In the fall of 2000, I started a dinner club, named it Marmalade, and almost twenty-three years later, we are still gathering monthly. Marmalade began organically. I chose a group of close girlfriends and invited them over for dinner. The next month I invited them over again, and then again the next month, and in the third month I asked them if they’d like to make our monthly dinner dates official. Marmalade was born.
As you can imagine, with almost twenty-three years of experience, I have learned a lot about starting and maintaining a dinner club. Today, I want to share with you all of the things I wish I had known when we began. Most of these lessons have been learned by facing challenges and figuring out a way forward.
Marmalade is the only dinner group I have ever started or maintained, and so I am going to use it as my frame of reference. It is what I know. Of course, there are endless variations on how you can organize and manage a dinner group, but for context, I will be sharing specific examples from my dinner group to help illustrate my points. I hope these ideas serve you well if you are thinking about starting one.
Remember your why.
If you only read one thing in this post, let it be this. Decide why you are starting a dinner club, put it into one sentence, and then as you progress, recall your why over and over and over again. Your why will be the guiding principle you use to make all the other decisions along the way. Your why will call you back to the focus of your group when distractions surface or conflict ensues. When you want to shift or change or amend your dinner group, let your why be your guide. I cannot emphasize how important it is to choose a why, and remember it often.
For Marmalade, our why was simple. I wanted to gather the girls who were in my wedding plus a few other close friends and intentionally spend time with them so that we did not lose touch over the years. I had heard so many people say of their wedding party, “I never see her anymore,” or, “We lost touch, but we used to be so close.” It was a high value to me to not let this happen, and so I carved out time and created space for us to stay connected.
The heart of our why has remained the same over twenty-two years. We want to be intentional about connecting with each other. But the specificity of it only including the women from my bridal party has disappeared. People have moved away and left Marmalade, new people have been invited to join, and now the group reflects a community of women who I dearly love, but not all of them were there in the beginning. Whys can evolve with time, but when they do, hold tightly to what matters most.
There are obviously lots of possible whys. Maybe you want to have fun and meet new people. Maybe you want to foster deep connection with a small group of inner circle friends. Maybe you want to get better and cooking and hosting others in your home. Maybe you want to create community in your neighborhood. There is not a right or wrong why, but whatever your why is, make it simple and easy to recall.
You do not have to know everyone well, but it helps if there is a common thread.
The thing I love about Marmalade is that were it not for this dinner group, most of us would not cross paths. Our circles do not intersect organically, which is why it feels even more purposeful and significant when we meet monthly. I like the diversity of personalities and the different stages represented in our group, but there is a common thread among us. I was our group’s common denominator in the beginning, but over time, that has diffused a bit and now the common thread is that we all live in Fort Worth. The dynamics of the group have changed over time (more on that below), but when it began, there was a strong sense of purpose and a unique common bond. You do not have to be super close friends with everyone in your group, but it is helpful to choose a common denominator and build around that.
Twelve is a great number.
You do not have to commit to a set number of people, but it helps. In my group, there have always been twelve members. Twelve is a great number for two reasons. First, each person hosts the group once a year. Second, even if a few people cannot attend, you are still likely to have a robust showing. When everyone shows up, it is a full house. But even if only half of the group attends, it is a sweet gathering.
Someone once asked me, “Is it overwhelming to host that many people?” There are some challenges to hosting a big group, but the joy outweighs the logistical hurdles. We make a way. Even when some of us have lived in tiny apartments or been in the middle of a remodel, our why reminds us of what matters. We embrace the largeness of our group and make it work. Sometimes that looks like paper plates and pizza, or real plates and carry-out, or sometimes it’s fun to use the good china and fill the dining room table with a few extra chairs.
Feelings are going to get hurt.
This is a touchy topic, but when you start a group, and if you choose to make it exclusive, there are going to be people who are upset that they are not included. The truth is, in order for a group to have a cohesive sense of community you cannot have a perpetual open-door policy. There are plenty of people who I know and love and consider to by my very close friends who are not in Marmalade. I made the decision in the beginning to keep the ranks closed, to only have twelve people in the group at a time, and to say no to perpetually adding more people. Saying no allowed us to say yes to investing into the lives of the twelve people in the group. You do not have to do it this way. But regardless of how you choose to proceed, someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. The good news is, conflict builds intimacy, and so my advice is to embrace the conflict with kindness and honesty, and remember your why. You cannot be all things to all people, but you can hold fast to values and use them to guide you through relational bumps.
Decide how you want to handle hosting.
In Marmalade, when it is your month to host, you are responsible for everything. Drinks. Food. Set up. Clean up. All of it. The joy of this is knowing that for the other eleven months you get to simply show up and receive. When it is your month to host, we don’t even let others stay to help do the dishes. We all agree this approach is very manageable and beneficial to the overall culture of the group. The host gets to own the evening, and no two people host the same, which is wonderful as well. I like to light candles and cook everything. Others feel differently. The point is, each member makes the decisions once a year, and everyone else is happy to be there.
Choose a set date.
Nothing “just” happens, so I encourage you to choose a set date for your dinner group. Marmalade meets on the first Thursday of every month, come rain or shine. The only exception is when July 4th falls in an odd way that intersects with our date. We often choose a different date to meet in July, but other than that, the first Thursday of each month is our standing date. Choosing a set date helps keep everyone on the same page, and allows you to plan around it in the coming months. I also like meeting monthly because if you miss one month, you can hop back in the next month without going too long before you see everyone again.
Agree on a commitment level.
You cannot force people to commit, but you can communicate the why of the group and empress upon people how their participation serves the group. In the beginning of Marmalade, our commitment level was very high. Missing was discouraged, and we all were on the same page. Twenty years later, the expectation is much looser and infused with grace. That being said, I do not think our current level of commitment would have worked very well in the beginning. I think part of Marmalade’s long-term success is rooted in the fact that we were so intent on everyone attending every month in the beginning. We established a foundation of high participation on the front end, and we took it very seriously. These days, we attend as much as possible, but that is because most of us have been doing this for so long there is not a doubt about our level of love for the members and the group.
Let the dinner club stand alone without any relational strings attached.
Just because you are in a dinner group together does not mean you have to walk through life together on a daily basis. Let it be easy. I love the freedom that comes from meeting regularly with a group of people, and then letting it go. I do not feel the pressure to be part of everyone else’s daily lives. We are in Marmalade together, and this gives us a chance to connect and maintain relationship, but we all understand those rules don’t have to apply to the rest of our life. Which brings me to the next point…
Certain people inside the group will be closer.
Inside our group there are smaller pockets of friendships. This is to be expected, and has not become a source of conflict for us. I think we all realize that our circles are so widely diverse, that of course certain people will see each other with more frequency. There are certain friends inside Marmalade who spend holidays together, but the rest of us aren’t upset. There are friends inside Marmalade who have children at the same school, so they connect in a way the rest of us don’t. It’s the nature of group dynamics for certain people to be closer to each other. It is also a wonderful place of freedom to know you don’t have to maintain the exact same level of friendship with each person in the group.
Conflict will occur. Proceed with kindness and grace.
Our first bout of conflict ensued when people began to move and rotate out of Marmalade. We all agreed we needed to keep the number at twelve, but we did not agree on the process of how to add new members. The conflict was a source of stress, but cooler heads prevailed, and because of our why, we were able to come to an agreement. It wasn’t easy, but it made us stronger, and I believe it is important to learn how to walk through conflict with the relationship still in tact.
Come up with a plan for what to do when people move or leave the group before people move or leave the group.
I wish I had known this from the first day. People are going to move or decide to leave for one reason or another, and when they do, everyone is going to have an opinion on how to fill the empty slots. If I had it to do over again, I would have outlined a process for adding new members before it became an issue and made sure we were all in agreement on how we would proceed once that situation presented itself. I cannot tell you how to go about filling empty slots, but I can tell you it’s not easy. Feelings will get hurt (see above), it will feel exclusive or choosy (which no one enjoys), but at the end of the day, in order to remember your why, you are going to have to lean into the values of the group and lead your group forward.
Change is not easy in a group, and there will be a season of awkward get-to-know-you banter when you invite new people, but it passes quickly. Before you know it, the cohesive nature will return, and the sense of community will return to normal.
I hope these pointers prove helpful if you are thinking of starting a dinner group. If there is a question you have that I haven’t answered, please leave it in the comments, and I will answer as best I can!
Denise Kelley says
I love this idea, and my mind is already percolating my own brand of supper club! Just one question, what was the process you settled on for replacing members who had left?
I live in Virginia, but I plan to be in New Richland Hills, Texas next week to visit my son’s family. I would love to stop in at Hurley House to meet you if you have a few minutes. (I’ve listened to many of your podcasts and read many of your blogs. 🙂 Is there a day that suits you? No worries if you are too busy.
Katherine Sasser says
Denise, I pondered whether or not to include this in the post, as it is a natural next-step question. For us, the process of including new members finally came down to the entire group unanimously agreeing on the new addition. If someone was opposed, there was never any discussion as to why because the point is not to gossip or be unkind, but we allowed space for someone to simply say, “I don’t think that is a good idea for our group.” It’s such dicey territory. In the end, overall, the next right people to include and add to the fold were fairly obvious and easy. If there was any hesitation, we moved on to another person, knowing the chemistry of the group mattered and contributed to our overall why. There were several months where we had less than twelve people as we navigated adding new members, and the slow process was a gift. I hope this helps!
Next week I will be at Hurley House most mornings. Let me know if you decide to stop by!