Friday, March 4, 2016

some thoughts on turning #60

It's hard to believe that next week we will be doing Experiment #60. Sixty! When we did our first experiment nearly seven years ago, we had no idea what to expect. Did anyone care? Would anyone even show up?

Thankfully, more than a dozen people came, and had what was still one of our favorite dinners, at the since-closed and much-missed Talula with chefs Andrea Curto-Randazzo and Kyle Foster. (Andrea still runs a very good catering business, Creative Tastes, and Kyle is killing it out in Denver at Colt & Gray and Rebel).

Since then, we've had the good fortune to work with a number of incredibly talented South Florida chefs, including James Beard award winners, relative unknowns, and everything in between, as well as the occasional out-of-town talent. We've been featured on Andrew Zimmern's show Bizarre Foods, and for the past two years have put on dinner events in conjunction with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. We've had a countless number of great dishes along the way, and the occasional misstep too – these are experiments, after all.

During all that time, the Cobaya mission statement has never varied: to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting, creative meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners. The modus operandi hasn't changed that much either: events are announced with only the date and the price; the location, chef and menu remain a surprise. Events are also open to anyone who wants to request a spot, provided they are OK with our ground rules: there are no membership fees or invitation-only lists.

What has changed is that, against our wildest expectations, these little experiments have become increasingly popular. There are now literally thousands of people who subscribe to our event announcements. We routinely get more than 200 requests for spots at each of our dinners, and our last one broke 300 – a new record for us. Since we typically have only 25-35 seats, that means we have to say "no" to a lot more people than "yes."

We bring this up not to brag about our popularity or tout our success, but rather to provide a bit of insight into the process. Over the course of nearly seven years and sixty dinners, we've made a number of changes in how we operate, all with the goal of making our events more accessible and inclusive.

When we realized we were regularly getting more requests than we had available spots, we started conducting a lottery rather than just selling seats on a first come first serve basis, so that people who didn't have hair-trigger e-mail reflexes wouldn't be excluded. We also, unless it's a large event, started limiting requests to only two seats, so we could get more different people into each dinner. Eventually, we also started holding back one set of seats for what we call the "Biggest Loser" – the person who had made the most requests without ever getting in – as a reward for persistence.

All of this necessitated us compiling a spreadsheet to track each person's "record," so that we know how many times they've asked for spots, and how many times they've gotten in (and how many times they've canceled). A ridiculous number of hours has been invested in compiling and maintaining "The Great Book of Cobaya," which gets updated after every dinner. We now have over a thousand names on that list, and of those, more than 400 have attended at least one event. Typically, depending on the luck of the draw, between 1/3 and 1/2 of the spots at our events lately are filled by "newbies" who have never been before.

It would be a whole lot easier for us to just fill seats by invitation or sell them on a first-come-first-serve basis. We should also perhaps mention that this is a hobby for us, that we make no money off of it, and in fact we've paid our own way to each of the dinners we organize. But part of the reason we do this is that it is a kind of proselytizing: we want to make these kinds of experiences available to a broader universe of diners, and we want chefs and restaurateurs to know there is an audience in Miami for a more adventurous style of cooking.

Still and yet, when you only have 25-35 spots, and are getting 200-300 requests for them, invariably there are going to be a lot of disappointed people. The odds are self-evident, and since every event is a clean slate, there's a good chance you may be disappointed multiple times. Indeed, for our last event, we did a random drawing for the "Biggest Loser" from among multiple people who had 0-6 records. (We are so very grateful for your patience.)

There is no simple solution. We don't want to make our events bigger: we feel like the food and experience generally suffer when the numbers go much beyond what we currently do. We can't really do these much more frequently than the roughly one a month pace we currently keep, given the amount of time already devoted to both coordinating with the chefs and filling the seats. So we can only hope that people understand and keep trying.

But aside from explanation and apology, the other purpose of this post is to note that there are some things that you, our guinea pigs, can do to make the process work a little better for us and yourself:

(1) Respond to your emails.

Knowing that plans can change, we've tried to tighten our timeline: events are usually announced two weeks in advance, we typically send out "SEAT REQUEST CONFIRMATION" emails within 3-4 days of opening the request line, we typically give people 3 days to pay for their seats, and we send at least one "REMINDER / LAST CALL" message before the time runs. Each time, we ask that if people are not going to be using the spots, to let us know so we can release them to the wait list. And pretty much every time, there is at least one person who just doesn't respond at all after getting seats.

This is frustrating on multiple levels. First, we don't get why someone would request a spot if they're not going to use it. But more importantly, we don't get why it's too much of a burden to send a short response letting us know. This is not some anonymous, monolithic corporation mindlessly churning out emails – it's just three guys, who have to hustle even harder to make sure all the seats get filled when you don't let us know you won't be using them.

So please: don't request a spot if you're not sure you'll be able to use it, and if you do get stuck, PLEASE LET US KNOW. Cancellations are a pain, but the people who don't even respond are the worst. And since everything is recorded in The Great Book of Cobaya, we know who you are.

(2) Volunteer to fill in last minute.

As noted above, it seems like for every event, we have people who get seats and then don't use them. This means we have to fill those spots from the wait list, with a limited window of time within which to do so. Lately, when we send out the "WAIT LIST" notice, we ask people to let us know if they would be available last minute and the best way to get in touch. When those people actually come through, it's made the process of filling those wait-list spots so much more efficient. The people who promptly respond when they do get spots via the wait list make our jobs much easier.

(3) Don't be a whiner.

Every once in a while, we hear complaints to the effect of  "I've tried to get in a dozen times and never get in!" Here's the thing: we know exactly how many times you've made a request, so don't fib. And invariably, the people who complain also exaggerate the number of times they've tried. Also, here's a simple truth: nobody likes a whiner.

But those are the very rare exceptions. For the most part, we have been incredibly fortunate to have cobbled together a very good-natured group for our dinners. They get the mission, they are forgiving of the process, and they understand and accept that they're not going to get a spot every time. Every wait list notice we send ends the same way, and it's the truth: "There are some 'underground dining' groups that really thrive on the whole exclusivity thing. For us, the most difficult thing about these events is not being able to accommodate everyone."

If you've got ideas for how we can do it better, we're genuinely eager to hear them. And thanks as always for your support, without which these kinds of events would never happen.

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