Could a business model born in the pandemic be a panacea to hunger?

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 09 June 2020 7:20

A team of activists which became a major force in the county’s fight to tackle the social impact of the pandemic on Gloucestershire may just have found a business model akin to the Holy Grail.

Speak to the scores of small charities and groups which worked (and are still working) tirelessly to feed the needy, vulnerable, self-isolating, isolated, homeless and front-line staff through the pandemic and one name is a legend.

But,The Long Table is no myth. The near anonymous group of individuals became the catalysts for the response county-wide, joining up efforts already underway, encouraging participation and making things happen.

All of which became known, branded even, as Feeding the 5,000. Biblical references are not hard to spot, and that is partly because of close affiliations to the diocese of Gloucester – connection described as ‘invaluable’.

Bishop Rachel Treweek’s blessing is credited with opening doors, giving confidence and making connections through which its energy spread. And as the web of providers grew the group at its heart began to see possibilities for a system which could mean no one ever needs to go hungry again in the county.

“It does look like it really could be possible to develop a sustainable food business, based on what has been happening, which could ensure no one has to go without good food again,” said Tom Herbert, who although having a profile comparable with a young Jamie Oliver just a few years ago has worked hard to disappear into roots community work ever since – but never far from food.

It is an idea he refers to as ‘Chapter Five’ - a chapter yet to be written.

He fronts The Long Table, a group he helped set up two years ago, but otherwise Mr Herbert keeps his name out of it and himself in the kitchen – his domain. In the first eight weeks of the pandemic the troop had made 30,000 meals.

From hospital consultants and nurses who have been delivered The Long Table’s free meals to self-isolating customers who have paid the £25 for seven meals price tag, to those who have paid only what they can give and those who had no other option, its dynamic can-do approach inspired.

Many other groups have sprung up to bolster the ranks, with existing support charities plugging into the network – with no attempt by The Long Table to steal any credit or send a personality forward to market their tribe.

Kitchen at the RAU fired-up under Ryan Hanson, the university’s head of catering and retail, to contribute, Roots Café and Community in Gloucester transformed its café, the CCP in Cheltenham – whose day-job is doing just this, also plugged in. As did Stroud Brewery,  

“From one pot of food cooked here in Gloucestershire has fed staff at Gloucestershire royal Hospital, nurses and consultants and also the residents off the homeless hotel in Gloucester,” said Mr Herbert, sounding amazed and thrilled by what he has been part of.

“Young Gloucestershire has been having 600 meals a week from us for young people who are carers. Then there are those people who can afford £25 for seven meals.”

As they went about their business some – like a consultant at GRH - picked up the phone and said ‘look, I can afford to pay you for this food, and I will’.

Read more: Charities brace themselves to repair social damage

And that just helped prove their soon adopted ‘pay as you feel concept’, and from that – as they looked at the finances – they think they see a viable way of providing the service longer term in a way which those who can pay something, do, and those who need support at no cost get it, and the company breaks even.

Foodbanks are vital to the county, but there are restrictions on how many times you can access them. This idea is ambitious beyond anything tried before.

“If we work this out, there is enough food to go around. We currently throw away a third of our food here in the UK,” said Mr Herbert, whose enthusiasm and passion for food is infectious.

“We can see positive social change happening through and with food.”

Can it really be achieved? So many mini-revolutions have happened in such a short space of time it is difficult not to believe it is possible – but long term?

“That,” said Mr Herbert, sounding robustly positive, excited by the idea but acknowledging it is as yet unproven “is what we are calling the fifth chapter.”

Back in the mid noughties, together with brother Henry, the pair put the family business, Hobbs House Bakey, in lights with awards-a-plenty and television show - The Fabulous Baker Brothers.

Books followed, and fame spread abroad too.

And then quiet. Well, relatively. For Tom Herbert – a man destined to continue to help shape the fortunes of a successful family business with his brother – this ‘quiet’ was him deciding his future lay elsewhere, away from a secure job, away from a desk – somewhere, and perhaps it goes back to his school years, he resists with a passion.

For a man whose entire life had revolved around family, food and the aforementioned bakery business it was a momentous and brave decision to cut the apron strings.

He downplays it, but makes no bones about the lack of plan – more a leap of faith - and credits his wife, Anna, for allowing him to make the move (and who, joking aside, he cannot hide his eternal gratitude to) and to make sure he landed gently.

Anna is now managing director of the bakery, and you imagine has a few other things on her plate as a result.

When he tells you she agreed to his change of course when he promised a new venture would be apparent within three months – and that quickly became a year and more – you see why he also feels an itsy-bitsy bit guilty still, especially as the couple have a young family with all that demands.

It is a journey which took him on a challenging adventure, with highs such as writing a book (although one wonders how he managed to sit still long enough), to studying baking abroad.

And then came driving a van for a Five Valleys charity as he dabbled in business ideas.

What formed out of the pieces was the idea of a charity – food-based, of course – which would help teach people to cook and cater for and serve people with food.

His own school career had been far from glorious. But his time at catering college learning and drawing on what he knew about baking had inspired him.

In an old furniture storage warehouse in Brimscombe in the Five Valleys he and a small group of like-minded individuals began to stage a pop-up restaurant. The Long Table was born.

“Eighty people came! From the great and the good to waifs and strays,” said Mr Herbert, sounding astonished even now, and realising they had hit on something.

Behind the scenes they began to develop the business, where they could cook, prepare and deliver meals, train, mentor and launch full-time. It was all systems go.

“And then the pandemic came,” he said.

It was not the calamity it could have been. All the pieces were in place - they just needed to work out what for.

“We were ready for ready meals. We could cook the food and we had everything to make a delivery service work. We had managed to grow,” said Mr Herbert, explaining how it quickly dawned on them they could help to feed those in need as the pandemic hit, closing food clubs like the Severn View Food Project – which ran dining clubs for the elderly across the Cotswolds.

“We put a post out (on Facebook) in mid-March, just before the restaurants were shut, saying what we could do. When we checked in the morning nearly 30,000 people had looked at it.”

His and The Long Table’s new purpose had shown itself and the organisation looking at closure before it had even really got started quickly morphed into what has now made its name.

Guests chefs have joined forces with the group and the food has won plaudits by all who have tried it. Even the non-vegetarians.

As for Chapter Five?

“We have learned so much in the last few weeks. Not all of it has worked. The building we have been operating out of is about to be renovated. So, like Cortez (a reference to Hernán Cortés), our boats are burned. We can’t go back.

“We would love to start what we did in Brimscombe, try to get three or four community kitchens started and if that went well, who knows?”

Hold on tight Mrs Herbert, he’s off again.

For more information about The Long Table visit The Long Table.

Read more: Charities brace themselves to repair social damage