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26 June 2008

Doing the job right

Bob Barrett's Beef Kitchen amazed the judges at the New Statesman/ Edge Upstarts Awards for social e

By Alyssa McDonald

Coping with chemotherapy as well as getting over a period of homelessness would leave most people preoccupied with their own lives, but not Bob Barrett. The idea for the Beef Kitchen hit him in 2005 when he was recovering from cancer at the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation, a charity that provides housing and support services for homeless ex-service personnel.

The foundation is based near Chelsea football ground, and during Bob’s recovery he had to take a lot of rest. As he lay in bed, he explained, “I’d watch out of the window and see people going off to the football. And suddenly a light went on in my head.”

The result of that moment of inspiration was the Beef Kitchen, a mobile unit that serves a better standard of pre-match snack to Chelsea fans. But the Beef Kitchen also has a socially beneficial goal: it provides training and work experience for residents at the foundation.

Not only has Bob’s mobile kitchen proved popular with trainees and fans – feeding 20,000 to date and selling out before every game – but it is also giving something back to the foundation, contributing to the leisure club as well as providing Sunday lunches for residents. It was this combination of a successful business model and a great social goal that impressed judges at this year’s New Statesman/Edge Upstarts Awards, held on 18 June. The Beef Kitchen won the Edge StartUp prize, given in recognition of the social enterprise that shows the most impressive pot ential for growth.

Bob and the rest of the team have certainly done that. Last Saturday (21 June) saw the launch of a second string to their bow, Pryor’s Bank Cafe, near Putney Bridge in London. Like the Beef Kitchen, the Pryor’s Bank Cafe will help foun dation residents take the next steps towards rebuilding their lives: training and employment. Tim, the chef responsible for the Pryor’s Bank menu, is also a foundation resident.

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Bob was enthusiastic as he described what the Beef Kitchen/Pryor’s Bank team plans to offer the trainees. “Together with Training for Life, which has acted as a sort of training mentor, we’ll provide our apprentices with a full training programme bringing them up to NVQ level 2,” Bob explains. “Our job isn’t just to shake their hand after six or eight months’ training; it’s to find them full-time employment afterwards. And we’re going to set up a support mechanism to allow us to do that.”

The longer-term future is looking just as bright: “We’ve been approached by a large catering group – I can’t divulge who just yet – who want to provide jobs for our apprentices.”

It wasn’t just the Beef Kitchen team’s far-reaching ambitions that impressed the judges; they were particularly struck by the company’s commitment to passing on knowledge and skills. A focus on training was a theme among this year’s Edge Upstarts winners. The Social Enterprise of the Year, Forth Sector, provides employment for people suffering from mental health problems, while Carmel McConnell, Social Entrepreneur of the Year, has created the child nutrition charity Magic Breakfast, which provides healthy free meals to children who would otherwise be starting the school day hungry and unprepared for learning.

The other winners’ achievements are no less impressive: Uday Thakkar provides mentoring and advice for other social entrepreneurs through his company, Red Ochre; Chris Llewellyn has been a linchpin in the team behind the online learning community Rafi.ki; and Lily Lapenna has set up MyBnk, which provides interest-free loans to young people embarking on enterprising projects of their own.

This year’s award-winners are all impressive companies in themselves, but they are also examples of an increasingly important trend in British business: with a collective annual turn over of £27bn, social enterprises make a vital contribution to the UK economy. Not only that, but by bridging the divide between public and private service delivery, they are changing the way business is done.

Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary and keynote speaker at this year’s Edge Upstarts ceremony, acknowledged the good that social enterprises do. Bob sees the benefits of his own social enterprise from a more personal point of view. “We’re providing better food for football fans, opportunities and employment for ex-servicemen, and some well-deserved publicity for the foundation. So the Beef Kitchen and Pryor’s Bank are ways of saying thanks to the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation for what they’ve done for me.”

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