Andrew Beattie speaks with four food businesses who’ve been through the Feeding the City incubator. He hears their stories, how they adapted to the coronavirus lockdown and their experiences in the programme.
In 2018, Impact Hub Kings Cross, a co-working space in London for businesses with a social or environmental purpose, launched its inaugural Feeding the City: Start Up programme. The national, year-long programme was designed to support people tackling problems in their communities with a food business.
The programme was developed as a result of issues raised during quarterly Food Talks, which have taken place at the space since 2015. Members of Impact Hub Kings Cross and experts in the food industry came together to talk about issues from the UK’s food system. Some of these challenges were laid out in the programme’s impact report and include the fact that “families spend nearly one fifth (18%) of their budget on food, but throw away the equivalent of six meals per week” and that “1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted by the food industry every year in the UK.”
The programme itself is split into four sections – seeding, sprouting, growing, harvesting – and the journey begins with people being invited to idea generating workshops across the UK, followed by two weekend workshops on the fundamentals of running a business. Some of these participants bring ideas, whilst some may have already started a food enterprise. By the time participants reach the final stage and pitch their business at a live event, they will have participated in another five workshops.
Each participant receives a bursary to help them pay for things like travel and childcare so they can take part and travel to the workshops from across the country, alongside training from Impact Hub consultants and access to a network of food experts, like Co-op supermarkets and Waitrose. By the end of 2019, 15 businesses were supported through the 2018 and 2019 cohorts.
We spoke with two graduates of the programme and two businesses taking part in the 2020 cohorts to hear their stories, how they adapted to lockdown and their experiences with the programme. This is what they had to say.
Proof Bakery – 2018
“I’d been thinking about starting the bakery for some time, and I’d gone to a bread workshop with some refugee women in a supportive housing project,” Chernise Neo, founder of Proof Bakery, tells me.
Today, Proof Bakery is an artisan bakery based in Coventry, that trains and employs refugee women. The bakery doesn’t have its own shop front, choosing to save money on the overheads to put more of its trading income into training and employment opportunities.
“We’ve spoken to lots of other bakeries who said that the overheads can kill you. Having to meet a monthly rent, gas and electricity on somewhere that takes a while to get known, is a big risk. Instead, we put word out to community organisations,” Neo tells me.
It was after joining the first Feeding the City programme in 2018 that Neo began to pilot the business. “We spent about two months looking for a kitchen and finally landed one. Then, they said, ‘why don’t you actually try making bread at this kitchen and seeing if any refugee women will come to learn to make bread with you and if anyone will buy it?’ says Neo.
“By the end of the pilot, we were selling 34 loads per week and our target was 20.”
At the beginning of lockdown, many of the outlets that bought bread from Proof Bakery closed, so the company switched to home deliveries, adding a facility for people to pay for a bread to a food bank. “That’s been a massive hit. Perhaps everyone wants comforting baked goods in in these times? It’s actually enabled us to to get pretty close to break even.”
Kina Mama – 2019
Munira Mahmud is a Grenfell Tower fire survivor. She launched Kina Mama, a catering business in West London, in the wake of the tragedy, after meeting other Muslim women who were cooking for their family and communities whilst in temporary accommodation.
“The business is about supporting new mums and babies, using old African-American and traditional holistic world healing process through food,” she tells me.
Mahmud was impressed by the breadth of learning opportunities during the course. “I’m a very practical person,” she says, “so going through a six month process with different workshops – finance, marketing, branding, pricing, labelling – was eye-opening. I needed to know all these things before I could move forward.”
Like many food businesses that serve communities, the pandemic provided an opportunity for Kina Mama to adapt in order to continue serving the community.
“Lockdown has given us the opportunity to know exactly where we’re falling short, what we need to strengthen and our weaknesses, in terms of the community,” Mahmud tells me. “Since the pandemic started, nearly 2,000 meals have gone out from us.”
The supper clubs Kina Mama offered have switched online and Mahmud has led a number of YouTube cooking tutorials where ingredients are sent to participants in advance. She also has one eye on finding new ways to serve new mums and babies. “I’m hoping we’ll get a licence to park outside the hospital,” she says. “I’m determined to get outside and look after new mums because I strongly believe they need to be looked after.”
Lemonaid – 2020
“We recently did a consumer survey with students from London School of Economics, just to get a feel of how is the brand is perceived in the UK. Because we’re in our London bubble, we wanted to gauge the perception of the brand, compared to other brands,” Julian Warowioff, managing director of soft drink maker Lemonaid’s UK company, tells me.
“We think we have a brand awareness now around 24% of the population. I think it’s pretty great, given that we only launched here about five years.”
It’s likely that you’ve seen Lemonaid, or its sister company Charitea, if you’ve spent time in any independent cafe or coffee shop in recent years. You may even have read the bottle, which tells you that the company gives a percentage of every sale to its foundation, which supports social projects in areas where its raw ingredients are sourced. According to the company’s website, €4 million has been donated to date. Not bad for a drinks brand that isn’t widely available in UK supermarkets – something Warowioff is hoping to change in 2021.
“We had a trial with Sainsbury’s, which was successful, but then took a decision not to roll it out nation, just yet. It’s something we’re revisiting for 2021.”
At the beginning of 2020, Warowioff enrolled himself on the Feeding the City Accelerate programme, with the aim of learning about growing into the retail space.
“Chatting about the programme, I was given a list of partners that they’re working with, like the CEO of Waitrose,” he tells me. “It’s an amazing opportunity – there’s a big element of mentoring and one-to-one advice, which we’d never be able to afford otherwise. We’re working with two experts to help us break into the retail space in a sustainable long-term model that’s commercially viable, which has been a challenge in the past. If you make premium Fairtrade soft drinks, the whole commercial pricing model is a real challenge.
“Without their support, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now – almost ready to supply supermarkets across the country.”
As lockdown began, 90% of Lemonaid’s stockists in the UK closed at sudden notice. The business quickly readjusted to find new ways to sell, and saw both an increased demand through online buyers, and with new customers.
“We started pivoting towards convenience stores and focusing less on city centres. We realised people would be spending more time on the outskirts and residential areas,” he says.
Kitchen at 44 – 2020
Sara MacMillan was planning on travelling to London on the third weekend March for her first weekend session as part of 2020’s Feeding the City: Start Up. Then lockdown happened and the course shifted online.
MacMillan joined Feeding the City to support her as she developed her idea for Kitchen at 44, a community kitchen and dining room, with a community cookery school, facilities for hire and a small rooftop farm, in Sterling, Scotland. Lockdown slowed plans for the business, but MacMillan had already signed for a lease on the space and so looked for other opportunities to serve her community.
“It seemed really clear that we had this community space. We were in quite a unique position of being able to make a conscious decision that we had the capacity to safely open a space to look after the most vulnerable amongst us, in an area of multiple deprivation,” MacMillan tells me.
“A third of the people in the area where I live are already surviving below the poverty line, and the hotels were simply making people redundant. There was no chatter from the government about an economic stimulus, about furlough schemes, and people lost their income overnight.”
MacMillan decided to seek out volunteers and try to make sure that the community had access to food during this time.
“We simply said, at the beginning, ‘you have to abide by these government guidelines. You have to be under under 70. You have to be in good health, at low risk.’ Before we knew it, we had 30 volunteers and we had signed up almost every supermarket in Sterling to pick up their surplus food at the end of the day,” she says.
“As the world was going crazy, stocking up on pasta and dry goods, the sheer volume of fresh fruit left in the shops each day was extraordinary. In the beginning, there was some shops where we get in 300 kilos of food a day from them.” Early in lockdown, MacMillan and the volunteers provided food for up to 100 people every day.
MacMillan has still found time to work on her plan for Kitchen at 44 and attended the online Feeding the City Workshops. “It’s amazing talking to like-minded people and getting that breadth of experience.” As an entrepreneur working without a business partner, the connection to others and chance to work with peers has proved invaluable for MacMillan.
“Because I’m running this solo and I’m not part of a team it can be lonely at times,” she admits. “It can drive you a bit batty. Having someone to talk to – especially someone who knows what you’re talking about – is great.”
“They keep you in check. I have somebody explaining how to do the bits I don’t want to do, and helping me out when I get stuck. It really has helped move things along that would naturally have stalled.”
Photos by Tigermylk.