I first met Alex Head, founder of Social Pantry, at an EventLAB event where Social Pantry provided a breakfast of absolute dreams. Think smoothies, avocado, homemade rye bread and all the nut butter you can imagine. She’s vivacious, talks a mile a minute and makes you feel immediately comfortable in her presence. Her passion for food evident in every trend, event or recipe she mentions.
Alex, a self-confessed ‘naughty’ child at school, was expelled at 15 and started selling sandwiches from the back of her bike in Riyad. She went to Oxford Brookes to study and spent her twenties cooking for friends and family, working in restaurants and generally surrounding herself with food.
Social Pantry was born in 2011 and she hasn’t looked back. It’s a “forward-thinking, female-led, independent catering business” with a workforce that is made up of 10% ex-offenders. The company now has seven sites across London, including a cafe, and a kiosk at members club, The Allbright. Head Office in Wandsworth is the catering unit where recipe experimentation takes place, “everything feeds from there to the other sites," which obviously helps to create consistency and a cohesive brand.
“We’re getting ready to open our 100-seater restaurant in Ealing in early July, which I am so excited about.” The new restaurant is part of a wider tender for Pitzhanger Manor, which also includes a kiosk in Walpole Park.
The restaurant will be a hybrid of a restaurant and a supper club space, bringing something different and exciting to Ealing, "think Petersham Nurseries with an accessible, seasonal menu", most of which will eventually be grown in the walled garden surrounding the restaurant.
Working with people with prior convictions is something she is clearly very proud of, and it certainly isn’t something she merely pays lip service to. She works with charities like Key4Life and actively recruits from prisons for roles, interviewing while they are still in prison and even offering jobs for those on day release.
“It’s obviously a challenge and you have to have an appreciation and understanding of a person’s situation…” she’ll support people whilst they look for housing for example, “...but they’re some of the most hardworking and trustworthy people I’ve worked with...I believe everyone deserves a second chance.”
Simple, seasonal and delicious is Social Pantry's mantra, which is evident in its recipes, from 'Tea Smoked Duck' to 'Chorizo Barbeque Brunch Burger', the Insta-worthy pictures alone will make you drool.
“I look to America [for inspiration], as it tends to be a bit further ahead than here...” There’s nothing ‘faddy’ about Social Pantry though, the trends Alex follows tend to revolve around sustainability and the celebration ingredients. This year she expects we’ll see “purple food...it’s the Pantone colour of the year, things like red cabbage, purple rocket, sprouting broccoli.”
Sustainability is the topic of the moment, so I asked how important that is to the brand and its clients, “It’s difficult for a small company to be completely plastic free as it can be expensive but we do what we can. We have minimal food waste for example, we give old coffee granules to a local women who has a worm farm and we brine lemon peel to make oil.” The team create recipes that use the whole ingredient too, such as grilled carrots with carrot top pesto, and whole roasted cauliflower.
The team have worked on some envy-inducing events too. For Rihanna's Fenty Beauty launch they created gold fortune cookies and candy floss matched to the Pantones of the blusher swatches. They also created a launch for Gigi Hadid x Maybelline with bellboys and pizza boxes. These creative briefs are certainly what make Alex tick, but creating beautiful weddings or private dining events with theming and production inspire an equal amount of passion, "working on smaller events with a tight budget aren't necessarily less impressive, you just have to be a bit more inventive." Clearly something she's not afraid to do.
Inspiration comes from Alex's love of London; restaurants like Petersham Nurseries and Western Laundry; Borough Market and ingredients from artisan creators. She's particularly excited about experimentation with butters; nut butter, espresso butter...you name it.
There's no doubt that Alex is a force of nature in the catering industry, and a force for good. I can't wait to see what she does next. Now, I'm off to make this banana bread.