The Feed - passionate about food, passionate about people

Wednesday, 28 May 2014 - 12:15pm

Barry Allard is the founder of LEAP - a personal development programme in Norwich for people experiencing disadvantage and inequalities in health, housing and employment.

LEAP’s latest initiative is The Feed, a social enterprise project which will provide outside catering to businesses and local charities, a festival pop-up and (in the long term) a café in a local community.

We spoke to Barry about how The Feed will work, why the project is so valuable from a training and employment perspective, and how other organisations in the homelessness sector can make social enterprise initiatives work…

Tell us a bit more about The Feed…

The Feed will provide delicious food and a quality service, with a focus on producing a range of quality North African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine (think Ottolenghi!). This will form the basis of an outside catering facility, a festival pop-up, and - in the future - hopefully a community café.

Crucially, The Feed will be run by ex-LEAP clients. It will provide innovative training opportunities for people who have been homeless, marginalised or vulnerable. One of the main priorities of the scheme is to change people’s perceptions of those individuals who have been away from the job market for a long time, or who have a history of criminal activity.

The initiative is also about creating financial sustainability for LEAP - to help make the organisation less reliant on external funding.

Why did you decide to focus on food provision as a means of providing training and employment opportunities?

A lot of LEAP clients like the tangible results the food industry provides. Unlike many other avenues of employment, it’s also an industry in which there are lots of realistic employment opportunities and roles for people who don’t necessarily have lots of qualifications.

Why did you choose to focus on North African, Medierranean and Middle Eastern cuisine?

Former LEAP client and ex-chef Munya will be leading the project on the ground. Munya has African roots, so an African or African fusion concept was the obvious choice. Our market research also found that there is currently a relative lack of competition for this type of cuisine in the local community.

How is the project structured?

First, we had to register the scheme as a social enterprise and community interest company. We also had to make sure existing LEAP partners (Norwich City Council and St Martins Housing Trust) were happy with all proposed aspects of the initiative.

At the beginning, The Feed’s team will consist of Munya as lead chef and three other volunteers. I will also be on hand to provide management guidance and support when needed.

What will The Feed trainees be able to tale away from the experience?

Volunteers on the project will be able to work towards a range of specific catering qualifications - including those related to food hygiene and preparation. In the future, LEAP hopes to create an overall qualification unique to The Feed - giving the initiative more of an academy feel.

More generally, trainees will gain a range of skills that should increase their levels of employability - ranging from customer service and cash handling experience to communications, sales and marketing skills.

In the longer term, we also hope to set up relationships with organisations in the local area, and help trainees into employment that way. For example, Norwich City College has a catering school. It would be good to be able to eventually channel The Feed volunteers into that, and into jobs in local restaurants.

How are you selecting the LEAP clients to take part in the scheme?

LEAP has a number of former clients (like The Feed’s new lead chef Munya) who already have experience of working with food. However, we’d like to involve as wide a variety of people as possible: If a client shows an interest in becoming part of The Feed, we’ll give them an interview!

At this early stage, however, we also need to be realistic. For example, we’ve taken the decision to focus on clients who will feel comfortable working within the strict health and safety food guidelines that apply. There will also be a risk assessment system in place to assess other potential issues - for example, the risk of taking on a client who has a history of theft. However, we will look at each case individually. In the future, we hope that the scheme can be expanded to safely include more vulnerable clients.

Do you anticipate any particular challenges in overseeing the project?

There are always challenges around managing volunteers. For example, volunteers’ level of involvement may be limited by other commitments; and in due course, people may want to leave to take paid work.

I’ve learnt a lot about managing volunteers through running other LEAP initiatives. That means I’ve been able to plan ahead, and set up a volunteer training and engagement structure designed to prevent or minimise difficulties in the future. There will, for example, be a process that includes an initial application, an interview, thorough training and continuous support. I hope each of these steps will help ensure that potential volunteers are fully aware of the roles, responsibilities and levels of commitment that are involved.

Will The Feed try to compete on a genuinely commercial basis with other businesses? 

I think it’s really important that The Feed becomes a genuinely competitive, high-quality outside catering service. I’m involved with the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme (run by the Eastern Enterprise Hub) and have learnt a lot through that. We’ve analysed the competition, (festival caterers, African food caterers and local community cafes) and we believe The Feed will perform strongly in comparison. The fact that customers will be doing good by using the service will just be a bonus, not the main reason for choosing The Feed over the competition.

I hope The Feed will be able to make a small profit within its first year. I think this will be possible, because the project has low overheads. For example, there will be no paid staff attached solely to the project.

Is this the sort of initiative other homelessness organisations could set up?

Yes, definitely. As long as the local competition and food industry environments are taken into account, there’s no reason why similar schemes can’t be set up by other homelessness organisations.

In fact, I think homelessness organisations all over England should be considering starting social enterprise projects like The Feed, as a way to both raise revenue and to provide training opportunities.

How would you like The Feed to develop in the future?

I’m really inspired by organisations like the Beyond Food Foundation, and the Skylight cafés set up by Crisis. In due course, I would love to see The Feed develop into an academy in its own right, providing high-quality outdoor catering to businesses and big festivals, and providing multiple, paid employment opportunities for people who have experienced homelessness.

Find out more about LEAP and The Feed.