In my food and drink trends for 2018 post I identified the continued increase in the popularity of supper clubs as one trend we could be sure of, with supermarkets and markets increasingly making space for them as part of an overall foodie day out.
Another factor was that non-virtual, real, ways of socialising, in an ever more fast-moving and stressful world, are becoming valued and important – supper clubs are a popular solution.
Some types of supper club are providing additional benefits. For example, Migrateful aids the integration of immigrants who are struggling to access employment due to legal and linguistic barriers. The idea is that they teach their traditional cuisines and at the end of the demonstration attendees sit down together to enjoy the food.
Other types of supper club deepen existing friendships, extend social networks, act as shop windows for blogs, and form the foundations of a roaring restaurant business.
Below we hear from Wendy Yun, who set up hers as a way of developing her interest in food and giving inspiration for her blog, Salt ‘n’ Soy.
SD: Where does your interest in food come from, and what sort of food do you cook?
WY: My love of food originates from my mum, since my mum never expressed affection, she expressed her love through food.
Growing up, my mum only cooked Chinese food. I was exposed to world cuisines when I left home to study in London. I often tried to reproduce what I’d eaten in a restaurant or share recipes with friends. I didn’t own a cook book until my mid 30s. I began to miss my mum’s cooking away from home and became interested to learn how to cook Chinese food. It was always by trial and error as my mum never gave exact measures for ingredients.
My supper club food is based on Cantonese cookery and influenced by European food to create new dishes. This is why I named my blog “salt ’n’ soy” because it’s about all my food stories and about what I cook, from West to East.
SD: What made you want to set up the supper club?
WY: Since I became a mum, food has become even more important to me and I began to experiment with cooking. It satisfied a creative need I had. I started writing a blog, a year and a half ago to share my food stories and recipes. It helped me find my food direction which lead me to start up my supper club. I became interesting in London Supper clubs after reading about them and went to some. I thought, I could do that! It seems like natural progression.
SD: How did you go about setting the supper club up?
WY: I researched about it and spoke to a couple people who were doing it. It’s not easy to find all the information you need online. It really helps to speak to someone who’s already done it. It was something I was thinking about for a year before I started. It was really educational to go to supper clubs so you know how it works. Supper clubs are democratic, anyone can start one. They range from occasional to regular supper clubs and casual to fancy. It might include theatre or a poetry reading or many like mine, purely about the food.
SD: What mistakes did you make?
WY: I realised that once in a while the odd person didn’t show up for the supper club on the night. This is one of the worst things that can happen to a supper club host. Firstly, it costs me money for wasted food and my time in preparation. It’s a shame to have an empty seat when I have a full waiting list of eager diners. I decided to add cancellation rules to avoid this happening.
When I test recipes, it’s always in smaller quantities and I need to calculate larger quantities and timings for the supper club. I have been known to stress over dry cake. I try to learn from my mistakes, so when I’m not too sure on timings, I allow extra time, should the worst happen and I need to make them again.
SD: What went well, what proved to be popular?
WY: I’ve had great feedback for dishes like duck bitterbollen (which are traditionally deep fried ball shaped croquette snacks from Holland) as well as my consommé which won a lot of praise. My ice-creams are always popular, the favourites have been roasted brown rice tea and Jasmine tea with strawberry ripple flavoured ice creams.
SD: How do you market it – how do you let people know when the next one will be?
WY: I have a mailing list of people who I contact when I plan each event. It’s all done by email. My Supper club is only by word of mouth.
SD: How do you price the tickets?
WY: I started off cautiously, for my first supper club I only charged the cost of the ingredients. I wanted to test if it was something I wanted to do and to gauge the response of my food on strangers and foodies. I gradually increased the price as I became more confident and my menus more complex. I price it according to what others charged for a comparable experience. I charge £35 for four courses which includes homemade snacks on arrival and complementary Chinese tea and a homemade sweet at the end. You should allow around one third for food costs and possible venue hire, staff and other costs on top. The profit increases with the amount of guests you invite.
Venue costs can be high and can leave you with very little profit. Cooking from home is not only a cost saving option but also more comfortable, since you know your own kitchen. I always prefer hosting at home as there is no transportation logistics. And another reason for avoiding hiring a venue is that it’s not easy to transport all the food intact along with everything else you might need.
SD: how do you organise it all?
WY: I generally plan a month in advance. Firstly I make sure I confirm the venue and my helpers. I only have staff the last two days. The diners have to pre-book seats and let me know of any dietary requirements and strong dislikes. I research and plan the menu and test the recipes for three to four weeks.
The food preparation for the day starts about a week in advance. I usually start with dessert components like ice cream, marshmallows or anything that requires work in stages like a consommé. I try to leave as much as possible to be done fresh on the day. I write timetables daily leading up to the supper club and hourly on the day so everything works. Success is in the timings.
SD: what advice would you give to anyone else thinking of setting up a supper club?
WY: If you have a passion for cooking setting up a supper club is a relatively low cost way to get an audience for your food. You can make money but it’s hard work. Working with food means you have to be prepared to work long hours. You’ll be cooking when most people are off work, ie: evenings and weekends.
The good thing about a supper club is that you can host, as frequently as you like. It’s a great social event to share your food with like minded people.
A great piece of advice is to make sure you cook to the capacity of your fridge. I did consider making individual creme brûlées but realised 24 portions would take up my whole fridge!
It’s best to cook to your strengths and always test your recipes thoroughly and get your timings right. If you are serious about it, you should consider gaining a level 2 food hygiene certificate which is a qualification that allows you to work with food. It only takes a couple of hours to do this online. I also recommend taking out catering liability insurance. Both can be done at relatively low cost and you’ll be cooking with peace of mind.
23 tips for those considering setting up a supper club
- Before you begin, go to as many supper clubs hosted by others as you can
- Do a dry practice run with supportive friends who will give feedback.
- What is your market? Who are you going to invite, and how? Is it to be a closed supper club organised between friends; or one relying on word of mouth; or will you be using a blog, or social media, or directories such as Grub Club to promote it?
- Will it be a one-off, or a regular event? If regular, how often will it run?
- Have a cancellations policy – either take all the money up front, or a deposit.
- Test recipes first if you can, and allow plenty of time for remakes if you can’t.
- Prepare everything possible ahead of time, and be sure of your timings.
- Hone your plating skills – your guests will take photos on their phones, and this is great publicity for you, but you don’t want them broadcasting dog’s dinner images! See How to plate food like a 3 star Michelin chef.
- Be careful about your pricing, one the one hand make sure you don’t make a loss, but keep up to date with what other clubs are charging.
- There are legal issues around providing alcohol – it may be simpler to allow people to bring their own wine. Point out to people bringing white wine that you don’t have any fridge space for them – they should bring it pre-chilled
- Try to use your own home if you can – but stress to your guests that they need to respect this.
- Clearly state your house rules – will you cater for special diets? Would guests please leave behind table decorations (yes, really)?
- Print place cards so that people know where to sit, and menus so they can anticipate the food to come.
- State your dress code – casual, a bit of sparkle, black tie….it doesn’t matter but people like to have guidelines
- consider giving your guests a small gift to take away with your website or email on – fridge magnets for example.
- Help get conversations going with boxes of trivial pursuits questions, or dinner conversation starter cards (follow this link for a free set) . A cocktail can help to break the ice too.
- You don’t need to spend a lot of money (it’s amazing what you can do with trestle tables, a sheet, some pots of herbs and some tea lights) but do what you can to make your table…and yourself … look professional, interesting and attractive.
- Make your venue welcoming, and be welcoming
- Have a USP – ask yourself what makes your supper club different? Why should anyone want to come? Have a look at some of the whacky projects on the Jelly and Gin website. Think of a theme.
- Know why you are doing this – is your main motivation purely social; or to showcase a blog; or are you aiming to set up a flourishing business (this last is not easy!)
- Don’t cook more than your fridge can hold or your table can seat!
- Get qualified – earn a level 2 food hygiene certificate. This one is free, on-line and recognised by local authorities and environmental health officers throughout the UK
- Take out catering liability insurance
- Keep it seasonal – forage, visit farmers’ markets. See Miles Irving’s The Forager Handbook, and consult this on-line directory of farmers’ markets.
- When you no longer enjoy it – stop!
Resources, books and articles about supper clubs:
- Supper Club: Recipes and notes from the underground restaurant, by Kerstin Rodgers
- How To Run A Pop-Up Restaurant or Supper Club: Turn Your Passion For Food and Drink Into Profit Abigail and William Aldis
- The Supper Club, by Phillippa Cheifitz (this is about a closed supper club run by a group of friends).
- The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club by Marlena de Blasi (this is another closed club about four women in Italy)