Alex Head: Founder of Social Pantry
If the concept of catering brings to mind awkward-to-eat canapés and bland mass-cooked chicken, then you clearly aren’t acquainted with Alex Head.
Focusing on fresh, seasonal, and well-sourced produce, Alex’s company – Social Pantry – brings a creative approach to contract catering, whipping up stylish, unforgettable events where the food is not an afterthought. Behind the bespoke menus, Alex also works closely with a number of charity partners, supporting the rehabilitation of young offenders through mentoring and hospitality training.
Head by name, heart by nature: we meet the woman who serves up stunning food with a social conscience.
HER BACK STORY
You were born in Australia, and grew up in the Middle East. How did your upbringing contribute to who you are today?
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, and must have contributed to my being confident from a young age. I suppose it taught me not to be intimidated by the unknown and see things as an exciting challenge.
What were your work and life dreams as a little girl?
To be a famous TV chef! I found a letter recently, when moving house, that I’d written to the BBC when I was about 14 asking for a cooking show. Outrageously confident. I also wanted to marry Prince Harry – who didn’t?!
As a student, you studied Hospitality & Business Management, having previously earned a qualification at Ballymaloe Cookery School. At what stage did you know catering was your calling, and what attracted you to this sector?
When I was younger – and very naughty – I started making sandwiches from my parent’s kitchen in Saudi Arabia and selling them from the back of my bike to local offices. It was mainly to avoid GSCE revision but proved to be fun and was definitely the start of my love affair with food. I relish a challenge, and working in an all-male commercial kitchen whilst at university only made me more determined to succeed and to prove that a woman could handle the heat, too.
Tell us about your first job after university. What did this real-life experience teach you that studying didn’t?
I can’t say I ever truly applied myself whilst studying. I ran a local pub and worked full-time in a restaurant kitchen. Studying didn’t take priority over real experience.
HER BIG BREAK
When did you first come up with the idea for Social Pantry, and how did you go about getting it off the ground?
I always had a few catering ideas bubbling. My first venture, aged 18, was called Catering Ahead. This was followed by Heads & Quails and, finally, a grown-up rebrand saw the start of Social Pantry. I love the idea that you can make a meaningful impact through the medium of food, and 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 naming the business.
In terms of getting it off the ground, a big catering contract with a West London football club allowed me to rent my first commercial kitchen. This was definitely a memorable step in the journey.
When did you know you were ready to start running Social Pantry full-time?
After a new restaurant venture I was involved in didn’t work out, I finally took the step to become self-employed; it forced me to take the plunge and turn to catering full-time.
Since launching your catering company in 2011, you’ve won business with some impressive companies, including Penguin, ASOS, Airbnb, and Zara. How do you disrupt the market in this way?
Being able to cater for bespoke, intimate events as well as facilitate large-scale catering means we’re able to accommodate a range of different briefs. From the creative to the corporate, I like to think that my menus and catering style are not only delicious but also eye-catching and Instagramable too.
In 2013 you opened the Social Pantry Café in Battersea. What made you want to open a neighbourhood spot (and how did you find the perfect space)?
I love a good local café and am often wandering into other London hot spots, full of envy for their great ideas, concepts and style. One of the things I love most about having a physical site people can visit is that I can be super reactive to trends; the exposed brick wall means we have a great backdrop and gorgeous space to play with. For instance, we’re currently showcasing work by local artists.
HER SUCCESS SECRETS
Tell us about some of the events you’ve catered for. How do you go about creating a unique menu (and can you give us a sneak peek of some of your favourite dishes)?
We love a creative brief. It always starts with a team brainstorm – identifying trends, discussing what’s hot in the food industry, and working out how we can create an impact and unique experience for our clients. We loop in suppliers from the offset so we don’t miss any seasonal gems. We love working collaboratively with our clients and always do a tasting which is where the fun begins – it gives us an opportunity to test our ideas and showcase the bespoke menu. We finish off the process by styling it: this includes selecting suitable service wear, dressing the venue, and ensuring the aesthetic really pulls together for a cohesive finish.
One of my favourite canapés for 2017 is squid ink tapioca crisp with smoked eel, beetroot jelly and horseradish cream. The fantastic black colour is really eye-catching and the flavours are a stunning combination. Give smoked eel a chance!
You work closely with the charity Key4Life, mentoring young offenders and offering on-the-job training for prison inmates. How do you approach working with people who have dramatically different life experiences to you?
Everyone at Social Pantry is given the same opportunity and the Key4Life boys are just as driven and motivated as any other employee. I personally support all my employees throughout their Social Pantry journey and all staff, at all levels, are given a mentor on arrival. They will be on hand for a friendly coffee every month whilst settling in and as a go-to throughout their time with Social Pantry.
Social Pantry has become known as the go-to caterer for stunning events with a social conscience. What’s your best tip for women who are interested in getting out there and generating support for a cause?
If you are passionate about a cause, people will listen. If you want something, both personally and in business, my advice is to always ask. People can only say no.
Many of our readers aspire to running their own business or being the boss. What’s your best advice for being the sort of leader people trust and admire?
I want to make sure everyone enjoys working at Social Pantry. It is hard work, but I always vowed to create an environment where people are eager to make a start in the morning and feel motivated to do a good job. I make sure the team are constantly learning and being challenged by working on bigger, better and more exciting projects. It can be incredibly testing at times, and I’m always self-reflecting and learning how I can be a better boss, but it’s so rewarding at the end of the day and this massively outweighs any hardships.
HER FIVE-YEAR PLAN
What do you wake up looking forward to most – and least?
I love developing recipes and getting excited about new ingredients – and the menu tasting at the end. On the flip side, an endless list of emails is never that fun!
How do you gauge success? What have been some of the stand out moments during your time running Social Pantry?
To me, success is still being in business after six incredible years and having a team who love what they do. Building a great team whilst overcoming endless hurdles and still growing is what I am most proud of. Every Monday morning we have a meeting where we ask the team what the best bit about the previous week was; the answers are all so varied and looking back there have been some incredible moments.
Opening the café was definitely a highlight because it was great to make a mark in the restaurant indsutry and finally have my own site. Building our Wandsworth production kitchen was also a fantastic milestone and a real indicator of how far we’ve come. And my Key4Life boys getting promotions always puts a smile on my face because it shows just how much they’ve grown and developed with us.
How do you see Social Pantry evolving over time? What’s the next thing you’d like to accomplish with the business?
There are so many exciting opportunities for Social Pantry; we’re constantly looking ahead to what’s next and ways to get there. I’d like to grow the business and become well-known with some iconic London venues such as London Zoo, Design Museum, Natural History Museum etc. London is a great place to be with an unparalleled hospitality scene.
What goals have you set for yourself – as a woman and business owner – over the next five years?
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.