Posted: 20/12/2019

Refining informal

Now a trendy social event, the supper club can be a useful tool for indies. Sam Rosen-Nash of Compton McRae speaks to FFD about running one successfully and how it can take building the rapport with your customers to another level. 

Once an underground dining movement rebelling against the more formal restaurant experience, the supper club has become a kind of trendy pop-up-style event – and it’s a concept that small retailers can bolt on to their operations.

For Compton McRae, a fine food shop in Wiltshire, supper clubs provide an opportunity to connect with customers in a more relaxed setting while demonstrating what can be done with the products usually on shelf.

“At a restaurant you choose your menu and it’s your space and your experience,” co-owner Sam Rosen-Nash tells FFD. “A supper club is more inclusive. It’s an opportunity to share your knowledge and increase your customers’ confidence in you and make them feel part of your business.”

Compton McRae’s supper clubs are held every other Thursday evening and cater for 35 people at £48 per head. The shop floor becomes the setting with a long trestle table running from one end to the other – encouraging guests to meet and talk to one another.

“It’s that whole idea of feasting,” says Rosen-Nash, adding that it’s also a chance for her to “drag up a chair and sit at the table” with guests and share her product knowledge and experience. 

“Lots of retailers chat to their customers during the day,” she says, “but this is taking it to another level. You know that you have 35 people there in front of you to talk to. You can’t just bring the food out and step away.”

Supper clubs can bring tangible financial benefits, too – and not only through the revenue made on the event itself. One supper club guest has already placed her Christmas food order with the shop, says Rosen-Nash. “It shows we did something right that evening for her because she had the confidence to shop with us for her Christmas dinner.” 

No matter how lucrative supper clubs may appear, retailers must still do the maths before hosting their own. At Compton McRae, Rosen-Nash knew that running a supper club for just 10 or 15 people would not be viable.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “the ego boost you get when your shop is full of people enjoying themselves is phenomenal – but the next morning your till needs to reflect that.”

To a dining customer, the supper club is a casual evening but behind the scenes, Rosen-Nash runs a military-style operation to ensure that the whole event is well-paced and runs smoothly.

“We make sure there isn’t a single step out of place because it’s our reputation on the line.”

There is a set format that each supper club works to. The menu is always five courses – canapés, starter, main, cheeseboard, and dessert – and each comes with a different paired wine. Every course has its own signature serving style but Rosen-Nash can tailor the ingredients to the theme of the evening. 

Fresh deli items for the shop are prepped earlier in the week to leave the kitchen free on Thursdays to prepare dishes for the supper club that evening. Taking guest payments in advance allows Rosen-Nash and her team to cost and prepare exactly what they need for the dinner.

Guests arrive at 7:30pm and are led to an event space upstairs for cocktails and canapés, which often make use of the shop’s charcuterie cabinet. At 8pm, they return downstairs for the first course, which is usually a colourful salad dish. Main courses feature slow-roasted meat, served on big sharing platters.

“It’s a lot of prep for us, but practically, it’s also an easier thing for us to plate, and it allows us time to do something pretty for dessert,” she says.

There may be a formula but it isn’t obvious. Rosen-Nash also maintains the mystique by never publishing menus beforehand.

“People don’t come with expectations,” she says. “That’s the difference between a restaurant and a supper club in that you’re not giving a choice. You’re asking your customers to trust you.”

Compton Mcrae’s tips for a successful supper club

• Invite a producer along to dine and chat with your guests. They’ll engage much more with a product if the maker is sharing their passion for what they do. 

• Be confident with putting yourself out there to your diners. Supper clubs are about personal touches. 

• Keep the buzz around a supper club going on social media. Share pictures of the night and lead that onto the next event.

• Don’t forget you still have to open up the next day. Gear rotas around this so there is always a staff member opening bright and early the next morning.

This story appeared in the December issue of Fine Food Digest. You can read more on the digital edition here.

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