Changing the world: one bite at a time
Since we caught up with Josh Littlejohn back in 2015, the social entrepreneur has received global recognition, raising millions of pounds for charity, giving employment and shelter to hundreds of rough sleepers and working with some of Hollywood's most notable stars in his continued bid to eradicate homelessness. He, alongside Social Bites co-founder Alice Thompson, were presented with the Special Recognition Award the 2019 Pride of Britain Awards. We look back to where it all began.
This magazine has always tried to keep a lid on hyperbole. After all, the ‘I kent, yer faither!’ put-down is ingrained in our psyche to ensure no-one gets above their station in life. Yet however you look at it, Josh Littlejohn is an utterly remarkable 28-year-old Scotsman. Already he has made an indelible impact on our nation.
He is the creator of Social Bite, the social enterprise soup, sandwich and baguette chain in Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is helping the homeless find useful employment, now expanding into Aberdeen and Dundee, and he is the originator of the Scottish Business Awards.
What is so special about this has been Littlejohn’s breathtaking chutzpah, moving the black-tie events calendar into the stratosphere, firstly by getting former US President Clinton as a guest speaker, then luring Sir Richard Branson to one of the biggest black-tie dinner gatherings in pre-referendum Scotland. Then he trumps this by creating the most amazing media frenzy with the invitation of Hollywood A-lister George Clooney, award-winning actor and director of the Monuments Men, to come to the awards at the EICC on 12 November this year. Wow!
When we meet in the Social Bite shop in Rose Street in Edinburgh, this softly-spoken bearded business figure is disarmingly open and honest about his achievements. He was brought up in Blair Drummond, near the Stirlingshire safari park, and attended McLaren High school in Callander. His father, Simon, set up the Littlejohn’s restaurant chain which began in Stirling and spread to other Scottish cities. The chain was sold when Josh was at primary school, so he never worked in any of his dad’s establishments.
“When we were younger, my brother and I grew up in relative privilege because my father was a successful businessman. I always had a strange relationship with wealth in that way. I was certainly embarrassed by it. If my dad was dropping me off at school in his convertible sports car, I would be so mortified. I would hate to be thought of as the rich kid. I used to get him to drop me off around the corner and I’d walk in.”
Josh and younger brother, Jack, used to give their father a hard time. “We used to try and get him to give his money away. In hindsight, it was harsh because he came from a working class background and his motivation in becoming successful was to provide a good life for his family,” he recalls.
“I left school at 17 and went travelling to Ecuador. I spent three months in Quito working on a project with street children. It was an amazing experience. When I came back from that I was quite idealistic.”
“My angst against wealth translated itself into a notion that I wanted to change the world.”
He raised £3,000 by washing cars and through sponsorship to buy his ticket and joined Outreach Internationals, working in a centre for the working children, many of them orphans. He helped them with basic education, teaching them to read and write but he admired their resilience. He returned to Scotland to Edinburgh University, studying politics and economics.
“I came back really charged. But the idealism over four years at university got chipped away. I didn’t feel inspired by the teaching at university. It wasn’t the fault of any of the lecturers, I just got into the student culture of drinking loads, sleeping in, missing my lecturers. I was never really that engaged.”
He graduated in the teeth of the recession and there were not many jobs around. He wasn’t interested in becoming a lawyer or a doctor and ‘chasing the earning league table’. He was attracted to working as an economist in overseas development and applied for a UK civil service job. He spent weeks preparing, reading the key text from cover to cover and was down to the final stages in London. He passed the economic test with flying colours, but failed on the assessment of his interpersonal skills.
“After six months of this process, I got a one sentence email saying that I was unsuccessful. I was a bit deflated by that. I didn’t want to sign up for this whole graduate milk-round process.” It was then that he decided to make his own entrepreneurial opportunities.
“I never really wanted to start my own business but I retained my belief that I wanted to do something to change the world. I never had a great interest in getting a corporate job.” He brainstormed a few ideas and decided to set up an events business.
“It was steady steps. I was 21 and single and probably trying to find an attractive girl-friend. So I decided to set up a fashion show. A great opportunity to hang around with attractive girls! I put on a fashion show in August in Edinburgh calling it the Festival Fashion Show, in a venue below Le Monde.”
He got in touch with all the local High Street retailers, then approached some young women in the street and charmed them to join the team as models for the catwalk. It was a superb chat-up line and it did very well.
“We sold it all out. I had such a good time doing it and I made £3,000. I thought ‘Wow, there’s something in this entrepreneurship’. I thought it was so cool. That was the start of my addiction to this process of coming up with something and seeing it become a reality.”
He knocked on doors ‘a little harder each time.’ “I got more ambitious and took it more seriously. It evolved from that initial event. We set up Capital Events and rented a tiny office in George Street in Edinburgh.”
He recruited interns to work on commissions. This was also good for meeting the girls, he laughs. One of them was Alice Thomson, who had dropped out of an events management degree. She saw the advert for this fledgling events business and came for an interview. Within a week or two, Alice and Josh were also going out together.
“We split up recently after five years together. Alice is the co-founder of Social Bite and everything we’ve really done, we did as a couple,” he says.
Alice and Josh conjured up more ambitious event ideas but settled on creating Scotland’s Christmas Fair in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. They sold stands to gift companies and found people were clamouring to take part in what they presumed was a reputable and established event. Tickets were free for the public.
“It worked pretty well. I thought exhibitions were a smart business idea because normally when you are putting on a one-off concert or event you have to fork out a lot for the main attraction. Whereas the exhibitors pay to attend. I thought you can’t lose. What could go wrong?”
Amazingly, he then booked the SECC and decided to put on Scotland’s Ski & Snowboard Show in 2010. He approached the ski companies and the hotel groups to support him but found it very hard to get it going without offering free stands.
“It was really tough. I had signed a £35,000 contract for the SECC, created a website and literature and needed to get the backing of some of the bigger players. It was a chicken and egg scenario with people asking who else is going.”
We had to give away a load for free. It was a crash-course in learning how to sell. I was selling for my life when nobody really wanted to buy and I had this contract with the SECC, which could have made me bankrupt. I was selling, selling and selling. I found it very, very stressful.”
Eventually, he managed to persuade some to get on board and stayed afloat. Just. The second year was much better with the credibility of having pulled it off in year one – and a great snow in Scotland helped pull in the punters.
“We made a bit of money in the second year. We had a superb season that year in Scotland. So the ski industry was in a good place. We did deals for the Scottish resorts so that skiers would get free lift passes.”
Josh says in terms of business experience, it covered everything from sales, marketing and media buying, including television and newspaper adverts, and negotiating the cost base, then selling the tickets. “On the learning curve it was very good. We made about £50,000 profit on the second year.”
He admits there were some sleepless nights. “The hard bit about setting up your own business is that there is perpetual stress that never goes away. There are so many good bits, but it is very draining. It’s a 24/7 thing.”
On the back of this, he decided to set up the Scottish Business Awards, a not-for-profit event, in 2012. He booked the EICC and wrote to all the top businesses, imploring them to take part. “I thought it would work. But many people told me I was stupid because there were so many business awards already in Scotland. We were more ambitious and created our own gap. We made it cooler,” says Josh.
He managed to persuade 800 leading business figures to sign up, including top entrepreneurs, such as Sir Tom Hunter, Michelle Mone, Sir Tom Farmer and Jim McColl. But he had no inspirational big-ticket guest speaker. “I knew that it would be a very influential audience.”
He had a brainwave. Littlejohn had been reading Noble Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’s book describing the creation of a ‘social business’, and the setting up of the Grameen Bank, giving micro-loans, and how over 50 different companies had been created in Bangladesh.
Many have gone on to make billions, yet Yunus has never owned a share. Each enterprise was designed to solve a social problem such as financial exclusion in women, no-electricity in rural villages, or malnutrition in children.
Littlejohn thought this was ‘one cool guy’ and wanted him to be the keynote speaker at the awards. In 2011, he wrote off to Yunus but didn’t get a response. He didn’t give up, he pestered him for a meeting. He and Alice and Josh then went out to Dhaka in October, spending a week touring around the social businesses, taking in Grameen Bank, the yoghurt factory and an eye-care hospital.
Unfortunately, the professor couldn’t make the awards dinner on 23 February 2012. Although, he came to Scotland two weeks after the awards to a spin-off event. “He was impressed that we had shown so much commitment and gone to see him. However, that trip changed the direction of our lives. We’d gone out there with a mission to persuade him to speak at our awards, now we left thinking this is such an inspiring idea.”
Josh and Alice returned to Scotland and dreamed up Social Bite in their George Street office. Meanwhile, they still needed a guest speaker and thought Sir Bob Geldof would be a perfect replacement. They booked him through a speaker agency, asking him to speak specifically about Muhammed Yunus’s ideas. [“He came and did a really brilliant speech.”]
That evening, Josh met Sir Tom Hunter, who won the main accolade, which was the outstanding contribution awards. They kept in touch, with Josh informing him about Social Bite’s launch and progress.
At the first event, one of the charity prizes helped to raise money for Glasgow Caledonian University’s project with Prof Yunus and Grameen Bank. However, the top prize was to ‘Spend A Day with Bill Clinton in New York’. Previously, Josh emailed the Clinton Foundation and filled in the contact box. To his surprise, he got a reply asking about the event. They offered a day with the former President. The catch: they had to raise $60,000.
Leo Koot, who was managing director of the TAQA oil firm, based in Aberdeen, was encouraged at the dinner to come up with the money for the Clinton trip. It gave Josh the opportunity to go back to the Clinton Foundation asking him to come to Scotland and speak. So, in its second year, Josh managed to book Clinton, emailing his new-found colleague Sir Tom, who was impressed with this.
“People assume that I did this through Sir Tom’s connection, but I did this myself.” Recalling the success of the prize-draw, he went back to the Clinton Foundation, who said they would need to make a massive donation in up-front payment and instalments to get him to come to Scotland.
“I had a rush of blood to the head. I signed it and posted it back knowing I needed 25% up front, and more for the instalments,” he says. He phoned around Sir Tom and other major business figures who all agreed to pay for their tables ahead of the event.
“Almost everyone we asked agreed, with Tom Hunter buying two tables, Jim Duffy of ESpark, and Andy Lothian in Dundee. This allowed me to pay the Clinton deposit.”
Clinton arrived on a Thursday and was to have a private dinner in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh with Sir Tom Hunter and some friends. “I was on Rose Street in the Social Bite shop selling sandwiches and Tom Hunter phoned me up and invited me to the private dinner with Bill Clinton.
He said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I replied; ‘Let me check my diary! Yes, I’m available that evening.’ I sat next to Bill Clinton for three hours. He went off to play golf next day at St Andrews and then spoke at our awards. It was great fun.” Josh even did the Q&A with Bill Clinton which was ‘a once in a lifetime experience.’
He admits there is a strange, parallel of worlds doing the Social Bite and Business Awards at the same time. There is the big glamorous stuff with the dinner and then with the minutiae of running a sandwich business. Last year it was Sir Richard Branson who graced the event and now this year’s is making the news with a Hollywood legend.
“Everyone is clamouring to be there. The difference is that people who have bought tables in the past were predominantly men. They are now asking if they can get extra tickets to bring their wives and partners. This is one of the first business dinners that many wives want to make sure they are at,” he laughs.
There will be around 1,900 in the EICC for another record-breaking event, hosted by Rob Brydon with Chris Evans asking the questions. BQ Scotland is proud to be one of the sponsors.
“The only real way you can do these things is if the people you approach are passionate about a particular cause. George Clooney is committed to a humanitarian charity called Not On Our Watch, which he co-founded with Don Cheadle and Brad Pitt. His charity has set up the Satellite Sentinel Project in the sky above Sudan, monitoring human rights abuses and fighting against genocide around the world.
“He needs to raise a fair bit of money each year to keep that in the air. So he does a handful of these to fund this. We’ve committed to support that charity for him coming to Scotland.”
He will also go to one of the Social Bite shops and a private lunch party for guests. “We have raised money at the business awards to expand Social Bite and there are now four shops, with a central production kitchen in Livingston. We are soon to be opening shops in Aberdeen and Dundee.” Michael Thomas is the head chef, with multiple Michelin star chef Mike Mathieson as the consultant.
“The reason we did that was because if you set something up on a social basis sometimes there can be an automatic assumption that the product won’t be good. It’s a bit of a charity café. We wanted to make sure that if you eat in here you don’t have to make any sacrifices on quality.”
But Social Bite’s USP has been the opportunity it has provided to homeless people to find a job and get a start on the work ladder. A quarter of the workforce have been begging on the streets or selling The Big Issue. Now 100% of profits go to the social causes, around £4,000 a month. This isn’t an easy task as many of the workers have multiple social problems, including having no fixed address, bank accounts or ID.
“We pay them in cash, although most of them now have bank accounts and we have been helping them into housing,” says Josh, who has not been averse to letting some sleep on his own couch at home. “What is interesting is that the social space mobility of people at that level of society does not exist. It does not happen.”
The first homeless person taken on board was Pete, who was selling the Big Issue outside the shop. He plucked up courage and asked for a job. He was given a chance by Josh and Alice. He was recently made a full-time employee, news of which received national newspaper coverage. Another, Ian, who was also selling the Big Issue in Rose Street for 14 years, has been recruited by Social Bite.
“That’s telling of the possibilities. Social enterprises have a crucial role to play in attracting people who are otherwise excluded and hauling them into the system,” says Josh, who says he has no ambition to go into mainstream politics.
Social Investment Scotland, which is connecting capital with projects in the community, have given Social Bite a £200,000 loan, while £175,000 cash for expansion in Aberdeen and Dundee comes from the Players of the People’s Postcode Lottery. Josh takes a salary of £20,000.
“I’m trying to keep as much cash as I can in the business. Hopefully, my wages will grow a bit, but my plan is not to grow rich but be comfortable. I want to do something that stands for a different reason.
Josh and his brother, Jack, who is the regional manager, are taking on more people. The Littlejohn brothers are certainly doing their bit to change the world for the better.