The trendy restaurant network dishing up free school meals to vulnerable children in London

In the latest of our Brave New World series we celebrate the businesses providing lunches for those in need

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The Dominique Ansel team, taken before social distancing came into play
The Dominique Ansel team, taken before social distancing came into play

When it was announced that from March 20 children would be sent home from school, with only the vulnerable or children of key workers allowed to remain, it created a problem for many who rely on free school meals.

London-based Qoot Restaurant Group, which includes By Chloe, The Lebanese Bakery, Dominique Ansel Bakery and Treehouse, and The Gentlemen Baristas, had already been delivering food to doctors, nurses and the police, but as soon as the announcement was made in regards to schools, they decided to expand their efforts to offer a replacement for children in need. Many of the restaurants in the group have been running since the early 2000s, but they banded together at the end of 2016. The concepts range from vegan to Middle Eastern via good-quality coffee. The common theme? They all follow key trends from the food industry that have continued to grow over the past few years.  

COO Simon Wright shared with me: “As it stands we are staying open for delivery, so it’s easy enough for us to produce some extra meals every day. It’s been a real team effort, and great to see these types of ideas coming through from everyone who works for us, and being able as a business to support them. We see ourselves as a real part of the community.”  

One of the By Chloe free school lunches

Originally the plan was to provide a typical ‘lunchbox’ with sandwich, drink and snack included – but this has now evolved to represent the more usual offering of the restaurants taking part. So at By Chloe, there’s the option of a vegan salad or burger with fries and a fresh juice; The Lebanese Bakery are doing flatbreads with a side dish and juice; and Dominique Ansel is putting together savoury items with salad and an indulgent pastry. Simon added: “Perhaps it will be even nicer than their usual school meal.” If the canteen of my youth is anything to go by, I’d have to agree.  

Qoot can drop off the meals to schools close by, or children can pick up the meal at one of the many sites around London. If possible, they have asked people to bring benefits documentation; though they are happy to help where possible, and would like to think no one would be taking advantage during this difficult time.

I asked Simon whether he thought they would be able to continue for the foreseeable and his answer is a brilliant example of the fact that most humans are kind at heart: “We did a big staff meeting yesterday by video call, with 45 people, which was pretty impressive. We haven’t made anyone redundant yet, but we did say that we are going to need to furlough people. When we announced that, so many replied, if you are still going to be doing the school drops we would love to volunteer to do that in our own time. I feel pretty blessed from having a great team that are very much behind what we are doing.”

One of the By Chloe outlets offering free school meals for takeaway

The real reward is seeing the smiles on the faces of even the shyest of kids when they get their lunch. In addition to the school meals and the hospital food deliveries, Qoot are doing 50 percent off for key workers and delivery for anyone local that can’t get out.

Musing on the industry as a whole, Simon shared: “A lot of people have closed really quickly, seemingly with little regard for their own staff, never mind the community. People have to make their own decisions and I don’t think badly of anyone, but I do believe that we have a duty as business owners to support our teams, especially when you have a lot of people on hourly and minimum wages. Nevertheless, it is times like this you really see that there are a lot of great people in the industry that look at the greater good rather than the individual. It’s been touching to see. Long may it continue.”