Roots to work: the caring caterer

Sophie Andre by Chris King Photography

Published: 13 Sep 2018

Since summer 2016, Sophie Andre’s Elysia has rescued about six tonnes of surplus food from local growers and artisan producers, transforming it into meals they deliver by bicycle to events around London.

What do you do and what do you do differently from other caterers?

Elysia is a catering startup with a sustainable focus. What differentiates us is our combat against food waste by sourcing surplus food from local producers and transform it into beautiful breakfasts and canapés. We are lucky enough to work directly with the producers. We know how the food is grown and who the people behind it are.

How did you end up setting up your own catering company?

When I arrived in London, I wanted to work in the food industry. I discovered the problem of food waste at the farm gate and all along the supply chain, as well as the causes of wastage, such as slightly damaged produce due to the unpredictable weather conditions, overproduction, cancelled orders, breakage of packages and many more. Pallets of perfectly edible products were wasted. I was shocked! 

I have always loved local and natural food, simple and tasty meals enjoyed around a rustic table with friends, family, colleagues. I thought I could help reduce food waste and build a business around it. I started by delivering breakfasts I had made using surplus artisan food to individuals. Catering for events was a natural step forward to scale the company.

What obstacles have you faced in doing things the way you do them and how did you overcome them? 

At the beginning, it was not easy to convince some producers to work with me as I was buying just a couple of kilos a week of surplus food. Providing an easy solution to the growers and producers was key to overcome the obstacle, convince them to invest in the project and that eventually the company will grow, which will help them generate an income out of the surplus food. 

Is there a typical day or week for you and if so, what does it look like? 

One of the things I love in my job is that the daily agenda changes all the time and we are busy with a wide range of activities! For instance in the morning I could be dealing with clients’ requests for events and sending quotes from our workspace at Impact Hub Islington. Then I could jump on my bike to meet with one of our suppliers in Bermondsey for a fabulous wine tasting to pair our canapés for the upcoming season and go back to the Hub in the afternoon to recruit a couple of team catering assistants. In the evening, I would go to the events we are catering for helping with the food prep, service and making sure our clients are happy and enjoying their party! 

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Making people happy! Food is a joy to work with. The artisans put so much skills, effort and love in the products they are creating - making sure nothing is wasted is a real value for them and for us. Our clients are having a great time at their events, enjoying beautiful breakfasts and canapés while learning more about sustainability. It is such a pleasure for us to share the story of our suppliers and the journey of each ingredient! 

Our suppliers and clients are actually changing their food habits. For instance, we have been buying the delicious crispbread off-cuts from EasyBean. Since we started working together, Christina who runs the company decided to go into retail with the previously discarded bites! 

What one piece of advice would you offer to someone thinking about setting up a similar business?

Before having the financial means to have a team, it is hard to turn to someone for discussion, brainstorming and advice. I would say it is important to build a network of a few people you trust with the skills and experience you are looking for. Their help can be priceless! 

Is there a particular area of excitement or opportunity coming up at Elysia?

We are really excited to recruit a new chef and catering manager! Elysia is a pioneering catering company using natural surplus food and we don’t want to stop here. We are now ready to expand leading the way in food sustainability in London. We are in discussion with other catering companies to partner and grow the activity at a large scale in the UK.  Exciting time!

Who’s your good food hero and why?

There are so many food startups that are really committed to what they do. I am very much impressed by Hannah McCollum who runs ChicP, a beautiful brand of colourful hummus made from surplus fruits and vegetables. She is always on her bike delivering hummus pots in London or going to food events and festivals. She is doing everything by herself and doing so well in terms of business activity and food waste reduction. I met her at an event just a few days after I settled down in London. Her brand is a real inspiration! 

What new food campaign / project / initiative does London need the most or which existing one deserves more support?

Working with surplus food is a fantastic opportunity to show how beautiful surplus produce can be. However it does not solve the problem of food waste, which should not exist in the first place. 

We need regulations to prevent food waste at the farm gate or factory door and then all along the supply chain. To do so, programmes could emerge to support the creation of policies and tools to accurately measure surplus and waste, and give instructions to manage and reduce it. For instance, a cause of overproduction is that retailers may penalise growers if they undersupply and in return may lose their contract. Fixed prices as well as a guaranteed purchase forecasting could be an example of solution to ensure growers can manage their production effectively and build trust between parties. 

What London food secret would it be selfish not to share?  

My favourite granola brand, Husk & Honey, has opened a shop in Bermondsey! Hedie who runs it serves beautiful granola bowls every Saturday at Spa Terminus market. I can’t recommend enough!