Last week brought us to the close of our intimate supper clubs showcasing our dumplings that we have been making with women from migrant communities over the last seven months.
For those that are unfamiliar with our project, we ran monthly supper clubs from March – June alternating between Polish and Chinese themed nights. At these evenings we showcased dumplings we had been making with the women at our sessions, using the process as a starting point for exploring further recipes and experiences from the women’s own backgrounds – oh, and practising English too.
These were pilot supper clubs with the ultimate aim to equip ourselves with the necessary skills needed to ‘blaze the trail’ for the women we work with to start their own supper clubs and workshops. **UPDATE** Sure enough, they certainly have reached their goals and beyond! Read about one such success story in the form of a food blogger review of our Bangladeshi supper club, where three of our ladies cooked and hosted for 50 guests with no prior ‘formal’ experience of cooking.
Throughout the four months we have had 29 interesting and generous people join us at the table to get involved in our project and sample the dumpling recipes we created and developed. The money from the tickets went back into our sessions with the women, room hire, buying ingredients and creating English language resources for the sessions.
Who is this post for?
This post is to share our reflections of these supper clubs under eight key headings we think are important factors to consider when running a supper club. Our original aim was to pass this on to the women who we felt needed to realise their potential, but we thought that others could benefit from this too.
We hope this post will come in handy and act as advice or research for people who are thinking about running a supper club, either for a charitable cause or for fun. We had unbelievable amounts of support from people around us, both in the profession and out (some of which we will put links to here) so we think it only natural to continue to impart the knowledge, encouragement and support that was shared with us to others.
One: Get your price right
When we first started, we were unsure about the value of our supper clubs. We had a dilemma: we needed to raise enough money to run the sessions (approx £50 per session) plus resources for supporting the users of our project but we also were aware that we were not professional chefs with years of experience. Taking this into account, initially we thought a pay-as-you-feel night could work well.
Getting advice from food event experts, GRUB suggested that we place a deposit on top of the pay as-you -feel, just in case plans fell through for guests and they couldn’t make it.
With this in mind, we charged our guests at supper club #1 £10 per head, with a space for donations. This was met with one of our guests (the lovely Kate Williams, now a good friend and someone we work with at Inspire) taking us to one side as she was leaving and giving us a telling off: “That was TOO much food for what you were charging”.
I think we needed that validation that although we thought our food was pretty good, other people would like it too. It appeared that people did want us as hosts to be more confident about our product and charge a set price. As our funders at the time also mentioned, our price scheme left people confused about how much they were supposed to give. From then on our remaining supper clubs were priced at £25 per head and interestingly, we generated a lot more interest and sold tickets more quickly.
What we learnt: be confident about what you have to offer.
Two: The 4 P’s….Promotion promotion promotion promotion….
We have had many, MANY discussions with others around us about the ‘joys’ of promotion. We can honestly say it has been the most difficult aspect of our project, not just from the time it consumes out of your day, but the sheer effort it takes to catch people’s attention through the swathes of information. We have likened it to shouting from the rooftops on a really windy day. It is absolutely compulsory however, if you want to have any chance of people coming to your events who you do not know.
For promoting our supper clubs we used the following: facebook , twitter, instagram, our website, press releases, event listings, newsletters, other organisation bulletins, good old fashioned flyering at similar events, posters in restaurants, cafes and local shops and word of mouth.
Here are pieces of advice we gathered from other social media experts, friends, family, business owners and our funders:
- Start EARLY: start promoting your event a month in advance. No, it’s not too keen. People don’t notice.
- Be consistent: although you feel as if you are a broken record saying the same information over and over, people do not view it in the same way you do as you churn out tweet after tweet, post after post. Make sure there is some sort of promotion on any of your social media platforms at least once a day. No, you are not annoying anyone. Remember, people don’t notice.
- Photos: Doing trial runs helped us for many reasons (see below), not least because it gave us a chance to take photos of our actual menu and share them with our followers. Research has shown that tweets with pictures are much more likely to get engagement than those without. Supporting this, when we posted photos from our first Chinese dumpling supper club eight tickets sold within the hour.
Three: Gather feedback from previous guests Do your research. From asking our guests where they heard about us, we are able to refine our efforts to a few channels. Most had heard of us through a local facebook forum, word of mouth and event listings for the city. We also used comments from previous guests about their experience of the evening to promote our next supper clubs. We found this helped to reassure people who had never been to a supper club before and did not know what to expect.
Four: Communication is key
Similar to the point above, attending a supper club can be a new experience for many, and fear of the unknown can actually result in a no show or a cancellation which we have had in the past.
In order to reduce this, it was our responsibility as the hosts to make sure that guests felt updated every step of the way. This involved structured email communication giving detailed information about the evening, allowing questions from guests in the run up to the event, and checking back around a day or two before the vent to check that all guests have the right information. We made sure we knew everyone’s names too and used them at every opportunity.
What we learnt: From our previous experience in the restaurant and service industry, keeping people informed positively and calmly is the key to happy diners.
Five: Do trial runs
SO important. Your dream menu may look absolutely stunning on paper but putting it into practice can reveal some serious logistical issues. We found this most on Supper Club #2 where we produced an overly ambitious menu of four different types of dumplings, eight different flavours, complete with starters soups and sides for both meat eaters and veggies. needless to say, we did around four trial runs to get order of service smooth and even then had a few slip ups, leading on to our next tip…
Six: Keep it simple
It is really tempting to put all your creations onto one menu, but we have found that less is more. In every way: more convenience and more confidence in the food. When we had fewer dishes to focus on, the food quality and the pace of service increased. Look for dishes that can be prepped in advance and only need a bit of work to them during the evening.
Seven: Hire help
For a table of 8+ guests, consider hiring waiting staff for the night. The evening is not just about the food, but about the experience in general. We were fortunate enough to hire Karolina’s sister Marta who is currently assistant manager at vivid lounge and has years of restaurant experience to be our ‘front of house’ staff. This way she was able to take care of guests drinks, cutlery, table and generally keep everything in order.
Eight: Reflect on the experience
This was really important in managing our own expectations of the supper clubs and developing our understanding in this area. After each supper club, Karolina and I would take a moment, strip off our aprons, open a bottle of wine and talk through what we both enjoyed and didn’t enjoy about the evening. As mentioned earlier, we also sent out emails to all our guests asking for comments or feedback and received useful advice which we built on. Writing this post has also been a constructive process to learn from the whole experience, of which we had never been through before.
What we learnt: Reflection is a necessary part of learning something new.
Did our supper clubs make profits?
Overall, with the money from these supper clubs, we were able to keep our ESOL sessions going through to July 2016 and we still have money left over to start again in September 2016 At this point in time when we were trialling menus, navigating through our project structure, these smaller more intimate supper clubs were necessary.
However, looking at our accounts, in the long term we have realised that these smaller evenings would not be sustainable if we really wanted Heart & Parcel to play a bigger part in our lives. Currently, the supper clubs and sessions are unpaid for myself and Karolina. We are now looking to bigger establishments with our evenings and are hoping to get some nights in local restaurants and kitchens. Watch this space!