Nearly two years ago, Jill Richmond set out to help a friend start a pop-up restaurant in London. She had no idea the project would eventually lead to her own venture more than 3,000 miles away in the District.
But that’s what happens, she said, with “a little bit of serendipity and a lot of bit of luck.”
Richmond is now the mastermind behind The Coterie, a culinary society start-up that offers exclusive dining opportunities to its members and a new degree of creative freedom to its partnering chefs in Washington. Through the club, members gain access to a series of monthly events as well as a proprietary reservation system in which they can arrange for five-course, off-menu dinners custom prepared by the award-winning chefs at The Coterie’s partner restaurants around Washington.
“This is for people who are looking to take their restaurant experience to the next level,” said Eric Bergman, general manager of Birch and Barley, one of those partners. “There are the conversational elements, with the themes that they use each quarter of the year and the fireside chats that they host and the literature-inspired dinners. But there are also the dining elements, and being part of the group really lets you see what can be special about a restaurant.”
The idea stemmed from what was called the Number 68 project at 68 Boleyn Rd. in London. Richmond’s friend, a chef, backed out of the venture with several weeks of pre-sold dinners remaining on the test kitchen’s schedule. Responding quickly, Richmond managed to fill the rest of the evenings with a rotation of guest chefs — an emergency plan that received rave reviews from local foodies and media outlets.
So when Richmond, a New Jersey native with a background in economic development, returned to the U.S. for work less than a year later, she said she wondered whether the same model could catch hold in the nation’s capital, where an up-and-coming restaurant scene was beginning to blossom. She tested it under the same name, renting out space downtown and bringing in some of the city’s premier chefs to carry out a nine-week pop-up restaurant experiment from February to May 2011.
The District incarnation of the Number 68 Project was well-received, much like its predecessor in London. However, Richmond soon realized that renting out space to host the dinners was not feasible for the chefs.
“The brick-and-mortar model was too big of an investment, and the chefs really didn’t want to keep stepping away from their kitchens for two- or three-week stretches,” she said.
Richmond partnered with Nick and David Wiseman, the District natives behind Roadside Food Projects, who helped her reach out to additional restaurants in the city, build the membership site online and begin spreading the word about their new start-up, now christened The Coterie. They decided to operate on quarterly themes (for example, one recently highlighting chefs’ earliest memories of cooking) and to incorporate sophisticated, intellectual discussions of politics, literature and culture into each of their dinners and events.
The group also began hosting a series of cocktail events and salon-style dinners, which Richmond said continue to be one of the main drivers of new memberships.
That membership currently costs $42 a month, and each dinner at one of the five partnering venues costs a flat $135, of which The Coterie keeps $10 and passes the rest along to the restaurant.
So far, The Coterie has been financed largely by the three business partners with the help of some angel funding from a group of local restaurant investors. The company is currently seeking its official first round of investments, which it would use to expand to another five restaurants and eventually transition to a tiered dining system. Richmond said she hopes to expand to two new cities every year, starting with Chicago and Philadelphia.
“But D.C. will always be our home,” she said. “We’ll always be anchored here.”