unLTD’s Ash Birch grabs a bite with Chris Hanson, founder of Sheffield-based CIC Blend Kitchen.
Hi Chris. As the founder of Blend Kitchen, can you start by telling us a bit about your role?
My role is really varied. It ranges from fundraising and getting sponsorship for the business, to helping develop the menus, training the staff and our volunteers, and generally making sure that everything runs properly day-to-day.
What things do you particularly enjoy about the role?
I really liked the variety in it – there’s never two days the same. I can come to work one day and I could literally be in the kitchen washing pots, and then other days I might be meeting a royal [last year Blend hosted a Royal visit from The Countess of Wessex]! We also won a Sheffield Business Award. Next week, we’ve got the Chamber of Commerce coming in for a meeting with other the business leaders. It’s so varied.
Sounds like a lot of fun. What lead you to set up Blend Kitchen?
I trained as a chef from school and began working in small hotels. I went on to work for charities and voluntary organisations providing life skills training for people that were in drug rehabs or supported housing projects. Off the back of that, I decided to use my catering skills to set up Blend kitchen as a way to use food, and selling food, to create opportunities for people and deliver positive social change.
I set Blend up in 2016 and, initially, we ran hospitality training courses and did pop-up street food events out of community centres and local pubs. It’s grown and developed to where we now have our own place on Ecclesall Road.
Now that you have the space on Ecclesall Road, what sort of challenges are you facing?
The biggest challenge that we’re currently facing is that we opened the restaurant straight out of COVID lockdowns, and when we originally signed the lease on the building, before the pandemic, there was meant to be 600 office staff above us. There’s currently around 50, so that really impacted on our takings initially, and we’ve had to change our business model.
We’ve moved to getting grant income in and increasing other sides of the business, like ticketed events and outside catering, so that we can keep delivering our social aims. There’s a lot of positives still, and the team here are amazing. There are so many talented people with incredible stories. For example, last year we helped a guy who was in drug rehab, who’s now making pizzas at Picture House Social. There are so many people who care so much about the business. That feels like the thing that we’ve really been able to build over this last couple of years.
Blend Kitchen is a social enterprise restaurant that provides training, support and jobs for people who are looking to work in hospitality but might face barriers to employment.
@blendkitchensheffield // blendkitchen.co.uk
A word with a service user
Sandra Macleod is one of the talented group of chefs at Blend Kitchen. She previously worked in the kitchen at homelessness charity, The Archer Project, but moved to Blend nearly a year ago. Since making the move, Sandra tells us that she has learned so much about cooking, as well as about different styles of menus and dietary requirements.
She said: “It’s really boosted my confidence as both a chef and a person. The chefs in here are just amazing. They’ll take time out to show you how to do something form the beginning, and they’ll check to make sure you’re getting on ok.
“Places like this are so important because they’re here to help, and if they can’t, they’ll point you in the right direction of someone who can. They’re really good at what they do.”
‘Good food, does good’
Blend Kitchen is a place where there’s always something happening. As I arrive at the Ecclesall Road site on a chilly Tuesday lunchtime, the place is buzzing with activity in the events space, despite the kitchen not being open to the public on Tuesdays.
Before we sit down for a chat, I ask Blend Kitchen founder Chris Hanson what’s going on and he casually tells me, ‘oh that’s an over-65’s ukulele group. They use the space sometimes when we’re not open.’ Of course they do, Chris, of course they do.
Anyway, following an interesting chat with founder Chris, it’s almost time to get to the serious business of eating. But, before we get to all that, it’s first worth noting that, yes Blend Kitchen is a CIC (Community Interest Company), but that absolutely doesn’t mean they compromise on the quality of their food or the environment.
The interior has been stunningly put together by local design studio, 93 Feet, and is an achingly cool yet functional space, full of plants, clean lines and off-shot, private areas.
All this, of course, is just a prelude to the food itself; I opt for the squash, spinach and chickpea curry (£7) from their private hire, buffet and outside catering menu, which comes with poppadom and naan. The warming, wintery spicing is perfect for a crisp March day and I waste no time loading up the naan with the perfectly cooked butternut squash and chickpeas.
You can tell a lot about a place by how much effort they put into their vegan and vegetarian options, and given that this plate is entirely vegan, Blend is, as you would expect, going that extra mile to be inclusive.
After mopping up my plate with the last of the naan, I follow it up with a silky-smooth oat milk flat white, before heading out onto Ecclesall Road feeling slightly in awe of the good work they’re doing, as well as feeling more than ever that this social enterprise has got just the right blend.