft production unit has taken a lot
of hard work and, making sure I never take no for an answer.

I used to borrow fridge space from a local pub – storing a whole salmon in an undercounter fridge doesn’t go down well with a vegetarian flatmate! Shortly after this I managed to rent a small workbench after securing a catering contract with Brentford FC back in 2013.

I have organically grown Social Pantry over the years, only taking investment last year, I maximised the opportunities, kept on going when times were tough and fought for every event. To the customer the events are all glamour… Our wildest brief came in the form of Rihanna’s Fenty Launch (from BeSeen Events) a few years ago, when asked if we could handle the scale of the event and execute it; I am talking candy floss matching the pantones of blushers (fml!), organising roads closures in Knightsbridge, 60 model waiting staff on site all signed off by Riri herself, not to mention over 1,000 gold fortune cookies….which then needed the inside messages changed the night before – of course we said yes!

We fought for the opportunity against bigger caterers and smashed it, I’ve got the grey hairs to prove it! Running alongside the events are my restaurant and three cafes located around London. Ahead of midday I’ll meet with Holly, sites operations director. This update can be anything from a leaky café roof, brainstorming menu design, discussing site footfall updates, PR, sales strategy, staffng or current suppliers. Our current focus has been on HR. Holly, Silvia (HR Manager) and I are currently taking inspiration from Patty McCord and how she shaped Netflix’s culture and motivated performance with forward thinking HR policies. We’re constantly looking at ways that we can keep evolving and adapting as a company to better engage our incredible staff who the company is built around.

By 2pm we’ve had our team lunch at the unit and are being booted out of the meeting room ahead of an afternoon client tasting. The team will be setting up and styling the table, ribboning gorgeous boxes of chocolates, printing beautiful menus and running through final allergens with the chef team. Attention to detail is what wins you the event and good client care is what retains clients.

My afternoons can be filled with almost anything. Yesterday I went to Brixton prison to work on a project we are developing with Bad Boys Bakery, watch this space… Other days, I am at head office meeting with my executive chef, Rich, to discuss zero-waste recipe developments and how we can grow mushrooms from old coffee granules on our kitchen walls.

A happy client is our best marketing tool. Word of mouth and social media are our biggest adverts. All our photo shoots are done in-house. I believe good pictures are essential to grow my business. Sarah, our development chef, will write our menus two seasons ahead and I work closely with the styling team to ensure all other aspects of our delivery are in line with our brand and that Social Pantry maintains its position as one of the go-to London caterers.

This article was first published in Issue 22 of the CODE Quarterly magazine. To read the digital version, please click here

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