24 September 2007

Underground Restaurant Movement 101


Many people who are passionate about food have been following the stories about Zingara Cucina and the supposed global movement towards alternative dining scenes. There seems to be as much interest in attending as there are nay sayers.

It’s really easy to knock these ventures, but they do in fact work. When you have not received an invitation there is an element of saving face in saying that you don’t care for such things. I know I have a tendency to do this, but inevitably I am an eternal optimist and find myself all too often in the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ camp. This time however, it is a case of been there, done that.

With this in mind the following discourse is your own guide to setting up a similar venture, based on my own experiences. If it’s something you aspire to, have faith and steel yourself for an interesting exercise. Be careful to only publicise your group in relevant places and be mindful of the potential pitfalls. You will become more aware of the fickleness of human nature and witness some of the ugliness in mankind. By the same token you will also be left with some great memories and love the outcome of your efforts.

I wish you all the best in your own culinary adventures.

How to set up your own vaunted
underground restaurant movement

What you will need:

1. Social networking skills

2. Hospitality Industry contacts

3. Event Management or Production skills

4. Marketing or PR skills

5. Social Media contacts

6. Spare time & the ability to call in favours

7. A passion for what you are doing (or Enormous Balls/an ability for self promotion)


Exceptional entrepreneurial spirit

Selling skills in lieu of one or all of the above

Partners with any of the above skills

First, recruit six to twelve of your friends who will become your core group. Choose people whose company you enjoy, but also have the ability to compellingly brag about their experiences. Food appreciation is not necessary, as long as you, or one member of your group is considered a gastronomic aficionado by the rest of the posse. These people will be entitled to attend every future event and will provide the means for the initial growth of the group.

Add a venue to the mix. To begin with it could be the home of one of your group, but once started you will need to keep a keen eye out to spot potential venues. Beg, borrow or use your cunning to get yourself into quirky locations. Failing that, find yourself a location scout who is willing to do contra deals or an event manager who already has access to venues. Venue Logistics should include access to toilets and possibly lighting.

If the venue does not include facilities, your production skills/event management co-ordination should come into play for the hire or borrowing of anything you need from Linen and flatware to porta loos. Call in favours, exchange items for other stuff you’ve been given that you don’t need, swap invitations or freebies for goods and services.

Create a roster of chefs who can help you out, this could include your fellow diners or industry professionals. Best case scenario - find up and coming chefs who are busting a gut to show what they can do outside the confines of their working hierarchy. Let them work out for themselves what they will cook and how. Work with them on a budget per head for the meal. They have access to food suppliers and equipment, so leave that to them.

Sourcing wine can be through a wine rep or you could approach local wineries yourself for some contra. This way a different wine maker can be featured each time. Promise to include the Winery’s branding on all publicity material in exchange for the grog. They do it for art gallery openings - they may do it for you. Use your network; find people who can call in favours.

Wait staff may come from the venue or could be your kid sister and friends looking for pocket money. To find your entertainment, walk around the city and peruse the buskers. There are talented people out there happy to work for a small fee. Be quirky, a string quartet is more appropriate to a wedding - unless they have a quirky playlist – so also consider a magician, a mime troupe or a DJ on L-Plates from one of the DJ schools.

Decide on a name. Be conceptual - it could be an utterly nonsensical name - but ensure it is something that adds to the group with some mystery. Once decided, extend invitations, get someone in your group to design something that looks professional and includes sponsor logos. Make sure that the text within the invitation is used to hype the anticipation, but don’t reveal the venue. Ensure that there is an RSVP date and if your mates are unreliable, get a deposit.

Once you have established who will be attending, follow up with phone calls to build excitement amongst your group. Release the location of your venue on the day of the event via sms or email. Some groups have been known to further heighten the anticipation by establishing a set meeting point instead, where a hired vehicle waits to whisk them en masse to the venue. Collect your money upfront from your guests and if the venue’s bar is providing beverages, have them agree to allow your group to pay per order.

Make it a great night with your best hosting skills. Take the time to chat to everyone individually. By the time the meal has been consumed the posse needs to be convinced that they are onto something really special. You want them spreading the good word with their contacts and you want them to recruit people who can bring something to the movement, from wit and repartee to tangible things that can help fuel the running of future events.

Don’t hold the next gathering too soon after the first. Try for a gap of at least 6weeks to allow sufficient time for the desire for a second outing to build. Include more people next time by inviting your friends to bring friends.

Gradually build the size of the group via personal hype. Mention it in emails, talk about it on forums or facebook, Myspace or with colleagues on intranets. You will find that the founding members of your movement and their guests will do likewise. Anyone who has attended will become an ambassador for your movement. When you have got to the point where you are over subscribed and limiting numbers it’s time to build a website and get it discussed in blogs. Then, if you have a media contact, milk it. If someone of note has attended your gatherings, milk it: talk, talk, talk and talk!

The hype will continue to snowball externally, but you must ensure that the nights are still special enough to support the upswing in expectations that comes with the hype, so cap the numbers at each event and mix up the group. Underground movements are an alternative form of networking, and for the best results you must ensure there is a synergistic mix of personalities. At this stage, only the initial members should have the option to come every time, though you’ll find that they don’t as time goes by.

By limiting who comes and when, you build further anticipation. The harder it is to get in, the more desirable it becomes. Be aware though, the bigger it gets, the higher the expectations and the harder it is to manage. With size comes significantly more work and it is often at this point that underground dining experiences self-combust. As in any growing business you arrive at the point where there is a choice to be made. Do you take on more partners, franchise the concept, make it a serious enterprise and sell out, or pack it in while the going’s good? The decision is yours.

I chose the path of the enigma over fame or financial gain. It is in my nature to do this, but not necessarily your path. Whatever you choose, enjoy the ride.


Anonymous said...

What a clear description, stickyfingers. I can see 17 points where I would fail... LOL. But seriously, having recently participated in a pilot for a cooking class 'experience', I can see how these tips have broader application too.

Anonymous said...

Excellent in depth & instructive points Stickyfingers. I will refer to this blueprint from this point forward! You sound like you really had a ball.

Ed said...

I think people should remember everything has to be anonymous and to hide their IP addresses so people like me can't track them down. Nice template. Used to use something similar in PR...

Anonymous said...

Sorry S.Fingers to respond to someone else on you blog!
Ed what do you mean about keeping anon & what about the template? I'm curious?

Ed said...

Gobbler by template i mean a marketing template to be applied to creating a buzz. As far as keepig anonymous I'm refering to the fact that, apart from a recent comment on Facebook, the Zingara Cucina campaign was all anonymous comments and was obviously astroturfing designed to create a buzz.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ed, taking on board what you said then its quite easy to be cynical about Zingara Cucina.
I dont wnat to be all bah-humbug about it but it is the more dissapointing as I am in need of a good news story to get behind.