Image above: Harriet Benton and Alan Weavis; photograph Anna Kunst
Harriet’s Kitchen is celebrating its Golden anniversary – measured in weeks, not years that is, as Harriet’s Kitchen is a child of 2020 and the first lockdown.
Harriet Benton has been a caterer for more than 40 years. With her partner Alan Weavis she built up a very successful business as HarrietBenton.com providing events for a comprehensive mix of clients, from art galleries to five-course sit down meals, to weddings. Harriet and Alan did everything, looking after every detail from the marquee, food & drink to the presentation, and as a result have built up a loyal repeat clientele.
When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, their business was turned upside down as booking after booking cancelled. All through the first, second and third lockdowns they have been delivering the same quality of food as that which is served at one of their events, branded as Harriet’s Kitchen. Their clients regard their weekly delivery of Tupperware boxes as treats for birthdays and special occasions, or just a substitute for the one night in the week when they might before have gone out to a restaurant.
All of their fresh produce sourced locally – meat from Macken Brothers, fish from Covent Garden Fishmongers and fruit and veg from Lemon & Limes on Turnham Green Terrace; bread from Gail’s Bakery.
Harriet and Alan’s innovative thinking enabled them to weather the economic storm of successive lockdowns with their food deliveries and help out their neighbours in the process.
Matt Smith talked to Harriet and Alan talk about their journey to where Harriet’s Kitchen is now, and what their plans are for its future now the end of the third (and final?) lockdown is in sight.
ORDER THIS WEEK’S MENU HERE: Harriet’s Kitchen menu, week 51, order by Tuesday 16 March for delivery Thursday 18 March
Images above: the start of rose bud curry; the ingredients for this week’s (15 March) Thai green curry paste
The first lockdown
When the first national lockdown was announced, the flurry of cancellations put Harriet and Alan in a delicate financial situation. Because they’re not self-employed and a technically a company, they weren’t entitled to the Government’s financial assistance. Working from home meant they couldn’t benefit from the Business rates holiday either.
Intermittent lockdowns meant they went through waves of receiving bookings which were then later cancelled due to tightened restrictions. By Christmas they were solely focusing on Harriet’s Kitchen.
“It’s actually been really successful, it’s as much as we can do” said Harriet.
Harriet posted on Nextdoor asking whether anybody would be interested in ordering home-cooked food from a well-established event company. The couple didn’t expect to get much attention, but interest spiked and orders started coming in.
“Now, we have about 30-40 deliveries per week, and about 80 households who order food. We have a lot of very lovely clients. There are a few people on our list who know our story, that we are basically an events company.”
“What we’ve learned about delivering food was extraordinary. We had no idea.”
Visiting the wholesalers during the first lockdown and trying to find takeaway containers was difficult, says Harriet.
“The first week we had six things on the menu and one of them was coq au vin. So we’re sort of pouring coq au vin into polythene bags, it was awful! We had no system everything was written on little bits on the back of envelopes, and we hadn’t even thought about distributing it!”
Image above: early days deliveries came in flimsier containers which were prone to spilling, a herb delivery arrives to Harriet’s kitchen
But with the help of volunteers…
Again, social media came to the rescue after Harriet posted on social media asking for help with getting food orders to their customers.
“One was a lovely woman called Sam, a nutritionist who used have to have a stall at the Bedford Park Green Days Festival. I used to supply her with great piles of salad every year.”
Sam hoped to repay Harriet’s kindness by offering to deliver some of their orders. Since then, their group of volunteer delivery drivers has grown to around seven or eight. Amongst them is an out of work opera singer, Aleri, who had recently moved to Bedford Park.
“Those first few weeks we had lovely weather and they were all arriving on their bikes and we were squeezing all this food into rubbishy old carrier bags, putting it in their knapsacks, everything was being spilt, it was really very funny.”
Images above: containers of food ready to be delivered
Finding their feet
Despite facing issues early on, Harriet and Alan now run a well-oiled machine.
The menu tends to be sent out on a Friday, and people order over the weekend. Monday-Thursday is spent sourcing the food, preparing it and cooking it before everything is delivered on Thursday evenings. They don’t shy away from compliated menus and they send out up to 400 packages from their kitchen weekly, to households in and around Chiswick.
“And it nearly kills us” says Harriet, laughing.
As event work starts to trickle in and thier planner is beginning to look healthier again for 2021, Harriet and Alan are starting to simplify the menu for Harriet’s Kitchen so they can continue to do the two. Depending on the event, the couple can work closely with clients for up to a year prior to their special occasion.
Plans for the future?
Their volunteer delivery drivers tell Harriet people eagerly await their deliveries on Thursdays, their faces lighting up when they answer the door.
“We’ve got lovely, lovely clients. They’re always so appreciative when the doorbell rings and there’s a little parcel of food for them.”
Harriet and Alan say they aren’t certain yet whether they will have to shelve Harriet’s Kitchen when lockdown restrictions are lifted completely, or whether they will be able to continue it in some shape or form. If they could work both jobs simultaneously, without fear of terminal exhaustion, they would jump at the opportunity to do so, they say, as they don’t want to disappoint their new loyal clientele.
“But we can’t continue like this, if we’re doing an event we can’t do this as well. If we get a wedding for 200 we can’t be doing it at the same time. We’re trying to work out a way where we can keep all of our clients close, but we just don’t know how to do it.”
A lot of their clientele are people who have been shielding, so there’s the chance when restrictions are lifted and the majority of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19, fewer people might want their deluxe takeaways.
“I’ve got a feeling we would drop dramatically, and then I think it’s probably just not worth us doing it. But I don’t know, I don’t want to let anybody down because that’s not in our nature.”
Club Card offer
Harriet and Alan offer the holders of a Chiswick Calendar Club Card 10% off everything on the menu.
Contact Harriet’s Kitchen on:
Tel: 07973 858 642
Follow them on Instagram: @harriet.kitchen
Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar
See also: ** Link to recipe card feature**
See also: 10% off anything from Harriet’s Kitchen
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