Secret Suppers and Underground Dining

supper club

Opening a restaurant is not only difficult; it’s expensive. There are permits to get, people to hire, and inspections to pass on a regular basis. Add to that the daily grind of creating dishes, unhappy diners, and servers that steal the good stuff from the wine cellar and you have seemingly insurmountable odds against your achieving success. Roughly 30 percent of restaurants fail within the first year.

Some chefs are bypassing all of that by having secret suppers, sometimes called supper clubs or underground dining. The location, menu, and guest list changes each time and the dinners are by invitation only — sort of.

How Supper Clubs Work

There are as many different ways to run a supper club as there are people running them. Most often they follow some variation of the following.

Getting an Invite

Potential guests need to be invited to these dinners. In order to be invited they need to be on the list and in order for them to be on the list they usually need to be referred by someone who is already on the list. Potential diners may pay a fee for membership. This is generally quite a lot of money and doesn’t cover the actual dinners. Paying gives the diner the opportunity to reserve a spot on the list.

Once they are on the list the potential guests will be sent an email about the next dinner. There are only a certain number of spots so not every person who wishes to come will be able to. There may be 100 people on the list and only ten places at the table. Invitations are on a first come, first serve basis until each chair is filled.

The reservations can sell out in less than thirty seconds!

The Location

This is also different for each secret supper club. Some chefs have the dinners at their own home while others choose unlikely places. Abandoned malls, empty buildings, and even churches have been used as locations. The actual place that the dinner is being served is usually kept a secret until within a day or two before the dinner is served. This is to keep it secure from crashers and potential problems with authorities.

The Menu

The foods served at underground dining events are generally unique dishes that no conventional restaurant could afford to take chances with. This is the place that up and coming chefs can experiment to their heart’s content with unique ingredients, unusual combinations, and off the wall presentations.

Oatmeal infused vodka, molecular creations, and foods from local farms are all items that might be found on the diverse supper club menus.

The Cost

The cost varies from chef to chef. A supper club that requires a membership may charge $150.00 or more for a yearly membership and then $90 to $200 per plate for the actual meal. You might be eating on paper plates in someone’s backyard but you are paying for the exclusivity, the unique food, and the ambiance. It’s the closest thing  to a prohibition speakeasy experience that the 21st century offers.

Are Secret Suppers Legal?

Yes and no.  It is illegal for someone to charge the general public for food without a license in most areas. Many chefs get around this by asking for a suggested donation to help pay for ingredients and labor. Technically they are giving food away which is legal in most places.

Still, it’s not totally legal either and depending on where you are located you could get fined a large amount of money. Most underground dinner hosts prefer to keep their locations and events completely under the radar.

How to Start an Underground Supper Club

If you are a passionate chef wanna-be but don’t have the cash to get started all of this might seem like a great idea. Be sure to go into it with your eyes wide open, though. Count the costs before jumping in.

Know the Law

It’s a good idea to read up on your county and city’s laws regarding food sales and restaurants. Some places have a clause that you don’t have to register or get permits if you serve less than five meals a month. Look for laws that allow you to skirt them. For example, if you served only four meals a month then by the previous law you wouldn’t need to have a permit.

Cook What You Like

Next decide what types of things you will serve. It should be something very unique — something the guest couldn’t find anywhere else. Maybe you specialize in incredible barbecue or amazing pastas. Make foods that are unique and beautiful.

Location, Location, Location

Where will your event be? It’s best not to do it in your own home but to have a different location each time. Friends’ back yards, empty buildings, and parks are some of the places that may be worth looking into. Keep in mind that you will have to haul the food in, set up a staging area, keep the food warm, serve, and clean up. Make it as easy as possible.

How Much to Charge

When you are trying to decide how much to charge keep the cost of the food in mind. Your ingredients are often going to be higher in price than if you were cooking for your family or cooking in a conventional restaurant. A good rule of thumb for any restaurant is  cost of dish/.35 = price of dish on menu.

Would this be something that you would consider?

photo credit: Emily Cavalier via photopin cc

- Marye Audet

Marye Audet is an author, freelance writer, and editor. Cooking, baking, and recipe development have been a major part of her life since she baked her first loaf of bread at age 13. Luckily, with a husband, eight children, a son in law, and three grandchildren she has enough test-tasters to handle the steady stream of experiments that come from her kitchen.

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