The OXO Tower has been a fixture of the South Bank landscape for almost one hundred years; located on the eighth floor of the iconic tower is the OXO Tower Restaurant, Bar & Brasserie. Drawing in Londoners for over two decades now, the restaurant serves a menu inspired by the best of seasonal British food, with guests enjoying unparalleled views of the London skyline.
Alongside the day-to-day requirements of running a premium restaurant and bar, the OXO team have also been pioneers in the battle to reduce waste. The restaurant has supported homelessness charity StreetSmart for over twenty years.
When lockdown came in March, which in turn forced community kitchens and restaurants to close, the entrepreneurial team at OXO recognised an opportunity to give back. With a surplus of food at the restaurant destined for waste and a growing demand for meals for the vulnerable and homeless, the first seeds of the OXO Community Kitchen was planted.
With this work continuing even through the second lockdown in November, we spoke to the OXO team about the OXO Community Kitchen came about and how this crucial work will continue into the new year.
How did the OXO Community Kitchen project first start? Where did that idea come from?
In November 2019 we were introduced to Food Cycle, a charity which cooks community meals from donated ingredients across the UK. It was at this time we had the idea of building relationships with local community kitchens, giving OXO staff the chance to volunteer their time to create community meals. During the first lockdown, we were faced with a huge amount of surplus food which, to save from becoming waste, we donated to various organisations. One of the OXO team started cooking meals in a local community kitchen which sparked the idea of cooking community meals from the OXO restaurant. We floated the idea to our team who expressed an interest to volunteer their time and support the initiative.
In addition, we were operating a food box delivery service and fundraising to provide food boxes for NHS staff at Kings College Hospital who were in isolation.
With a team of volunteers ready to cook and an empty kitchen ready to go, we connected with community contacts we had worked with previously through our membership with the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and on 30th May 2020 we cooked our first 30 three-course meals for Food Cycle Lewisham. We quickly realised the potential to scale up and set about building connections with several other organisations across London. By the end of the first lockdown period, we were cooking approximately 650 meals per day, Monday to Saturday.
What were the challenges in putting the project together?
The biggest challenge was getting things moving and not knowing where the food and packaging would come from as we didn’t have a budget assigned to support the initiative. We also needed to make sure that it was done in a COVID secure way. As things scaled up and the number of partners increased, logistics became challenging. We had hot meals going out early evening and cold meals throughout the day, all being distributed by armies of volunteer teams from various organisations. Not knowing what ingredients would arrive on any given day, was like Ready Steady Cook, but on a huge scale. With every challenge faced, we were able to find a solution, mostly down to the close community partnerships we had formed with the organisations we were working with and their willingness to do whatever it takes.
Why was it important for OXO to give back to the local community in this way during this time?
Through our connection with City Harvest and later Food Cycle, we knew that there was a need for meals in the London community before the national lockdown. The requirements of the lockdown were only ever going to increase this need. We recognised that despite government support, people were losing their jobs and their homes. Others were shielding or self-isolating with no access to cooked meals and many of the established support functions were struggling. As a restaurant with the facilities to help, we felt it was our moral obligation to do something.
How has the work continued during second lockdown?
We stopped the community meal production when reopening in July 2020 with the aim of continuing as soon as we had figured out the logistics of running the community kitchen alongside our usual operations. Many of the team still wanted to continue to help and find a way to make it part of our business. Each year around the Christmas period we work with Streetsmart to help the homeless. With the pandemic still very much a part of daily life, we recognised how difficult this winter was going to be for the homeless and the charities that support them.
So this year, alongside our usual annual Christmas fundraiser we are cooking meals for Streets Kitchen, who are this year’s chosen fundraising beneficiary – a team of people we worked with during the first lockdown. Up to the point of closing for the November lockdown, we had produced 750 meals and the team once again put themselves forward to volunteer. From the first lockdown we knew there would be mental health benefits for the volunteers too, as it helped people to connect in such as uncertain time.
Will the OXO community kitchen be incorporated into the restaurant’s day to day life moving forward?
We have the capacity to make this happen and certainly the passion to continue cooking community meals. Cooking meals to reduce food surplus and ensuring minimal wastage is great for those with no access to cooking facilities, but the ultimate goal for us is a community without food surplus and food insecurities.
How have you felt being part of the business community here in South Bank during this particular period of time?
It has been a great experience to see South Bank Develop. We opened in 1996, when South Bank was not really on the map. South Bank is now one of the most dynamic places in London and a melting pot of culture, businesses and community, which South Bank BID has played a big part in creating.
During lockdown it was heart breaking to see the area deserted, but it has slowly started to come back to life. For us, South Bank is an Ecosystem where one business’s success is in many ways intrinsically connected to another’s. Therefore, the work of South Bank Bid and its members is so important for the future of our area.