‘We bought a 1970s milk float on eBay for £2,000 and turned it into a mobile zero-waste shop that travels around London’

Lisa Jones and her husband Stephen Thomas (a.k.a. Thomo) were sitting in bed in their home in Muswell Hill on a Sunday morning, idly scrolling eBay. Then they saw it.

“I came across this milk float that was up for sale, says Lisa. “I turned to my husband and said: ‘Why don’t we just do it?'”

Made in 1972, the ageing float had been retired from service delivering milk, but it was still operational. It cost £2000.

Before they could talk themselves out of it, Lisa had clicked: the milk float was theirs.

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When it arrived, Thomo set to work restoring the vehicle – before realising that it was an enormous undertaking. They needed a specialist.

There was only one man for the job: John Lenehan, who, based in Oxford, has been repairing milk floats for the past 40 years.

“It’s like a milk float graveyard,” says Lisa. “There’s something quite eerie about it – but there’s nothing he doesn’t know about.”

Around a month later, it was ready – and it needed a name.

Inspired by comedian Benny Hill’s song, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), the float was finally christened: Ernie.

“It’s not the fastest milk float in the West, it has to be said,” says Lisa.

But at 50 years old, Ernie is still running on his original battery, manages a modest 18 miles per hour and can travel for up to 40 miles before needing to be charged. (This is done like an electric car – he’s simply plugged with an electricity cord outside their house.)

Ernie can even make it up Muswell Hill itself, says Lisa with pride – although he’s often overtaken by pedestrians.

Ernie was named after comedian Benny Hill’s song, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)

“That’s all it needs, and it’s been chugging on for 50 years, which I just find incredible,” says Lisa.

Ernie’s purchase might have been spontaneous, but it was part of a plan that Lisa and Thomo had been hatching throughout lockdown.

“Like lots of other people, my husband and I looked around us and started to reassess on so many levels – our lives, our working lives, wanting to do something different, wanting to do something which contributed and to get involved with our community a bit more,” says Lisa.

“We looked around at what was happening to the planet while we were in lockdown and this sort of tentative attempt to heal itself…dolphins coming back to the Venetian harbour – all of this was incredible. It just goes to show that this is reversible; we can change things.”

Thomo is an IT consultant and Lisa had been working as a food and drink PR and journalist, where she’d noticed a shift towards sustainability and independent, ethically sourced products.

They decided to combine their skills, with Lisa scaling back her work to concentrate on the project full-time.

In August this year, they launched The People’s Pantry, a zero-waste mobile refill store and delivery service selling over 140 ethically-sourced products —including cereals, pastas, pulses, spices, cleaning products and household essentials— around eight North London postcodes.

As Lisa puts it: “This is our small way of trying to be part of the solution.”

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It took a month to renovate Ernie and kit him out as a shop, complete with refillable containers

Reviving the old milkman model, customers can order products online to be delivered in refillable containers.

When they’re finished, they can leave their empties outside for Ernie (or Eric, the vintage bike) to collect and wash.

Powered by electricity and working a closed-loop refill system, the system is anything but old-fashioned, Lisa argues. “You couldn’t get more current if you tried!”

Ernie can also be booked for street visits, where the intention is for neighbours to get to know each other, catch up and stock up on sustainable supplies.

On Sundays, they have a regular slot at Alexandra Palace Farmers Market.

With UK supermarkets alone creating 900,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year (of which under 10 per cent is recycled), Lisa and Thomo’s aim with The People’s Pantry is to make it easier for consumers to cut down on single-use plastic.

“What we want to be about is working together to change mindsets,” says Lisa.

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Since August, Lisa has scaled back her work to concentrate on The People’s Pantry full-time. Thomo has been building an e-commerce site and is working on an app

“It’s in a small way, of course, but I think it’s amazing – once you start doing something small like monitoring how much plastic you use, you suddenly become very aware of everything else that you’re not doing.

“Hopefully it’s going to be a stepping stone for people to reassess other areas of their lives as well – whether that’s not flying as often, or getting on a bike rather than taking the car.”

With 1970s Ernie and the company’s focus on community, The People’s Pantry trades on an element of nostalgia.

“There’s a kind of nostalgia at the moment when the future is so crazy. I think we’re all looking back to simpler, more wholesome, more manageable times, which has fuelled the vintage vibe.”

She adds: “I think people have been looking for ways to make a difference – but also ways to engage with each other. I think that was one of the very few positives to come out of the pandemic. We’ve recognised how important community is and we started meeting our neighbours.”

Lisa is right. With the emergence of Mutual Aid and community groups during the pandemic, people began to connect with others around them in the first few months of the pandemic.

According to a study by the ONS, over half (50.6 per cent) of adults said that friends, family and neighbours had offered to help them if they became unwell, rising to 83.3 per cent of over 70s.

But, 18 months on, is this increased sense of community still catching on?

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“We hoped that the street visits would become this very social event, and that neighbours would come and meet each other and put faces to WhatsApp feeds. And that’s exactly what’s happened,” says Lisa. “It’s something we weren’t entirely expecting.”

Five months into their venture, Lisa says that the reception to The People’s Pantry has been positive, with locals keen to contribute.

They’ve seen innovative refillable solutions, including a woman who makes bags out of her son’s outgrown T-shirts, and a customer who has refilled an old bag of Sainsbury’s basmati rice five times.

Others have been willing to donate excess supplies – including, says Lisa, a customer with spare fertiliser from his wormery.

“That’s really uplifting – it’s exactly what we want it to be about.”

Ernie, meanwhile, has developed a following. He’s recognised in the street, and was even sewn a Father Christmas hat by a neighbour.

“He’s developed a kind of personality of his own – he’s like this comedy character with a serious soul,” laughs Lisa.

On a personal level, Lisa and Thomo have enjoyed working together. Thomo has built an e-commerce site for the company and has been working on an app.

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The People’s Pantry can be booked for street visits, or you can order online. They’re at Alexandra Palace Farmers Market on Sundays.

“Actually, it was not a bad thing for our marriage, because you suddenly realise the strengths and skills that you don’t ordinarily see in each other because you’re working in different fields…I’ve been amazed at what he’s able to do,” she says.

The couple have four children, with varying degrees of enthusiasm for their enterprise. Lisa says their eldest daughter recently told her she was pleased they’d launched the business because it had increased her own awareness and encouraged her to start conversations about sustainability at university.

Their son is helping out with packing and deliveries, but insists on keeping some distance from Ernie.

“They’re all really supportive. They love the idea – as long as they don’t have to be seen sitting in Ernie.”

So far, Lisa feels that her career change was the right choice for her. “I am pleased I made a change and I’m really enjoying it,” she says. “It does consume our week – but it doesn’t really matter when you’re doing something that you enjoy.”

For the moment, Lisa and Thomo are concentrating on their own community, where they have lived for 22 years.

But Lisa is not ruling out the possibility of more Ernies in future – coming, perhaps, to a community near you.

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