A Few Hours At The Social Pantry
I accidentally pick a good day to head down to Lavender Hill to meet this week’s QA profile. There’s sunshine and everything, and you even see the occasional person dare to venture a smile (or at least some positive body language) on the sunny streets of South London. Easy to find, it’s just down the road (or is that ‘up’?) from Clapham Junction station, The Social Pantry Cafe sits within an unassuming storefront, just adjacent to the Battersea Arts Centre.
An oddity amongst the businesses we normally speak to, the Social Pantry is actually a catering company that only this August became a cafe…
We like to bring you stories of interesting people and Alex herself is no exception. More a cook turned entrepreneur (than the reverse) she got started around the age of 16 selling food from her bike, initially motivated by the idea of making a little pocket money out of her growing culinary passion. Now she’s the beating heart behind The Social Pantry, and has invited me down to see what they’re all about.
Our meeting is not particularly spectacular. I’m drinking a coffee and trying not to offend the yummy mummies too much with my appearance, SLR and laptop as Alex strides in, greeting the lady at the counter warmly and enquiring into her recent holiday. Alex then strides over to me, shakes my hand and, directing me in something of a commanding voice, suggests I order some food, follow her outside, and sit… facing the shop. She’s just arrived from a meeting in Essex. I get the impression of a women who is comfortable running things.
I also get the impression of a perennial busy one. Initially, Alex is distracted by her phone. I see her hiding it out of my line of site under the table as she gives it the occasional furtive glance. It eventually disappears, and I start to get more of her undivided attention. She has a little time to see me before charging off to her next appointment, where she’s arranging the catering for a funeral. More on that later anyway. Now I must try and coax a laugh out of this serious exterior…
Alex is thin and healthy looking, with straight, dry blond hair. Her mannerisms are distinctive. As we chat, she occasionally furrows her brow deep in thought, distractedly knotting her hair into braids.
And we get to talking about stuff…
I ask her about the Pantry’s menu – are people in the area health conscious? You might think so, what with the large number of pram wielding types, extended family in tow. Apparently not, but that doesn’t stop her offering what she sees as relatively healthy middle ground. I ask if she sees herself as doing a public service with the pantry and she laughs, shrugging – they serve what she feels best suits the local area. She’s not angling for the ‘healthy’ label.
How does one get catering clients then? Mainly via word of mouth – as there’s neither the resources, inclination or time to go around pitching people. Catering, unsurprisingly, is an incredibly competitive industry. Alex is under no illusions “What we provide is a luxury…people don’t need catering” she intones thoughtfully, twisting her hair a little further…
OK, fine – how do you go about growing a business in this niche then? Aggressively (well, at least how she’s doing it). The bigger the better, the faster the better, and always reinvesting the profits.
At some point a huge procession of black clad Anglican priests appears – they rattle through the high street, interrupting our trains of thoughts, en route to some kind of religious trade convention or similar important God stuff.
I tug at mental threads and try to pull the conversation back.
Who Does Market Research Anyway?
What about positioning yourself as a caterer? Well this is done by benchmarking what the competitors are charging. Alex does this by getting her sister to call up various caterers, pretending, again and again, that she’s imminently getting married (much to the boyfriend’s chagrin…) – a cunning plan indeed.
What’s the overall aim then? Alex sees a need for ‘large scale, personalised catering’ – she seems to have something of a plan.
Where does her confidence to keep at this thing come from then? Well, she knew she was onto something at her first wedding “I thought; I’ve done this, I can do this”. Another milestone came later from her recent successes catering at the Brides The Show. she also claims that she’s not precious when it comes to managing things, “I have no problem letting go” she shrugs.
Nor is she one for the bean counting, I ask her if she knows how much, say, each individual canapé might cost – she replies no, saying she ‘probably should’. I disagree and think this is admirable, she’s a cook, not a middle manager at McDonalds. Sure, that level of profit pinching might be good from a facelessly corporate, managerial perspective, but it doesn’t really encourage the service ethic, does it? Alex disappears for a bit.
What’s With All The Solitary Women?
So now I’m sitting outside, waiting for her to return, and a Canadian tourist asks to borrow my phone (not legit) – I politely decline and suggest she ask one of the staff. I now ponder this. The front area seems to attract many solitary young women, sipping coffee and sunning themselves. One disappears and another enters. There’s been three take that same spot since I’ve showed up. Alex returns, and directs said Canadian-but-not-sure-if-legit tourist to speak to one of the Pantry’s staff.
Back to the interrogation. The weirdest experience? Catering for a fully vegan wedding. Ideal catering gig? being flown off to Necker Island to do some catering for Richard Branson. With his kind of budget, you can see why.
I ask her what she’d do with an infinite budget. “Another ten of these” she laughs, gesturing to the cafe behind her. Or salad bars. I ask her if there’s anything else, she shakes her head and laughs a little impishly – resisting further prodding on the subject.
What about spotting/inventing food trends? Alex’s inspiration comes from many places. Not, however, from visiting other restaurants “there’s only so much time in the day” she laments. Foodie magazines, random tweets and strolls around Borough Market are inspirational, however. Like many other good chefs, she tries to go for seasonality of produce as well.
I ask what life is like leading life at such a breakneck pace. How does she remember all her appointments and all the little details? Like me, she’s completely reliant on her calendar. Half of the time, she says, “I can barely remember my name” – it is apparently a running joke amongst her staff.
And What About The Next Thing?
And what about stopping to smell the roses? (I ask this of almost every Type A person I come across). She laughs and shakes her head. Not even a little bit. I ask if it’ll ever be a possibility. “Maybe when there’s some more money in the bank” she shrugs, not seeming too fussed either way.
Making ready to rush off to her next appointment, she compliments me on not eating the bread that comes with my pea and broccoli soup (“very healthy!” she beams). What is her next appointment, I ask? Turns out it’s a funeral. I ask if the canapés are going to be sombre and the caterers black clad. “No!” she exclaims, pointing out that she’s aiming for an upbeat funeral, and unsure of what a sombre canapé would actually entail.
Once she heads off, I ponder the conversation and sip one of the Pantry’s smoothies. This one’s an apple and spinach combination, which I quite like – quite refreshing on this glorious sunny day. Another solitary woman has taken the place of not-sure-if-legit Canadian tourist, and is reading a paperback, and drinking a coffee.
I leave the pantry to it, and later find where all of the Anglican Priests have ended up. Of all the places, they’re sitting at the window of the Cafe Nero near the station, drinking coffee and looking far less stern than they were earlier…