There is a guy called Jim Haynes who is sometimes credited with being the first to create what has become known as Supper Clubs, Dining Clubs or Underground Restaurants. An extremely simple concept of having some friends round for dinner that has grown to the extent whereby he can have over 100 people in his Paris home. There are, however, a number of grey areas.
Back in 2014 my wife and I had just sold our restaurant in southern Spain and had no clue what we were going to do next. We had been in Spain for 6 years by this stage and our restaurant was our only source of income. We had a plan that we would like to open another restaurant, but not in Spain, and we had a house to sell before being able to move. It was a chance encounter with some of our clients that inspired us to turn our house into a dining club three times a week.
We were very fortunate that at the front of our house we had a large patio area and could accommodate 16-18 people. Plus the beauty of southern Spain is the climate, we could eat outdoors from Easter to the end of October. As I said we did three sessions per week. On à Wednesday was a “restaurant” night, a three-course menu with two choices of starter, main and dessert. Friday was Tapas – no menu, just food! I would send out about ten different Tapas dishes across the evening or until our diners told me to stop. Sunday lunch was relaxed, again with a two choice menu, and often ended sometime Sunday evening.
There is a massive amount of controversy surrounding dining / supper clubs. There is a belief that feeding groups of people from a domestic kitchen cannot be hygienic. Unlike restaurants that have their kitchens inspected by health authorities a domestic, private kitchen is not subject to the same rules and, therefore, will not be clean. Most restaurant kitchens are behind closed doors, most dining club kitchens are open – you work it out.
Payment is probably the biggest issue. Strictly speaking you cannot give a bill unless you are a registered business and paying your taxes on income. You can suggest that each person makes a donation to help cover your costs and the obvious wear and tear on your property. If someone doesn’t, or won’t, pay or leaves less than the amount you suggest, you have very little recourse.
But they’re not getting through your front door again! Payment and taxation is the area where you are most likely to face resistance from established restaurateurs because owning and running a restaurant is not a cheap option. The tax authorities may also look closely at you, but surely you just have a wide circle of friends. And if you really make a nuisance of yourself expect a visit from the town planners.
In order not to upset the licensing authorities invite your guests to bring their own alcohol. À rule has recently been passed here in France that states that hosts cannot serve and charge for alcoholic drinks if they are running a supper club. At least the French authorities have recognised that these clubs exist and have started to declare what is acceptable.
The time that my wife and I spent running our dining club from home was probably some of the happiest time I have spent in catering. The majority of our clients had been customers in our restaurant and fully embraced the idea that they would not know what was on the menu until they arrived. We thought it a risky concept, so always offered two choices for people. I got to cook some of the best and most imaginative food of my life.
When the restaurant is open 6 nights a week, it is all about prepping for the next session with a fixed menu and not knowing how many were going to come through the door. The dining club allowed me time to think about menus, go to markets and prepare everything from scratch. For me one of the most important areas was that everyone was pre-booked.
In terms of getting bookings and general marketing that task has become so much easier with the power of social media. Back in 1978 when Jim Haynes was inviting friends to his Paris flat he relied on word of mouth. Now just have a look online and all the options are there.
Obviously setting up your own social media with plenty of photos is going to go a long way. There are also now specialist online companies you can register with to get your meal offering out to as many people as possible – we are still registered with a company called Eatwith just in case we fancy setting up an underground restaurant here in the South of France!