Why I started City Pantry

It started on a train ride home from Cambridge around Halloween 2012. Harry and I were arguing about the merits of dumplings vs Honest Burger for Sunday night supper. There was no winner, but one thing we both agreed on was that either way we didn’t want to go sit in Brixton Village in the cold.

The conversation quickly moved on to how it would be cool to have a delivery service for great food. Specifically a delivery service from Brixton Village with the enjoyable efficiency of a US operation, providing a great experience on every order.

We sat on our hands for a while, spring sprung, but then I was spurred into action by Richard Branson’s ‘Screw it Let’s do it’ purloined from a friend’s loo…

We made a PDF we took round all the restaurants in Brixton Village to show them how great our idea was and how cool the App would be. Some were enthusiastic, which was nice, but most were either confused or not interested.

Naively hoping that eventually everyone would jump on the delivery bandwagon we decided there was enough interest to get the company of its feet and set about hiring a developer on Elance and a designer to design the website.

We incorporated a company in 15 minutes. The development took about a month … while that was going on…

Because I couldn’t fool the bank into lending me £25,000 with a business plan I wrote myself in an afternoon in Starbucks, we decided to fund it ourselves.

What I thought was initial ground work – getting a phone, hiring a PR company, interviewing drivers – was done in Brixton library. All of which, it transpired were unsuitable.

In June there was still no website, but we moved into an office in Brixton Village and in an effort to firmly out the cart before the horse we hired Dan to do our ‘social media’.

Summer saw us ‘working’ in Brockwell Park Lido, designing striking, but illegal, helmets for the delivery drivers and creating a promotional video – something no misdirected company should be without.

FINALLY! The tech was ready so I bought a moped, strapped the illegal tomato to my head and took on the role of delivery driver myself and THEN

…nothing…

For some reason no one had ever heard of use. So we started handing out fliers at the tube.

It worked and business kicked off. However, it turned out that when people wanted to eat at home the vendors were already swamped in their restaurants. It also turned out we were doing a LOT of work for not a lot of profit.

Most importantly it didn’t feel right and we got to thinking … how could we scale up the business and its profitability. The opposite to all the issues – small orders, small profts, bad timing for the vendors – presented us with the answer: selling food to people eating in groups who would order in advance.

The Lean Start Up pointed me in the direction of our first clients – the Silicon Roundabout beloved of politicians everywhere. We started calling them and asking if they wanted us to get their breakfasts and lunches. Some said yes and we were off again…

Our vendors and clients called their friends and it was almost too easy – everyone cares about their product so the food was always great and everyone kept re-ordering – only one customer has failed to repeat an order.

… someone asked us to cater their wedding …

… someone asked us to cater a conference for 3000 people …

… someone asked us to provide food for a dinner party …

and the potential of the business began to dawn on us.

The business is so simple it seems extraordinary to think it’s not been done before. But think about all the stale, curling triangles of egg mayonnaise sandwiches you’ve eaten or floppy flavourless quiche and the gap in the market is not hard to spot.

We’ve learned a lot on our journey and developed a viable and in demand business from speaking to people and finding out what it is they really want and what needs they had that weren’t being met.

Most important of all is to ensure we don’t forget our first idea which was to provide each customer with a great experience on every order.

It’s not a secret that great customer service is key to a successful delivery business but it’s so essential and I don’t ever want people thinking ‘I don't know why but this doesn’t feel right’ about City Pantry.

We’ll continue to make mistakes and do things the wrong way round (I’m still looking forward to the day we actually need a PR firm) but that’s all part of learning and growing and having an adventure.

Thanks for reading. Keep an eye on the blog for updates on our progress. I’m sure the City Pantry story won’t end here.