- INHOUSE, a membership club for restaurant enthusiasts, just announced $US2 million in Series A financing.
- The money will help the service, which is currently exclusive to New York, expand around the globe.
- Founder Benjy Leibowitz told Business Insider he started the business while working as Head Maître D’ at The NoMad in New York.
- The club connects industry professionals and enthusiastic diners across 60 partner restaurants.
- For $US1,550 a year, members fill out extensive profiles about their dining preferences, meaning they should be treated as a regular in whatever partner restaurant they turn up at.
- Leibowitz said that their current membership is a “microcosm of New York” and includes household name Fortune 500 CEOs and founders.
INHOUSE is not a concierge service, says the company’s founder Benjy Leibowitz: “That’s a word we’ve banned from our vocabulary.”
While bookings are admittedly a big part of what they do, INHOUSE is a members’ club that attempts to bridge the invisible gap between industry insiders and diners who are passionate about restaurant culture.
At the moment, they’re only accepting members in New York, but they just announced $US2 million in Series A funding to help them expand around the globe.
Members of INHOUSE receive priority access to some of the Big Apple’s most exclusive restaurants including Gramercy Tavern, Babbo, and The NoMad, where Leibowitz cut his teeth.
When the team behind Eleven Madison Park – currently ranked No. 4 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and previous No. 1 – decided to start a second project, Leibowitz joined as Head Maître D’.
Things were unbelievably hyped up in a crazy New York way
They called it The NoMad and it quickly became one of the most hyped eating destinations in the city.
“We were welcoming 1,000 guests a day between breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the bars,” Leibowitz said.
“Things were unbelievably hyped up in a crazy New York way.”
The NoMad is also a hotel and Leibowitz said the restaurant would always keep a few tables free for tired guests who wanted a bite to eat after their journey in. So hard was it to book a table at the NoMad, that New Yorkers were paying for rooms at the hotel just to have access.
Rooms at The NoMad currently start at $US505 a night.
Obviously, that kind of interest wasn’t sustainable, but it taught Leibowitz how white-hot the industry could get and how important it was to take care of your regulars.
Restaurants are built around regulars, not VIPs
“[Big spenders] historically have been touted as the VIPs in the US. But I think that’s a really misleading notion because if you actually look at who restaurants value it’s industry and it’s regulars,” Leibowitz said.
“If you talk to any restaurateur they will tell you that regulars really are the lifeblood of their business.”
Indeed, in a recent appearance on food podcast “The Kitchen Is On Fire,” Will Beckett, founder of hot London restaurant chain Hawksmoor, said just that.
I like to say that everyone’s a regular somewhere. I’m a regular where I get my hair cut, I’m a regular where I get my coffee in the morning.
“You build a restaurant, not on the Henry Dimblebys [British cookery writer] that turn up every now and then Instagram it – you build a restaurant around that guy that turns up every Tuesday night who will never impress anyone that you know, but he pays his bill every Tuesday night.
“And if you don’t know his name and what he likes to drink and his wife’s name and his kids’ names and you don’t thank him every time he comes in so that you are his place – forget it. It’s over.”
This was the essence of what set Leibowitz on his journey to form INHOUSE, which started as a reciprocity network for connecting top maître d’s and best-in-kind restaurant regulars.
“I thought, we only have so many regulars but there are so many great regulars of other restaurants that are coming into our restaurant and we don’t even know it,” he told BI.
Leibowitz reached out to 13 other top eateries around the city and asked them to invite their five best regulars to a pilot program. Not the highest spenders, or the most famous, or the most closely related to the head chef – but the best.
These enthusiastic diners were welcomed into reciprocating restaurants like they would be if they turned up every night – from knowing what they liked to drink before dinner, to where they liked to sit, to whether they had a sweet tooth or not.
The program began to grow organically as restaurants started to see the repeat business they could acquire when welcoming in these select diners.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t do this on the side while working at NoMad,” Leibowitz said. So he took a leap of faith and decided to dedicate all of his time to expanding the network he’d built.
Now, INHOUSE works with more than 60 celebrated restaurants, 20 of which are in London, though membership hasn’t expanded to the UK just yet.
Leibowitz is an industry expert in every sense – he reels off names of London’s most-hyped restaurants du jour like they’re players on his favourite football team, even though he’s lived in New York for the past 10 years.
He believes being passionate about restaurants in your city is the same as being a member of one of its art galleries, museums, or film clubs.
“[It’s] part of your social identity in the city, it might be part of your social calendar, it’s a way to meet like-minded people, it’s a way of contributing back to a cultural institution that you care about,” he says.
Being a regular is also the best way to do anything, he says.
“I’m a regular where I get my hair cut, I’m a regular where I get my coffee in the morning, and I’m a regular at a couple of restaurants in New York.”
In all these cases, that experience is better because those people know what you like and you have a relationship with them.
‘We want to know everything’
So, how does a members club with more than 60 restaurant partners make you feel like you’re a regular at each and every one? “It’s been a challenge,” Leibowitz admitted, but it starts with choosing the right restaurant teams to partner with.
“We don’t go around knocking on doors,” he said. “We are selective of the type of restaurants we work with to make sure that they are not only great teams putting out great products but also that they think about hospitality in a similar manner.”
Once they have the right restaurants on board, they want to know everything about you, the esteemed diner.
INHOUSE makes diners fill out extensive profiles about their preferences: “We allow people to go as detailed and nerdy as they like,” Leibowitz said.
That could be anything from your preferred cocktail before dinner to your favourite flavour of ice cream.
Not just anyone can join, though. In order to qualify for membership, you must have a restaurant sponsor – that is, a restaurant manager or owner that can vouch for you being a regular at their establishment: “That’s how we keep things peer-reviewed and make sure we’re getting great diners.”
Once you’re in, restaurants will have enough information to treat you like a regular even if it’s the first time you’ve walked through the door. Leibowitz told us the story of a member visiting London on a business trip who dropped in on an INHOUSE partner restaurant during his stay.
He apparently called the founder to say: “I turn up to a restaurant I’ve never heard of, the maître d’ greets me by name, I sit down, the sommelier comes over and says I hear you’re into Riesling at the moment and has the wine list open on the Riesling page.”
Now, every time the member visits London for work, he goes to this same restaurant.
They will go above and beyond, too. Leibowitz gave an anecdote of a diner who is particularly fond of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so for his birthday, one of the restaurants made him a custom foie gras and grape gelée mid-course as a nod to his guilty pleasure.
Members include Fortune 100 CEOs
So what kind of people join INHOUSE? Full membership will set you back $US1,550 a year, which obviously rules out a lot of applicants.
“I was very nervous at the beginning that it was going to be very finance heavy because those people play a big part in the restaurant world,” Leibowitz said.
In fact, Leibowitz found that their membership base quickly became a microcosm of New York as a whole – welcoming those in fashion, design, media, and other creative industries.
As much as a third of its members are either C-Suite or founders; people who Leibowitz describes as “captains of industry.”
He won’t name names, of course, but he hints that some members are household names and leaders of Fortune 500 and even Fortune 100 companies – “that includes people from the media landscape, finance landscape, and the tech landscape,” he adds.
These members will also have access to events that Leibowitz says “aim to remove some of the barriers of formality that you typically find in the hospitality space.”
These include dinners seated alongside leading sommeliers & chefs, fireside chats with preeminent restaurateurs, and hard hat tours of new restaurants before they open.
So, what’s next for INHOUSE? After closing their last round of funding, the team is looking to expand into London and across the US, starting in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then Chicago, Miami, or Seattle.
Longer term, Leibowitz says Copenhagen in Denmark is a city that stands out to him as one that punches above its weight in terms of dining culture.
He’s excited about Asia as well and has his sights on Hong Kong and Tokyo, though, he admits, these will come with their own challenges.
It sounds like the sky’s the limit for this promising members’ club but, as Leibowitz concedes: “It’s just that easy and it’s just that hard.”
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