A few years’ ago a Sunday morning was when I’d be thinking about leaving Kings Cross after a fun night out. But this bit of London has changed dramatically over the last few years – as have I! The industrial wasteland that was home to some of the best (in my opinion) London nightclubs is now a bona fide food hotspot. Between Grain Store, Dishoom and Caravan, there are some impressive and reasonably-priced places to eat out only a stone’s throw from Kings Cross station. It’s also where Guardian Media has a big office and run their series of masterclasses. And that’s why I headed there on a Sunday morning last month to attend one of these masterclasses.

The theme of the class was how to start a supper club, home restaurant or pop up. And no, I’m not planning on launching a supper club in case you’re wondering. However I’m developing some creative food workshops so a lot of what was covered was going to be relevant for this. I’m also really interested in the ongoing trend of people doing interesting things in food in a less financially heavy way than opening a restaurant or store. I also get inspired being around people doing interesting things in food; you never know when an idea or thought might rub off on you.

There was a great selection of topics and speakers on the agenda, and I learned a lot across the day. I therefore wanted to share some of the key points from the different sessions and as I thought this might be useful for anyone considering starting their own supper club or popup dinner experience. It was helpful to hear from people who’ve tried different formats of supper clubs, from some of the early instigators of this phenomenon through to more recent starters.

The full list of presenters was:
Tony Rodd, Masterchef finalist and founder of Well Dressed Plates
Sylvia Anderson, food safety specialist
Uyen Luu, host of Vietnamese supper club, food writer and photographer
– Silvio Pezzana, Italian Supper Club co-founder
– Liv Sibony, Grub Club co-founder

 

1. Do it because you love it

While it’s lots of fun setting up and running a supper club, it’s also hard work. A supper club or popup dining event involves long hours of prep and planning beforehand. You’ll then need lots of energy for cooking food and keeping people entertained during the event. If you don’t love it, this can become draining. However the great thing was that everyone who spoke said that even with this hard work, it was more than worth it for the pleasure of feeding people great food.

Consider the area of food you feel most passionate about, and create your brand and identity around this. Customers can tell when food is cooked with love and passion. Think of what will make you stand out and give you personality, but most of all, choose about the kind of food you will most enjoy serving to other people.

 

2. You don’t need a big kitchen or fancy equipment

As long as you have a bit of bench space at home, some basic kitchen equipment and storage containers, you have enough to start a supper club. Tony mentioned that a lot of his prep is done in his small kitchen at home. When Uyen started her Vietnamese supper club she cooked around the space and equipment she had.

When starting out you don’t need to invest in lots of specialist equipment. Once you’ve worked out whether your supper club is a goer, you can then consider if there’s anything further you need to invest in. However, do remember to think not just about what you need in the kitchen, but also your table settings, as this is part of the overall supper club experience. Depending on the type of people likely to attend, you might want to stay away from expensive glassware…

 

How to start a supper club

 

3. Although it’s hard work, there are ways to make things more manageable

There are lots of tips and tricks that can make things a little easier for the event itself. It almost goes without saying that good prep is key; prepare sauces beforehand, pre-chop any ingredients you can and even prepare certain elements of dishes ahead of time (e.g. ice cream for dessert). You don’t need to do everything live on the night, and can freeze some ingredients or parts of your dishes further ahead to defrost when you need them.

It helps to make a list of everything you need on the day and to double check this to make sure you have everything you need. Consider equipment that will make your life easier. Tony loves his squeezy bottles and piping bags; they make it much quicker to dress plates and you’ll also get more consistency in your styling. He also suggested building your menu around some food that can be served at room temperature. You can then plate some elements safely before service, adding your dressings and hot ingredients at the relevant time.

If you can afford it, hiring an extra pair of hands can help (or alternatively try and encourage a foodie friend or family member to help out). You’ll need to have someone ‘front of house’ managing the experience for your guests, separate from the person in the kitchen doing the cooking. It may even be worth considering finding a partner when you first start out so you can divide the workload (and the stress!). But do think about this last one carefully, as you’ll need to be able to work well together when things get challenging. It’s important that a team working together can trust each other.

If you get an opportunity, it’s always worth trying to get some professional tips or experience. This could include contacting people with established supper club to ask for about their own experience, or if you can, do a little work in a professional kitchen (even if just for a day). You’ll get invaluable advice and see just how professional chefs stay on top of things when service gets busy.

 

4. You can start small and stay small – but there are also options for growth

The lovely thing about running a supper club is that if you want to, you can go low key and keep it small. It might be something you want to do just once a month, which makes it very possible to fit around another job.

Not sure how much to charge for your first events? It’s worth looking at what other supper clubs are charging as a benchmark. Also think about how much it will cost you to run your event (include things like ingredients, venue hire, extra staff). Sylvio Pezzano of Italian Supper Club started with 3 nights of dinners as a way to test if they were feasible. They initially asked customers to make a donation for the meal rather than have a set price. Uyen still asks for a donation, but suggests a minimum amount. Alternatively, consider what you would pay as a diner (particularly for an unknown supper club) – and then make sure you provide an amazing experience for that price.

If you want to grow or go bigger, there are opportunities beyond your own home if your space is limited. Talk with local restaurants or cafes to see if they have a quiet night, or a time when they’re closed, and are happy for you to use their venue. They may sometimes be able to provide additional staff. Grub Club can also help match you with a venue if you need some assistance.

 

5. Consider a different range of techniques for marketing your event

Most supper clubs start with inviting your friends, and then friends of your friends. Once you get beyond this, you’ll need to consider how to market yourself. This is where it can be helpful if you have an arrangement with a local venue as they may help advertise your event to their customers. You can also build up your own email list of contacts, including people who have attended your supper club previously.

Alternatively, there are some websites that list supper clubs and dining events, such as Grub Club and tabl.com. You can list your event on these sites and they will then take a percentage commission for any bookings. There’s also the route of inviting food influencers, such as bloggers, to your event in the hope that they will then talk about it afterwards (ideally positively!). Over the years, Uyen’s guests have included Jamie Oliver, Dexter Fletcher and Michael Bublé’s band. And don’t forget some more traditional channels, like advertising in local publications or Guardian Local.

 

How to start a supper club

 

6. Be clean – VERY clean (and if you can afford it, pay for someone else to do the washing up afterwards)

Sylvia Anderson, one of the country’s top food hygiene experts with 26 years experience in the food industry, covered some of the basics of keeping your event safe. Her main message was to use your common sense so that your food prep and serving area is clean. It’s your responsibility to make sure you’re well educated about the risks of contamination so you can avoid any issues. The last thing you want is for the memory of your supper club to be one of a guest ending up in hospital with salmonella poisoning.

If you’re going to run a supper club, particularly anything that will involve prep or hosting from home, contact your local authority for guidance. Rules can vary a little from place to place, so it’s best to check to make sure you’re following the correct guidelines. Generally you’ll need to register premises at least 28 days before opening. Some other basic areas to consider are:

– Know where your ingredients have come from, that way if there are any issues you can trace food back to the source. It’s therefore important to keep receipts for all the ingredients you purchase

– Make sure you know your ‘use by’ versus ‘best before’ definitions

– Use equipment such as meat probes to help you check food is cooked to a safe temperature

Fortunately there are some online guides to help you along the way, particularly the Food Standards Agency guide Food Hygiene: A Guide for Business. Also have a look at the Safer Food, Better Business packs for further guidance and to help you keep a track of relevant hygiene information for your events. Sylvia recommended completing a Level 2 Food Safety and Hygiene Certificate so that you’re completely clued up on what’s involved with keeping food safe. And remember if you’re planning on serving alcohol, you’ll also need a personal licence.

Ultimately, it’s about being sensible and safe. Uyen recommended having lots of cleaning wipes close by and Sylvia’s advice was to always wash your hands really well.

 

7. It’s unlikely running a supper club will be your full time career, but it can open doors and lead to exciting opportunities

Very few (if any) people make their living from supper clubs alone. However, running a successful supper club can lead you into exciting new career directions. This could include blogging, food writing or even food styling. Just a snapshot of this was apparent from the presenters on the day:

–  Uyen’s full time career is now food styling and in addition to her supper club, she runs cooking classes and has published a book, My Vietnamese Kitchen

– Tony does popup dinners in various locations, as well as private dinners, food festival demonstrations and cookery classes

– Silvio Pezzana launched a catering company with his Italian Supper Club co-founder and is also an importer of artisan wine.

 

How to start a supper club

 

My main takeaway from the day was that if you want to try running a supper club or dining event, just go for it. There’s very little to lose if it’s something you think you’ll enjoy. Having a small kitchen and a full time occupation should not hold you back. But make sure you have lots of handwash and antibacterial wipes on hand to keep things sparkling clean. Most importantly, cook food that you care about and give your customers a great experience. That they will go away with good memories and keep coming back for more.

 

Are you thinking of starting a supper club? What type of information would help you?

(Just for full disclosure, I didn’t pay for a ticket to this event as I was invited by one of the presenters.)

 

How to start a supper club

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