Leading Lights – Robert Hunningher

Robert Hunningher MBE, runs Humdingers, a vibrant bakery, event catering business and soup kitchen in Hoxton. With an impressive career including L’Escargot and the River Café, he set out on his own selling homemade cakes before moving into his new premise, starting a delivery service for the local NHS walk-in centres. Clearly not one to be held back, Robert’s drive and enthusiasm has led him on a journey that not only has seen him move to a bigger premises, but an enviable client list including Alexander McQueen, Gucci, Vogue, Microsoft and the Financial Times to name a few. 

The pandemic changed the direction of Humdingers significantly after he witnessed the challenges many people were facing. A soup kitchen and food bank, feeding up to 1,000 people was soon set up to serve his community and is still operational today. Robert’s mission to put people before profit has not stopped, the soup kitchen gives both him and his team purpose, providing the foundations for a ‘kinder business’ philosophy – a movement that continues to fuel his passion for
the industry.

When did you decide on a career in hospitality and what attracted you to event catering in particular?

Due to my dyslexia and the lack of support system at the time, I felt a lot of options were closed to me. It was either carpentry or hospitality and I chose the latter due to the fact I couldn’t build a box, but I was good at baking!

We fell into catering really. We started a sandwich and salad run for the local NHS and nurses and doctors, and then when the PCT barred us due to their canteens losing money, we negotiated terms where we could cater for the NHS, but the food had to be pre-ordered. It was hugely popular with the NHS and the catering business took off from there.

We opened our kitchens in Hackney and to cover rent, we began catering for studios alongside the NHS and soon through word of mouth, this grew to local corporate business, and eventually fashion houses such as McQueen and Tom Ford. The events followed soon after and after some very successful years and an amazing team, we are running and catering for multiple events daily.

What lessons have you learnt during your career that you still apply to your practise today?
Resilience. Never give up. We have gone through a lot of trials and tribulations to get to where we are today – not to mention a world-changing pandemic. There are many times where you are tempted to throw in the towel, but a blue sky is always just around the corner.

Seeing beyond profit is important and focusing more on what you can do to be of service to the local community and society. For us, its finding fulfilment in creating a memorable experience forour event clients, feeding our exhausted NHS, or ensuring that no one goes hungry in our community with our soup kitchen. It’s time for kinder business.

When did you decide to open a
soup kitchen?

The soup kitchen was officially opened during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020. An eyewatering number of people lost their jobs or couldn’t make ends meet on furlough, and as a father of two young children, it broke my heart to think there were children – or anyone for that matter – going hungry. The business had to shut down and we had the space, we had the stock and people who wanted to help, so it started from there. To help us to continue to fund the soup kitchen once stocks were depleted, we opened our first bakery, which to this day funds our soup kitchen.

What was the reaction from the local community and your customers?

Overall feedback has been great, the soup kitchen is increasingly popular and there are queues at the door at 5pm when it opens. A lot of our volunteers are customers from the bakery and clients from our catering who share our ethos of business with a heart and the local Met Police are getting their names down on the calendar in efforts to improve community engagement. It’s wonderful. 

How have your community efforts enhanced your passion for hospitality?

The community efforts have enhanced not only my passion for hospitality but for food and what it can do for the soul and wellbeing of an individual. To have a young family come to get their Friday evening dinner from the soup kitchen and seeing their excitement to discover it’s going to be chicken wings and potato wedges – not to mention the gratitude in their ‘thank you’ – fills you with both a sense of achievement and fulfilment that cannot be replaced.

How were you informed about your MBE and what was your reaction?

I received a letter from the Prime Minister, and I felt both emotional and hugely honoured but mostly shocked! I was privileged enough to go to the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, and Martin, the ambassador of the NHS was there to greet us. It was a wonderful day for my wife and me.

What advice would you offer to other operators looking to make a difference in their local community? 

Look at what you offer to your clients and where you can offer the same to the community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be products – you can even share skills or simply your time. A little contribution from all business who believe in kinder business would result in something hugely impactful.

What are your plans for Humdingers the next year?

I want to open more soup kitchens, particularly at our new bakery in Hornsey, and to be able to do this, we would love to do larger events and attract more clients who believe in business with a heart, as whatever they spend with us ultimately is pumped back into our community efforts.

What changes would you like to see in the hospitality industry to improve it for the next generation?

I would like to see a fairer playing field for securing event venues as we have found over the years that many locations are very biased in their preferred supplier list. It puts a lot of small businesses like ours on the backfoot.

I would like to see better working conditions and treatment of hospitality staff, as I think many people have been chased away from the industry and, as a result, truly passionate staff are now very hard to come by. We are very lucky to have the hardworking team that we do, and this is because we ensure no matter your role, you are treated and spoken to with respect, and we ensure that wellbeing comes first.