Where do you want to eat tonight? This might sound like a simple question but nowadays the answers can seem endless, particularly if you live in one of the world’s major cities. We are in the throes of a ‘food age’, and where you choose to eat out – whether it be at a fancy restaurant hosting a Michelin chef, a local-but-special backstreet place that’s been there for decades, or a food cart that does Mexican street food just the way you like it – says a lot about the kind of person you are, or want to be.
The food industry has always been governed by fashion, but now it feels like the trends come and go more speedily than ever. In the last few years we’ve been through the pop-up restaurant trend, the supper club trend, the bar in a toilet trend, the no reservations trend, the speciality café trend (Cereal Killer, the café on Brick Lane which serves only varieties of breakfast cereals and was recently in the news due to a confrontation with a Channel 4 News journalist, is at the sharp end of this particular fashion)…. The list is endless. For the foodies that frequent these eateries, the creative thinking is fun and exciting, and it doesn’t matter if half the establishments disappear as quickly as they arrived. But for those trying to create a long-standing business in food and drink, such a quick turnaround of trends can be intimidating, particularly in an industry that is already notoriously brutal (figures on the longevity of new restaurants always make for grim reading).
So how do you build a solid business proposition in such a quick-and-dirty world? One solution can be found in the work of Stuart Langley and the Disappearing Dining Club.
The Disappearing Dining Club began in a deceptively casual manner. “[It] effectively started from a conversation between myself and a chef quite late at the Big Chill Festival in August 2010,” explains Langley. “I was working at the festival running a backstage VIP area with a cocktail bar, main bar area, live stage, restaurant, takeaway, coffee house, tea retreat, well-being centre…. I was responsible for all the structures, the staffing, the transportation, the delivery of the food – working for a bar-restaurant operator.”
Langley was ready for a change. The initial suggestion from the chef was to host a supper club at her house, but Langley proposed something slightly more ambitious – a dinner-dance.
“When I was young, once a month my parents would go to a dinner-dance and it sounded incredibly exotic,” he says. “Patricia and Michael were our babysitters and I remembered my dad bought a video recorder just for them, and there was special food in the fridge…. There was quite a bit of excitement about mum and dad going out. So I thought I would draw on that and do a modern day version of what I thought a dinner dance might be, which would be dinner, drinks, music, a party.”
The duo decided to host one dinner-dance each month for the next six months and see where it took them. The first night took place in October 2010 in a borrowed pub in King’s Cross, which didn’t trade at weekends. Thirty friends paid £30 to come, and Langley describes the night now as “pretty rubbish…. We were still serving food at 2 o’clock in the morning, the DJ never got round to playing, there was definitely no dancing… but kind of shambolic fun.”
Second time around, Langley sharpened the formula, and by the third, in December 2010, the Disappearing Dining Club had 90 attendees, all paying £50 in advance. “I remember standing in the room between courses, looking around, not knowing a single person and thinking ‘how did that happen?’,” says Langley. Of course, it was not entirely by accident or luck. The name – which speaks of something mysterious and intriguing, and was inspired by similarly alliterative monikers such as Secretsundaze and Secret Cinema – had been there from the start, and Langley made shrewd use of Facebook to spread the word and share photos from the early dinners.
Plus food in London was on the up at the time. “It was when food became the hot thing,” says Langley. “I think we caught it at the same time. It was a really productive time, late 2010 and throughout 2011, I think a lot of good stuff in London now has come off the back of that period.”
Location, location, location
A major aspect of Disappearing Dining Club’s appeal comes from its changing location: each month the nights happens at a different place, and are often held at venues you wouldn’t usually have access to, especially for dinner, such as a lighthouse, an antiques store, or a laundrette. The dinner-dances also take place in more conventional settings, such as cafés or pubs, but they will always be special in some way, such as an event held in a nightclub before it opens for the night.
“The big inspiration for everything we do comes from the location that we’re in,” says Langley. “So the perfect thing is you have customers arrive, they stand outside the door and they think ‘as if I’m going in here to eat’, and then they come in and they have a terrific food and drink experience. They might have to go down a dirty alley, they might have to climb up and down some stairs, it might look like it’s closed…. It’s about what’s behind the curtain, and what’s behind the curtain is something that’s happening in a moment, just for the people sharing that moment. That’s the thing.”
Another influence on Langley’s approach from the start has been budget, or the lack of it. “We had no money, there was no access to money,” he says. “I had my salary from my last job, and a credit card with a £5,000 balance on it, and basically I said ‘that’s the total amount of money we have available and let’s give this a go for six months’.” The enforced tight budget turned out to be a useful restriction, however. “Businesses need investment and if you haven’t got cash investment then you invest what else you’ve got,” Langley continues. “So we had time, experience and some creative ideas. We just invested those things, and then the business has grown out of a framework of having no money.”
This has defined the creative decisions that Langley has made, leading him to find spaces that are cheap, or that he could borrow, to hold nights in, rather than just setting up in a fixed location from the start and burning money on rent.
Selling tickets in advance also became a vital strategy, so that the team always knows exactly how many people to cater for, and thus avoids waste. Despite being in business for over four years, and now employing six full-time staff members, Langley maintains this careful approach to money. “Every creative decision we make comes from having access to no resources when we started and so now that we’ve got a company that’s a business there are some resources there, but I think it’s important to stick to the same principles,” he says.
It also governs design decisions too, meaning that the team keep things simple in the spaces that they take over for the night, instead of overhauling them with complex interior design. “Rather than trying to produce a space that isn’t anything, let’s use a space that has meaning and just enhance that meaning,” says Langley. “So going into a furniture restorer’s…. Let’s not turn it into Narnia, it’s a furniture restorer’s! Have dinner in a furniture restorer’s, that’s special enough. With a little bit of sound, a little bit of lighting, a little bit of heating maybe, and some really tasty food, and a nice great big table for people to sit down at…. The people in the space are the production.”
Change and expansion
After the first six months, Langley and the Disappearing Dining Club’s original chef parted company and Fred Bolin joined the venture, and “really, really cemented our ability to deliver high quality food every single time,” says Langley. “Fred’s very much of a mind where he wants to cook really great, simple, seasonal food that draws upon experience in fantastic kitchens in Stockholm, London and New York.”
The company has expanded rapidly in the last four years, with the Disappearing Dining Club now holding three dinner-dances a month, with some taking place outside the capital, including a recent residency in Manchester. The team also hosts two-three private dinners per week for people who would like the dining club experience just for their friends, and are increasingly creating specialised nights for corporate clients, including the likes of Adidas, Ben Sherman and numerous drinks brands.
The advantage that Langley sees for a corporate client of coming to them over a traditional events company is that all the creative talent is already in-house. “What happens I think if you go to a conventional creative agency or events company is a group of people sit in a room and be creative and then they hire in all the skills to then deliver the thing. Whereas if you speak to us, we have all the skills so there’s an opportunity for something much more cohesive, where every element ties together much more, because it all shares the same meaning, because it’s all coming from the same people.”
In addition to the one-off evenings, Langley also runs Back In 5 Minutes, a restaurant on London’s Brick Lane that is open four nights a week. Unsurprisingly, this is far from your typical eatery, and is instead a partnership between a clothes store, situated at the front of the premises, and the restaurant, which consists of three tables out the back. It is a set up where everyone benefits: the two businesses split the running costs of the building, and the shop is also open during restaurant hours (the Back In 5 Minutes name was in fact inspired by the store’s somewhat irregular opening hours), which has led to some unexpected purchases during an evening out. Plus Back In 5 Minutes’ quirky and rather secret setting fits perfectly with the Disappearing Dining Club brand.
Future plans and dreams
While it may appear on the surface that Disappearing Dining Club is part of a kind of Nathan Barley, London trendiness that might make a Yorkshireman sigh, at its heart is quality, attention to detail and great creative thinking, and short-lived fashion trends are in fact the last thing that Langley is interested in.
“We never use the word ‘pop-up’ about ourselves,” he says. “I really, really try to avoid the word ‘events’ – sometimes we use it internally, because we haven’t found a better word. We talk about dinner parties. Pop up is a fashion thing, events is an industry, and dinner parties are forever. Everyone wants to go to a dinner party. A dinner party is a host inviting people to a location, to eat food that they’ve decided they want to serve to those people, and you meet people you don’t know. That, in essence, is what we try and build into everything we do.”
Of the future, Langley is keen to continue expanding, as well as improving what they do, and is currently on the look out for another fixed, longer term location to complement Back In 5 Minutes. And of the UK food scene in general, he only sees more exciting things to come. “What’s going to be really interesting is what happens over the next 20 years,” he says. “I think there are more and more people coming into the food industry now that see it as an industry that they want to spend their career within and I don’t think 20 years ago that was the case. When I was in my 20s, the people around me wanted to be DJs or in bands, now they want a street food wagon or they want to make the best sourdough, or they want to go to Japan and learn how to make coffee. That is a massive cultural shift, and these are the people that are doing it for themselves now.
Some of those will ascend, through whatever projects they work on, into being the people that own businesses, and they will be the ones who are creating the culture that the next lot come out of.”