Others / From the vaults

Munch in Marylebone

Reasonably priced, nourishing and delicious – Munch in Marylebone is rapidly becoming the catering firm of choice for office workers bored of their usual sandwich – but Munch is no ordinary business. We discover how it is also helping women affected by homelessness. 

Picture the scene: It’s 1pm at work, and you’ve been forced to condense your lunch hour into 15 minutes. You might rush out to Pret and grab a sandwich. Or you might wolf down a squashed ham bap while filling in a spreadsheet.

What you probably won’t be doing is supporting a local charity. Time is limited, and there’s only so community-minded you can be in a day of back-to-back client meetings. That is, of course, unless you’ve placed an order with Munch in Marylebone, in which case you can devour a homemade stew with a side order of social conscience.

Munch is a catering company with a difference. Run by the Marylebone Project, a partnership between Church Army and the Portman House Trust, it supplies all manner of sustenance to nearby offices and cafés. The menu is extensive: pastries, muffins, granola and fruit for breakfast; sandwiches, salads, quiches and stews for lunch; platters and canapés for meetings; cakes for whenever the need strikes.

It’s undeniably delicious, but then again, so are most handmade meals prepared with due care and attention. What sets Munch apart is the provenance of its chefs, all of whom have been affected by homelessness.  

“The Marylebone Project is the largest woman’s hostel in the UK, with about 112 residential units,” explains Sharon Poon, social enterprise manager. “They come from a variety of backgrounds – some are just on the social housing waiting list, but others may have mental health and domestic violence issues. Our main goal is basically resettlement, so we help them get back on their own two feet and find employment opportunities.”

Sharon and I are chatting over tea and brownies in the Marylebone Project meeting space, a homely venue a few minutes walk from the Edgware Road. Also here is Zaynah, the brains behind the brownies in question and one of the resident chefs.

“I’ve been here for nine months, and I’ve doing Munch since June” says Zaynah. “We book our days – there’s a rota – so they just call us and we go there. It’s getting much busier. We used to work only Monday morning and would finish at twelve o’clock, but last week I was called four times.”

While Zaynah is a chef by profession, complete with the requisite training and certification, many others come to Munch with no culinary experience. For them, it is a golden opportunity to acquire new skills, boost their confidence, and even take steps towards employment in the sector.

“In the past quite a few have found work in the hospitality industry,” says Sharon. “We try to train them up with different skills – not just cooking and baking but also working with other people, teamwork, organisation and time management.”

The action takes place at the commercial kitchen at the day centre, which has received a five star hygiene rating from the Food Standards Agency. Once an order has been received, it is brought directly to your doorstep. Handily, most deliveries are local – “we don’t exactly have a food truck!” points out Sharon.

Although Munch was launched in 2011, early days were dogged by staffing issues and progress was stop and start. Only this summer did Sharon and a colleague arrive to fill the gap. As well as overseeing the chefs, they have been working flat out to make connections with marketing firms and drum up new business.

“The more business we have the more involved the women become, because there are more opportunities for them to cook and bake,” she says. “If we don’t have any business they just don’t want to make any food and just leave it there.”

Not all the women in the hostel are natural bakers, but many are interested, and Munch runs popular taster sessions allowing them to get a feel for what’s involved. At present, six of the women sign up on a regular basis, with many others helping out intermittently.

As for those whose talents lie outside the kitchen, there are other opportunities to carve their niche. Munch is just one of three strands of the ‘Made in Marylebone’ initiative, the other two being ‘Space in Marylebone’ (clients can book out meeting rooms for events) and ‘Handmade in Marylebone’ (jewellery and handicrafts for sale). In the latter case, ladies can build their skills as designer-makers without ever once covering themselves in flour.

Ultimately, Sharon would like to see Munch become self-sustaining. Though the enterprise is funded by a grant, it is no different from any other start-up, and aims to be financially viable within a certain number of years. In the long term, it may even provide paid employment opportunities. For now, though, it’s more about enhancing the ladies’ business acumen, and appeasing hungry officer workers along the way.

This article appears in the Winter 2013 edition of The Portman

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