I think supper clubs are brilliant – for both the guests and the event organisers. The organisers curate a night, showcasing their favourite dishes in unusual venues and the guests get a one-off eating experience where the chef will generally be cooking and serving, as well as chatting about the food. It would be great if there were more supper clubs in Northern Ireland and beyond.
Over the last three years, we’ve plated up thousands of dishes, for hundreds of guests at dozens and dozens of supper clubs in all sorts of different venues. From our very first event in our home in London (with just 7 guests) to events with 50 guests, 7 courses and no kitchen – we’ve been challenged, scared, stressed out but ultimately exhilarated and rewarded, otherwise, we’d be mad to keep doing it.
Jo wrote a great piece called the Anatomy of a Supper Club which talks much more about the ethos behind our supper clubs and the importance of bringing people together over food. Here I want to share a few of the lessons I’ve learned while running supper clubs over the past three years – hopefully they will be useful for any of you who are thinking of taking the plunge and setting up your own supper club or pop up.
So here are my nine tips for starting and running a supper club:
Number 1: Start small
If the idea of cooking a multi-course meal for thirty, forty or even fifty people brings you out in a cold sweat, then don’t. It’s much better to get a bit of experience cooking for smaller groups first, you can think about expanding later on once you have built up your confidence. We had just seven guests at our first proper supper club in London back in 2015 and I remember even that seemed daunting – people had actually paid to eat my food, I’d promised a specific menu with certain dishes, and I was suddenly going to have to produce it on demand! You’ll be surprised how quickly your confidence builds and how much you learn about what works and what doesn’t. Certain dishes just don’t work for supper clubs as there is too much work to do at the last minute and you have to get all the plates out at the same time as well as hosting your guests. I remember a particularly stressful moment plating up a single dish which involved cooking fresh pasta, stir-frying and homemade puff pastry – don’t ask, but it was never to be repeated!
Number 2: Don’t try to be a restaurant
There are already lots of great restaurants. Even if you see your supper club as a route to starting your own restaurant in the future, remember that a supper club is something different. Your guests will come along expecting a unique evening and this gives you the scope to set up in unusual venues with interesting styling, to seat guests communally and to interrupt with witty anecdotes about the food. The style of service should be warm and friendly but your guests probably won’t expect starched linen tablecloths and a formal wine service.
We’ve run supper clubs everywhere from delis and rooms above pubs to an expensive Italian lighting shop and an art gallery. However, my favourite place to host a supper club is always my own home. If this is a possibility for you, I really recommend it. There is something very special and convivial about welcoming guests into your own house to eat, drink and be merry. And you don’t need to have a big space – since moving back to Northern Ireland we’re lucky enough to have a spacious farmhouse with lots of different spaces for hosting events – but when we started in London we have a small terraced house with an open plan downstairs where we hosted supper clubs for up to 12 guests.
Number 3: Tell your story
By hosting a supper club you are creating a personal relationship between you and your guests – you may be inviting them into your own home, you’ll often be cooking and preparing dishes in an open kitchen and you’ll be personally hosting the event. Embrace this! Your guests have generally paid to come along because they are interested in the food you are cooking, where the ingredients and inspiration came from and your own personal stories.
Make sure you weave this into the event. You can tell the story of the event through the styling of the space you are using (flowers, candles, name cards, menus), through little touches in the menu (what choice of welcome drink or petit fours you choose to serve) and most importantly through your own words. Running a supper club can be really stressful during service – there are a lot of plates to get out at the same time – but try to build in time to talk to your guests about the dishes and yourself at least a couple of times during the evening. Jo and I talk about ourselves at the beginning of the event and then as we serve each course, we talk about how we prepared the dish or where we first ate it or cooked it. It really helps build a rapport with your guests and hopefully will mean you have lots of repeat customers for future events.
Number 4: Cook what you love
You don’t need to be a professional chef to start a supper club, you just need to be a keen cook who wants to share their food with others. If you really like to cook Middle Eastern fusion cuisine then don’t think that because you are running a supper club you suddenly need to be an expert in French Cordon Bleu cookery. You really don’t! You and your guests will all enjoy the evening a lot more if you stick to what you know and love to cook. It is also an opportunity to differentiate yourself from others, whether that is other supper clubs or from local restaurants. If you were taught to cook amazing Polish cuisine by your grandmother or have spent time travelling and doing cooking classes in South America this is the time to whip out your skills and those heirloom recipes.
We have been lucky to spend a lot of time out in South East Asia and took lots of amazing cooking classes. When we started running supper clubs in Northern Ireland there weren’t really any pop-ups showcasing Thai and Vietnamese food so we started there. It really helped differentiate our events from others and it helped that many of the dishes we cooked were tried and tested recipes so I felt much more confident serving them.
Number 5: Cost your menus
It might be a little boring and very time consuming but if you are planning on making money – whether because you are running a business or trying to raise money for charity then this is totally essential!
Work out how much the ingredients will cost before you publish your menu!
It is amazing how quickly costs can rack up, especially if you are using quality ingredients. We try to use good quality meat, organic ingredients and showcase local artisanal ingredients, but we balance these across a menu so if there is an expensive ingredient in the main course then I’ll think hard about using a cheaper main ingredient in a couple of the other courses.
A couple of good tips to keep costs down:
- Using less meat. I feel this is a bonus in Northern Ireland where a lot of restaurants are very meat-focused so by keeping menus veggie-focused you can keep costs down and also provide something different and unusual for your guests.
- Grow your own organic vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. In the summer and autumn, this helps us keep costs down (though you need to be conscious that growing also takes time and effort). If you only plan on growing a few things pick crops that are otherwise expensive or difficult to buy. We find unusual salad leaves, soft and woody herbs and edible flowers are definitely worth the effort of growing.
- Go foraging. Get to know your local hedgerows and seashores and see if you can collect some edible goodies to use in your menus. You don’t need to be an expert if you just collect easily identifiable ingredients such as elderflower in early summer and blackberries in autumn. These will make your menus more interesting and your menu costing will benefit from the free ingredients.
We use a giant spreadsheet for our menu costing – it currently contains 584 recipes and 580 different ingredients. Every time we create or use a new recipe for an event Jo adds the recipe to the spreadsheet – the ingredients, the quantities, the cost of any new ingredients (depending on where we usually buy it) and how many people the recipe serves. This enables us to quickly cost a menu by selecting the recipes we are using for a supper club or any other catering job, typing in the number of guests and the cost per head for ingredients is automatically generated. After an event, we do a reconciliation looking at what we actually spent on ingredients to check that our costing was approximately right. We try to aim for the cost of ingredients per head to be about 25-30% of the cost of the ticket price, that way ideally there should be enough for your other costs (room hire, staff, crockery & cutlery, overheads etc.). We try to keep an eye on how many hours we spend planning, prepping and serving and hosting an event, then we can work out how much we earn per hour for each event. If you are trying to start a profitable business this is really important as over time it helps you decide which type and size of events are really worth doing. However, don’t be disheartened if your hourly rate is well below the minimum wage for your first few events, over time you can work on feeding more people and inching up your earnings.
Number 6: Get organised
I reckon running a supper club is about 75% organisation. If you don’t like lists then I’m not sure running pop up events is the life for you – luckily Jo and I are obsessive list writers. You will need the following lists:
- A Detailed Shopping List – Ingredients, amounts and where you are buying it from. Our costing spreadsheet generates this for us. You then need to decide how and when you will acquire the ingredients and assign shopping or ordering of each ingredient to yourself or whoever is helping you with the supper club. Timing is key, if you are using super fresh ingredients such as fresh fish you need to make time on the morning, or the day before the event, to go to the fishmonger.
- Prep Lists – Go through each recipe and write out all the processes involved in each recipe. Include everything from toasting pumpkin seeds & chopping garnishes to more complex processes such as making bread, pastry or ice cream. Then go through your master prep list and assign each task to a specific day or time. This will help you manage limited oven or hob space and get as many of the do-ahead tasks done well before event day, reducing stress and time pressure on the day. It also means you won’t miss anything.
- Packing Lists – Particularly important if you are running your supper club offsite. We do two separate lists, one for equipment, crockery, cutlery etc, it should include the item and the amount needed, and another for all the food and ingredients. Label your food containers so you can quickly glance into the coolbox and see what’s in there and if you have more than one box or container of an ingredient label it “1 of 2” so you don’t forget to bring the second box. You will be really annoyed if you realise you only have enough lamb chops for half the guests when you get to the venue. Check off everything as it is packed into sturdy crates, boxes or cool boxes.
- Running Order – We try to sketch out a rough running order with approximate timings for serving each course. This often has to be adjusted if some of your guests arrive a bit late but it just helps give you a sense of where you are in the evening and you can write in reminders like “Remember to turn on Rice Cooker”. I’ve forgotten to turn on the rice cooker so many times!
Number 7: Shout it from the rooftops
You’ve found a brilliant venue and decided on a mouthwatering but cost-effective menu. All you need to do now is get some paying guests. We’ve never done any paid advertising for our events or services, instead, we’ve used our existing networks of family and friends, social media, PR and word of mouth.
When we first started our supper clubs in London we emailed everyone we knew to tell them what we were doing and asked them to come along or to forward it on to any friends they thought might be interested and thus we got our first guests. I also contacted a local journalist who wrote for a popular online cultural blog and offered her a couple of free tickets for an independent review of the event. Meanwhile, we started building up a social media presence on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and built a website with a mailing list. It only took a couple of events and coverage in a few local blogs and newspapers before we were assured of selling out of our small events (we only hosted up to 12 guests) every time we hosted them.
When we moved to Northern Ireland in 2016, we had to start again with a new audience. Partnering with already established small businesses or organisations with a similar audience really helped us to get the word out about our events. For example, we regularly hosted supper clubs with Indie Fude in Comber and their mailing list really helped us sell tickets. In August 2017 we participated in the Open House Festival in Bangor which has a huge audience interested in food and cultural events. Remember it is a mutual relationship, so do tag your partners in your social media posts and acknowledge them at your events (and expect to pay a fee for using someone else’s space). We also really try to make our social media content informative and fun, not just about selling tickets to our events or promoting our services so our followers are more engaged. I try to make sure to not have more than one post out of every ten asking my audience to buy something.
Number 8: Tick off the nitty gritty
When you start a supper club there are quite a few legal requirements that you should meet to protect yourself and your customers. It can be a little bit boring, especially if you were looking forward to the creative cooking, styling and hosting of the event, but getting these bits and pieces in place before you start will stop you waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat! Who am I kidding? I still regularly wake up in the middle of the night full of the dreads!
- Food Safety – If you are planning on serving food to the paying public you should have a food safety plan (often called a HACCP Plan) and you need to have your premises (where you will be preparing food) inspected and rated by your local council. I really recommend doing your Level 2 or Level 3 Food Hygiene Certificate which covers everything from allergens to how to clean a fridge properly. You can do these courses online or go along to a day course at a local college.
- Insurance – Make sure you have public liability insurance to cover you and your guests if there is an accident, a complaint or any issue with food poisoning. If you are employing staff to help, even if they are freelance, you should also have employee liability insurance to cover them against any accidents.
- Tickets – Different supper clubs deal with this in different ways, some hosts take payment on the night but I’ve always preferred to get payment in advance as it means you don’t end up with no shows or guests cancelling last minute. It also means you don’t have to spend half the evening chasing guests for money. We started out asking guests to pay us by bank transfer which was a cost-effective way of getting payment. However, once we started running more frequent and larger events it was a nightmare to track payments coming in so we started using an online ticketing system called Ticket Tailor. This allows us to prompt guests about dietary requirements as they buy the tickets and also has lower costs than other ticketing systems such as EventBrite so we can charge a lower booking fee.
- Cancellation Policy – Decide on what your cancellation policy is and make sure you have it published on your website and a link to it from the event page and your ticketing system. If we can resell tickets we always give customers a refund but that isn’t always possible if they cancel two hours before an event.
- Alcohol – If you don’t have a licence or are not running the event at a licensed premises then you won’t be able to sell your guests alcohol. Make sure your guests know it is Bring Your Own – many of them will be pretty happy about this as it’s cheaper than buying wine or beer at restaurant prices all evening. It’s a good idea to set aside some fridge space, wine coolers or a big bucket full of ice for chilling your guests drinks.
- Register as self-employed. If you’re going to earn more than £1000 a year from your supper clubs you should make sure you register as self-employed and pay any tax due. The Edible Flower is registered as a General Partnership and we look forward to the day we have to worry about paying lots of tax!
Number 9: Have fun
Setting up a supper club is definitely not the easiest route to becoming a millionaire! In fact I’m pretty sure no one has become a millionaire just running supper clubs. It’s a lot of hard work and feeding people on demand can often be pretty stressful (think undeclared nut allergies and surprise vegans!). So, make sure that you love it, that you make it as enjoyable as possible for you, your team and your guests. If you’re not having fun then it’s probably time to move onto a new project.
So, those are my nine tips for getting started with running a supper club.
As I wrote this post I realised I have a lot more information to share about organising supper clubs. I thought that I might run a short course or create an online resource to help people interested in running pop-ups, if you think this is something you might be interested in please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org