Insights / Interviews / No Saturdays, No Substitutions: How This Operator’s Supper Club Model Allows Her to Bend the Rules of a “Restaurant”
No Saturdays, No Substitutions: How This Operator’s Supper Club Model Allows Her to Bend the Rules of a “Restaurant”

Amanda Shulman first fell in love with cooking back in high school. In history class, her eyes often wandered from textbook pages to recipe pages, her mind frequently drifting to what she’d be cooking next for family dinner.

“I grew up in a big Jewish family, and everything always revolved around food,” says Shulman. “I was always helping my mom, and eventually I just totally fell in love with it. But I never really thought it’d be my career.”

After high school, Shulman went on to pursue political science at the University of Pennsylvania. But in time, her passion for food would take over. She started a blog, posting recipes and reviewing campus food trucks. And eventually she enrolled in a food writing class that would lead her to interview some of Philadelphia’s most prominent chefs. One of those interviews ended with an offer to stage at Amis, a former Italian eatery from Beard-winning restaurateur Marc Vetri. She accepted. 

Fast forward two years, and by the time Shulman finished college, she’d made up her mind – restaurants were where she wanted to be full-time. Soon, she was cooking all over the world, starting with two and half years at Vetri’s highly acclaimed Vetri Cucina, then moving to cook at Michelin-starred Osteria della Brughiera in Bergamo, Italy, followed by stints in New York at Momofuku Ko and Roman's. Shulman left to help open Vetri Cucina in Las Vegas, before making her way to Montreal to work at one of the city’s most famous restaurants, Joe Beef.

“The cool thing about food is you can do it everywhere. I was basically using it as an excuse to pick new places to live, try new adventures, and have a job while I was there,” says Shulman.

Right as Shulman found herself ready to open a restaurant of her own, the pandemic hit.

“Just because life changes doesn't mean your dreams change,” says Shulman. “I just kept looking, and I found something in Philly, and here I am.”

Today, Shulman runs Her Place Supper Club, which hosts two, 24-person seatings per night, each featuring four-course meals served family-style. It’s her first restaurant. But as she describes it, the experience feels more “like a dinner party than a traditional restaurant”. As a smaller operation, Shulman breaks many of the long-standing industry norms. She doesn’t open on weekends. Dietary substitutions are prohibited. And the menu, filled with local produce, can change on a whim. Since the start, her seatings have consistently sold-out.

We chatted with Shulman to learn more about Her Place and the details of crafting a distinctive business model that bends the rules of a traditional restaurant.

Her Place is your first independent restaurant operation. But it isn’t your first supper club. That story begins in college, right?

I had this side hustle, dinner party supper club I started at Penn as a way to practice cooking. I’d basically just cook dinner parties in my college house and invite people and curate a group of strangers. It was this awesome thing I always carried through with every job I had. When you work in a restaurant, you cook somebody else’s food all day, so it was how I figured out what I liked to cook. And it helped me get over any stage fright. 

I was the person cooking apps, midcourse, main, and dessert, and that's not something you necessarily do in a restaurant where you’re focused on a certain station or task. Pursuing my own thing on the side just made me more well-rounded as a cook. 

You launched Her Place out of a former pizza shop. Was a smaller location, and the vibe of an intimate supper club, always what you had in mind?

I looked at about 20 locations and had some leases and LOIs just not happen because of COVID. It was a weird time to find a lease. Everyone thought they wanted to get out, and then they changed their minds or the price would go up. I had deal fatigue by the time [realtor] Allan Domb showed me the pizza shop. It had been vacant for a bit, so they totally took a chance on me and let me sign a two month lease. And I’m still here.

I was always looking for a permanent space, and I thought it’d be more of a traditional restaurant. But this just kind of took off. I was still looking for spaces six months in, even after I expanded the lease a little bit. And then finally I was like, this is working, let’s just stay here.

Were you surprised by how quickly seatings were selling out?

We’ve always pretty much been sold-out. If you look at the timing, June 10, 2021, nothing had opened in so long. We were the first thing to open in the pandemic that was very different. 

But I was beyond surprised. I remember being shocked and overwhelmed. In the beginning, they’d sell out – it was all just through PayPal – and I’d think, did someone hack the system? It was so organic and really unexpected, and it still feels surreal. 

You deliberately labeled your operation as a supper club versus a restaurant. What drew you to that, and in what ways do you feel it’s allowed you to break the traditional norms of a “restaurant”.

At this point, I don’t care what people call us, but with a supper club and not a restaurant you have a lot less expectations and rules. By not defining exactly what we are, it’s a lot easier when we change our days of the week. We don’t do any dietary substitutions. We cook what we want to cook. If everyone’s tired on a Monday, we’re just going to close. We think about it outside of the regular bounds. It’s really the flexibility, and no one can tell us anything’s wrong because there’s no standard. 

You source largely from local farms, and I’m wondering if you feel like this model has allowed you to be more flexible with your ingredient choices as well?

1,000%. We could write the menu on the website, and I could completely change it the next day. I had figs on the menu tonight, and figs couldn’t come in. Luckily I have blueberries I jarred two week ago, and we’re going to use those.

It’s very fluid and flexible, and because we’re so small, it’s like I’m feeding you at my house, but I have a little better setup.

You’re not open on weekends – which is far from the restaurant norm. Tell me about that.

I’ve worked weekends my whole career. I missed a lot of weddings and birthdays and things like that. We’re fortunate we get weekday traffic, and since we don’t have to be open on the weekends, I can give my staff a little bit more of a regular, outside-of-restaurant life. And no offense to anyone, but the people who eat on weekdays are just cooler. They’re really into food, and they’re going out intentionally, not just because it’s a Saturday night.

You raised your original prices from $65 to $75 per person. But that’s still not a tremendous amount of money for a four-course meal, especially in today’s climate. Can you share how a fixed menu allows you to make that work?

To be honest, $75 is cheap. It should be more. But for now, it is what it is.

There’s no variability. We have a complete head count. I know exactly what portion size everyone’s getting. So we can afford to get a little more expensive ingredients and only charge $75 because there’s no waste. There’s no menu with eight entrees. We have one entree, and every single person’s getting it. And we have a tight staff – nine people, and everyone works everyday.

Have there been times where you wanted to put a dish on the menu but it didn’t make sense financially?

Sometimes we make things make sense. If we’re running steak, like we have on the menu right now, and it’s wildly expensive, our midcourse is a pasta and you just make the rest of it make sense.

If there’s something we want to put on and it doesn’t make sense because it’s too expensive, we’ll make it an add-on, like soft-shell crabs. We’ll say we have add-on crabs, and charge what we need to.

What would you say are your biggest learnings since launching your own food business?

There are so many things. You have to find the best people you can, people who care and believe in what you’re doing. You cannot do this alone. Everyone needs to care to make something great. If you’re passionate about what you're doing, you’ll find the right people.

Flexibility is huge – in terms of everything. Maybe one day your fryer doesn’t turn on so you have to break out a grill. Things happen. Having the ability to take a breath and come up with a back up plan is invaluable. 

What’s been the most rewarding part?

It’s very fulfilling to wear a lot of hats instead of just cooking – marketing, web design, finances, accounting. Some people don’t like that but I like that because I feel like I'm stimulating every part of my brain.

I can’t believe people want to work here. I mean, I can, but that’s really rewarding. I’m proud that people want to work here, and that people want to keep coming back and eating.

Do you have any advice for operators who are also wanting to break out of some of those restaurant norms, like catering to every dietary preference or working every Saturday?

Just keep trying. Sometimes it’s just throwing stuff against the wall. We try new stuff all the time, and see what sticks, and that’s part of the beauty of not being a traditional restaurant. But our operation is really tight. You can’t just close whenever you want or be as whimsical when you have a larger team who’s depending on you for a paycheck. It’s definitely a lot harder as you grow, and that’s why I’m just trying to hold onto this as long as I can until we do anything bigger.

Are you surprised a model like yours can exist in today’s climate?

There’s a lot of push and pull. It works. But is this the most profitable business in the world? No, not at all. But that's because everyone’s able to have a better lifestyle, and we only work four to five days a week, and we’re stopping at 24 seats per turn and not packing it in. But I understand why everyone does what they do. People have to make money. It’s too hard to just be a passion project. Yes, we can have a better lifestyle and not work weekends, but it’s still hard. It’s really hard and really physical.

Do you have plans to grow into a larger operation?

Specifically Her Place Supper Club, no. This will stay what it is. I will [open a more traditional restaurant], but it’ll never be a totally normal model because I’ve taken too many things away from here that feel better from a life standpoint. 

Is this something you envision in the next five years?

Yeah. You might be surprised, Grace. Stay tuned.

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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