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The People’s Pantry: Sustainable, sociable shopping

It might not be the fastest milk float in the West, but Ernie could well be the greenest!

This trusty 1972 float is the face of The People’s Pantry, a zero-waste refill service born in lockdown by husband-and-wife Lisa Jones and Stephen Thomas (known to his friends as Thomo).

No sooner had they come up with the idea of running a mobile refill store, than Lisa had quit her job in PR, gone online and bought a milk float on E-bay, converted a room in their house to store stock and Thomo, who works in IT, built a website. They enlisted the help of a neighbour to come up with the brand.

The People’s Pantry launched in August 2021 and now covers 10 North London postcodes, including Crouch End, Muswell Hill, South Tottenham, Fortis Green, Highgate Wood, Finchley, Hampstead and Wood Green. Local Buyers Club members save 10%.

Lisa said: “One Sunday morning I was online browsing milk floats on E-bay (like you do!) and while Thomo was humming and harring, I clicked on ‘buy.’ That turned out to be a bit of an expensive mistake; the chassis was too damaged to fix! But we went to a specialist in the Cotswolds who part exchanged it for a new Ernie which we fitted out. Martek made all the dispensers for us.

“Ernie is a slice of British heritage – we’ve rescued him. In a way as a milk float, he was originally a refill shop and now he is again. We’re bringing back the slow old-style shopping and galvanising community. There’s something of the water-cooler effect with Ernie. When people see him, they gather around him and chat – neighbours are getting to know each other and putting names to faces.”

Almost every inch of Ernie is stacked with food and household items – including amazing granola, locally roasted coffee, fantastic trail-mix, oat milk, spices, handmade pasta, shampoo, conditioner and cleaning products.

The People's Pantry at East Finchley Festival

Lisa added: “Ernie is pretty quirky! We’ve hung things on him and shoe-horned jars in very efficiently, wherever we can find a space. Our raison d'etre is to try and make refilling as accessible, affordable and convenient as possible, which is why we offer three models for shopping (we’re often at local markets, you can book a street visit or order online for delivery).

“We have a really strict criteria for the products we stock; everything must be ethical, sustainable and we care about how it’s delivered to us. Our bathroom products are free from parabens and harsh chemicals and they’re delivered to us in refillable containers and many of our products are local. We do all the research so customers don’t have to and we’ve worked hard to keep the pricing as competitive as possible.”

Lisa and Thomo have been married for 26 years (they met when she was just 16) and they have four children aged 19 to 25.

She added: “You learn a lot about each other when you run a business together; we’ve discovered skills we didn’t know each other had and with that comes a renewed respect. The People’s Pantry is like our fifth child.

“We would like to grow to reach new areas and take on staff to help but we’re determined to keep the community essence, the personal element is so important – running a business like this is a lifestyle choice.

“It does get pretty chilly manning Ernie in the winter – we layer up and wear fingerless gloves and have a thermos flask full of tea!"

The People’s Pantry has a five-star hygiene review and has been nominated for several business awards.

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