Salima Manji spotted a gap in the market for an upmarket dining club for single professionals. She talks to Workingmums.co.uk about how she set up the business.
Single in London? What’s the best way to meet people? Salima Manji is someone who agrees with the idea that good food is the route to romance.
She has set up an upmarket dining club for single professionals looking for a relationship.
Salima, who is a qualified accountant, used to work in investment banking. She met her husband while working for Credit Suisse and soon after left investment banking to be a mum. She says she did not want to go back to work between her first and second child. When she did eventually return to investment banking with JP Morgan – she says it was not too hard to get back in as there was a big demand for accountants – she negotiated four days a week. However, it was “not the same” as when she had worked in banking before having children. “I felt guilty all the time,” she says.
Salima started thinking about what else she could do. At the same time her marriage was breaking up. Her colleagues were complaining about dating problems and not knowing where they could go to meet new potential partners. Salima spotted a gap in the market.
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Two years after going back to work in 2004, she had set up her own company providing dinner parties in upmarket venues for single people working in professions such as law, accountancy and medicine – people who work long hours and don’t have much time for socialising.
Her first venture was the Asian Dinner Club, but then she broadened her target market.
She didn’t, however, give up work straight away. Instead, she did her research and worked on marketing her business in her spare time in the evenings. Her first move was to find a name for the business. She called it the London Dinner Club and sorted out a logo. She also contacted a web designer.
For six years she worked flat out. “I didn’t want to spend too long in the bank,” she says. She researched restaurants where she could get a good deal. As soon as she had the first dinner party planned and people were buying tickets she quit her job. “No one else was doing it and in fact there’s still no-one else doing it,” she says. “I knew it would be successful.”
She started doing more dinner dates, promoted the events in events listings and hired a PR company through a friend of a friend to make the business look more established.
The business gained momentum with those who attended the dinners telling their friends. Salima taught herself about search engine optimisation and used Google ad words. “There’s so much you can do for free,” she says, adding that she was also able to dip into savings to get the business going.
She visited restaurants and designed menus. Gradually her earnings increased.
At first Salima hosted all the dinners herself then after six months she got friends to help out. “I’m naturally a sociable person and good at networking and getting people to relax,” she says. Dinner participants fill out a form when they join, saying what kind of person they’d like to meet and what their interests are, but they don’t pay a membership fee. Instead the business’ profit is built into the ticket price, which is around £80 a dinner. “I feel it’s better that they come back to dinners because they want to and they can feel more relaxed. I think they might begrudge them if they were tied to a membership deal,” she says.
She doesn’t spend hours trying to match people up. The dinners are arranged man woman man woman, but there’s lots of time for chatting to everyone both before and after the dinner. “I think it’s best to leave it to fate once you’ve got people together,” says Salima. “By the end of the evening people have had the chance to meet everyone.”
She adds that women tend to plan ahead and book early whereas men are more likely to leave it to the last minute. The usual gender ratio for dinners is 60% women and 40% men.
She organises two types of events: one type is for 24 to 42 year olds and the other is for over 30s. Most people who come are in their late 20s and early 30s.
Salima works on administration during the day while her children, now aged seven and nine, are at school. She picks them up from school and does “the usual after school activities” then, if she has a dinner on, she heads out at around 7pm. They are all near her home in west London and she has babysitters on standby. She says there are a maximum of two dinners a week, but most weeks there is only one event.
Salima plans to keep developing the business, for instance, arranging dinners around events such as Ascot – events to which single people, she says, often don’t feel they can go. She also has plans for weekend brunches over the summer. The possibilities are endless, given that there is no shortage of single professionals who don’t have enough time on their hands for romance. “It’s hard to meet people when you work long hours,” she says. “We try to make it easy.”
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