What do you do when you move to a new city where you don’t know anyone? You start your own networking group! At least that’s what Kelly Molson, co-founder of Grub Club Cambridge did when she moved to Cambridge.
Kelly made the move from Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, to be closer to her then boyfriend, now fiancé, Lee and was keen to start putting down roots in her new community.
“It isn’t a million miles away, but I literally didn’t know anyone in the city apart from my boyfriend, his family and his friends,” she says.
“I felt like I needed to get out and meet more people. Businesswise I was keen to expand my company into that area too.”
Kelly is Managing Director of the gloriously named Rubber Cheese, a design agency that specialises in the food and drink industry, working with clients such as the Beefeater Gin Distillery and Chivas Brothers.
Says Kelly: “I started looking for somewhere I could work in Cambridge so as not to have to do the commute back to the office every day and I found this business centre called the Cambridge Business Lounge.
“The owner Ed Goodman was fantastic at introducing me to people in the city and one day he introduced me to Vhari Russell. She’s a food marketing expert so we had a lot in common.”
Kelly and Vhari (pictured R-L), who runs The Food Marketing Expert, were both interested to know how they could support each other in their businesses, but the pair didn’t start working together until about six months later.
“I got a phone call from her one day. She needed some help with a website and from then on we started referring work to each other. I’d help her with her clients and vice versa. It was really useful and we started to talk about how we could find more people in the food and drink industry locally.
“There’s a really big food scene in Cambridge; there’s lot of independent shops, restaurants and cafes and the great EAT Cambridge food festival, but there didn’t seem to be any professional body or a group where we could get everybody together. So we decided to set one up.”
The first Grub Club Cambridge event took place just over a year ago at Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop, with the pair giving themselves just six weeks to organise the event and sell the tickets.
“We managed to sell about 55 tickets, which blew our minds. We weren’t expecting it to be such a popular thing,” admits Kelly.
“We had a diverse range of people come, including local producers, people like us who work alongside the food and drink industry, food bloggers, street food traders and Heidi White, who runs the Eat Cambridge festival.”
The recipe for the event – which involves bringing people together for informal conversation over great food at fab venues – proved a successful one. Since that first event, Grub Club has met eight times and will hold its last event of the year – wine tasting at the Old Bridge Hotel – on December 2.
“It’s been fantastic,” says Kelly. “For me it’s been an amazing way to build my business and social network in the city. Lots of wonderful things have come from it. I’ve had the opportunity to be a judge at the Cambridge Food and Drink Awards and for the Great Taste Awards.
“We’ve also helped others to make new connections. We’ve got a number of local producers that come along regularly that are now supplying the venues where we run the events.”
Kelly and Vhari didn’t set up the networking group with the aim of making a profit, but they do charge to cover the costs of the food and drink provided. According to Kelly, Eventbrite made ticketing simple right from the start.
“Everything has been so quick and easy to set up and use. It’s also helped with marketing the events because we do it mostly through social media and Eventbrite is integrated with Twitter and Facebook.
“We’ve even had attendees find us directly from searching on Eventbrite. They were new to the area and were looking for thing like wine tasting or food events and came across Grub Club.”
As well as being active on social media, and posting regular blogs, Grub Club Cambridge is now making a name for itself in the media.
“We’ve been lucky in the last few months to get a lot of coverage from the local press. It took a while to build up the relationship with them but they are quite keen to help us now,” says Kelly.
Other recent developments include the first event sponsors coming on board. Sponsors are offered the chance to give a short presentation at the meet-ups and also benefit from branding on event materials and promotion on social media.
“We only started to look for sponsors in September and that’s something we’ve found more difficult than trying to run the events themselves,” she admits. “It’s about trying to help potential sponsors understand how sponsoring an event might benefit their business.
“However, we’ve been really lucky. Our first sponsor was Alistair Grant of Bokeh Photographic, who specialises in photographing food and drink. He was an excellent speaker and he made a big stand so everyone could see his fantastic work, which was really visual. He picked up a lot of work off the back of his presentation and subsequently wrote us a great blog about the benefit of being a sponsor.”
It’s not just sponsors that are picking up new business thanks to their involvement with Grub Club Cambridge, Kelly and Vhari have boosted their own client lists too.
“A secondary thing that’s come from Grub Club is that people know a bit more about what we do and how we can help their businesses. We’re both currently working with the Cambridge Artisan who are going to be selling these fantastic hampers full of local produce. It’s definitely helped us create brand awareness in an area where there wasn’t any before.”
Despite the success of Grub Club Cambridge, there are no immediate plans to scale up the number of events, because it has to balance with Kelly and Vhari’s other work.
“We both run our own businesses and have got pretty busy lives – Vhari’s got three children! So, I think six events a year is a good number – it’s manageable that way.
“It is a lot of work to organise Grub Club, although it’s got a lot easier as we now have systems in place, and using Eventbrite also helps massively.” Kelly says the first time they ran Grub Club Cambridge they hadn’t given too much thought to structure, wishing the night to be as relaxed and social as possible.
“All we did is say ‘we’re going to run this event, who wants to come?’ It wasn’t really any more difficult that that. We were lucky that the first one went really well, but then there were a couple where we could have tightened up on our process and procedure.
“For example, we’ve learnt that people do like a little bit of structure to an event. While it’s still really informal, we now try to let people know what time the speaker will be on so if they’re coming especially for that they’re not going to miss it.”
The pair has also learned how to cut down on time-consuming tasks: “We always give away goodie bags and encourage local producers trying to publicise their products to bring along samples. It was taking us hours to pack them ourselves so we soon learned to just let attendees put what they wanted into those goody bags themselves.”
She adds: “It was a big learning curve in the beginning, but it’s easier to run the events now because we have those systems in place and we delegate who’s going to do what. Each of us has our individual role.”
Aside from improving the mechanics of the event, Kelly and Vhari have used their experience to add value for attendees by helping to facilitate introductions.
Says Kelly: “We sit down before an event and look at the attendee list. We make a note of the people we want to introduce to each other, either because we know they’ll get on or because there will be something they might be able to collaborate on, perhaps they would be a good supplier for that business.
“We’re really, really keen to do that and it’s worked really well. We have testimonials from suppliers who have found new clients because we were able to make that connection for them.”
But Grub Club Cambridge is not only about making new business contacts, it’s also about sharing a love of food and for that reason, the venues are also an important ingredient.
“It’s basically great food in great places,” says Kelly. “We change the venue every single time because we’re really keen to encourage people to try different places.
“We ask our members ‘where would you like us to go, what would you like us to do?’ and we get lots of suggestions from them.”
Attendance at Grub Club Cambridge is on average 35-40 people but varies according to the restrictions of each venue.
“Our largest event to date was run at Fitzbillies Restaurant as part of the Eat Cambridge festival. It was larger than our previous venues and we ended up getting about 60 guests, but at our next event, at the Old Bridge, we can only have a maximum of 30.”
According to Kelly, Grub Club Cambridge enjoys a high rate of repeat attendance, while continuing to attract new customers.
“Because of the nature of the food and drink industry, where producers are busy at different times of the year and exhibiting at different shows, they can’t always make every single event. The attendee split at any Grub Club event is typically 60% retained and 40% new. This works well because people always get to meet somebody new but also maintain existing relationships.”
Grub Club Cambridge has not only been well received by those working in the food and drink industry, it has also caught the attention of local business leaders who named it ‘Networking Group of the Year’ in the 2015 East of England Business Champions Award.
That win came hot on the heels of Kelly and Vhari scooping a gong for networking in the Best Business Women Awards, a mere five days before.
“We were really lucky to win both of them,” says Kelly. “It was a massive surprise which has been a really good end to the year for us and justifies all the hard work.”
The hard work is not over, however. The ladies already have six events pencilled in for next year and could be taking their brand to neighbouring city Bedford.
“We potentially might be doing something in collaboration with a new food festival in Bedford and we’re looking at running an event for them for Tastes of Anglia. But mostly we’ll be keeping our focus on Cambridge and looking to grow our network of contacts even further.”