Meet Alex Head, the chef baking ethics into everything she does

·3-min read
 (Paul Blundell)
(Paul Blundell)

Alex Head is sitting in Social Pantry’s event catering space in Battersea. Behind her, chefs are just about visible through the shelves, moving quietly and with purpose.

‘I didn’t ever want to run a shouty kitchen,’ she says. ‘I’ve worked in enough of those and I always vowed that when it was my turn to run a kitchen it would not be a shouty one. I’m sure no one got the best out of me when I was a ball of anxiety.’

Alex, 36, has made a real commitment to doing things differently. She has always loved food — selling sandwiches off the back of her bicycle at the age of 16 — and, after working in both front-of-house and kitchen positions, she set up Social Pantry 10 years ago.

The company, which trains and employs ex-offenders as part of its team, caters for up to 30 corporate and private events every week. It also has two cafés, one in Lavender Hill and one in Peckham. While Alex has always been keen to minimise Social Pantry’s environmental impact, she says the past couple of years have also seen a really inspiring increase in customer awareness on that front, too.

Alex Head and colleague Omar Ellis in the kitchen (Paul Blundell)
Alex Head and colleague Omar Ellis in the kitchen (Paul Blundell)

‘We used to do the basics,’ she says. ‘We offered discounts for reusable cups and containers, we gave our used coffee grounds to a lady with a worm farm. But now we’ve employed a sustainability consultant and we’re thinking much bigger.’

Today the company offers zero-waste canapé and meal menus for events, uses local produce as much as possible and trains staff on everything from food waste to foraging. Some chefs have even completed a work placement at Silo (‘our heroes’), a zero-waste restaurant in Hackney Wick. Alex’s ultimate goal is to make all of Social Pantry’s operations free from single-use plastic and be an entirely zero-waste caterer.

Pre-Covid, the company was on track to turn over £4 million in a year. The pandemic has meant that apron strings needed to be tightened but, explains Alex, ‘we’ve still made space in our budget for our sustainability and social programmes. I want to show that, if we can do it, so can the bigger corporate companies.’

Meeting ethical goals takes time and money but it is starting to pay dividends. Clients booking corporate events and wedding receptions are deliberately choosing Social Pantry because of its sustainability credentials. Almost a quarter of the traffic to the company’s website comes from people looking for a green caterer.

‘Consumer demand is really catching up,’ says Alex. ‘I know we’re all heading in the right direction.’

What are the benefits of going greener?

‘One has definitely been attracting staff. At the moment finding staff is a real challenge across the hospitality industry. But I’ve found people come to us because they like our values. It comes up in job interviews all the time.’

Why does sustainability matter?

‘It’s so important, you just need to look at climate change. We’re just a small, tiny piece of this huge puzzle but at least we’re going to sleep at night knowing we’re doing the right thing.’

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