In New York City where the kitchens are small and the takeout boxes are endless, dining out is as a part of every day life as your morning coffee. But with a myriad of choices and constant turnover, it’s hard to build a rapport with even your go-to eateries. Meet INHOUSE, the latest members’ only club that’s building a network based on “regulars,” bringing together food aficionados and restaurant teams around one table. Founders Nicolas Mouchel and Benjy Leibowitz, previously of The Nomad, structured the club as a dining enthusiast’s heaven – a bookings platform with access to the hottest tables in town with personal introductions to restaurant teams, curated dining experiences, daily content, and member events. Since launch in 2016, INHOUSE now has over 50 restaurant partners in New York and London, from ABC Kitchen, to Loring Place, and Jean Georges, with plans to expand to Chicago and Los Angeles later this year. Below, Mouchel and Leibowitz talk the tables we should we booking right now, application hacks, and importance of fostering good hospitality. Filling out your application yet? Us too.
When starting INHOUSE, what gap were you looking to fill within the hospitality industry?
INHOUSE came organically through an internal project and thinking about guest relations. How do we think about regulars? Any restaurant in New York can have a good first year – particularly if it’s hyped up, with a big name chef, or it’s a pretty space. But beyond that, it gets tricky. We were fortunate at Nomad that we had a hyped up first few years. So we started thinking, how do we hold on to this support from around the city? Whether it’s from locals, neighbors, industry, international guest. A lot of restaurants talk about their regulars, but very few are doing anything strategically around building, developing, curating, and investing in their relationships with them. So at the heart of this was, how do we deepen our existing relationships with our regulars today and then how do we build new ones? It occurred to us that on any given night in our dining room there might be a ton of fantastic regulars of other restaurants that we were just unaware of. And likewise on any given night our regulars were dining out at other restaurants. So we wanted to find a way to connect those dots and bring together the network.
How are your memberships structured?
We offer a Hospitalitarian Membership which is our traditional entry membership. It’s our core offering of our bookings platform, our member events, our monthly newsletter that’s being used for our members in New York and London. There’s a Traveler Membership that’s meant for people who don’t live in the city but who want to be involved in our growing community. Then we have our Ambassador Tier. We talk about INHOUSE as the home of dining culture, so we built a way to be linked to other cultural disciplines and people who are doing things that are meaningful in other areas, whether it’s the arts, film, business, and beyond. There’s a slightly different application process for it but it’s our way of extending to a slightly different audience and including an interesting and diverse group of people.
What can members expect out of the program?
For the Hospitalitarian membership, we have the bookings platform, monthly events, and private dining consultations. The bookings platform currently has 48 restaurants in New York and a dozen or so in London. Besides just the access that we provide to these restaurants, it’s important to us that every member that dines at any of these restaurants through INHOUSE is going to get a great experience. We’re lucky that we have over 90% success rate across 60 of the top restaurants in London and New York. What we’ve been able to create with these restaurants is a relationship and trust that anyone that comes as an INHOUSE diner is a great diner who’s in it for the right reasons. It’s not just about getting that hot table at primetime, it’s about getting the experience of meeting the team, the maître d’s, the managers, and them knowing that you’re there for the dining experience.
As a way of supporting the cultural institution of dining and next generation of leaders within the space, we use a part of membership dues to really put towards industry programming, whether it’s bringing together maître d’ and general managers around round tables and lunches, or putting together speaker opportunities, or even simply introducing and helping industry as their exploring their careers. We’ve seen a lot of events being hosted what we found was that they felt really cookie cutter – typically a wine dinner or a food demonstration. We really wanted to bring the industry and the dining enthusiasts together around the same table. We did a wine event recently where we brought a group of sommeliers and members together for a wine tasting. But it wasn’t sommeliers serving members, it was everyone tasting together. No one’s on the service side or guest side. Everyone pitches in. It’s been such a special opportunity to put together some of this programming and the reaction from the industry and our members is that it feels different to actually be socializing rather than in the construct of a typical food and wine event. It’s something we’re keen to continue to promote and facilitate.
As it happens last week we had a few emails from managers and sommeliers who used to be in New York who are moving to London and we’re helping them find employment in London. That for us is so exciting because the kinds of places they want to be working at in London are the restaurants we’re working with in London. We’ve found a common ground between the values that are held across our restaurants in New York and London.
How are you curating the restaurants within the program?
Initially, it was a group of 13 restaurants. It was a mix of everything- fine dining like Blue Hill to casual like RedFarm. We always look to have a diversity of cuisine experience and location because sometimes you’re in the mood for pasta uptown and sometimes sushi downtown. We want to share great experiences no matter what you’re looking for. At the core of it is hospitality teams who share a similar ethos and also care about connection involved in an industry led program. We look for teams who are excited to be involved. We’ve been really proud of restaurant teams, like Fausto in Brooklyn (from veteran team of L’Artusi who is also a part of the program), who reached out to us as they opened. They said they enjoyed being a part of the INHOUSE program and being connected to these restaurants and regulars and wanted to make sure Fausto was included too. Here’s a team who recognizes the opportunity to be connect and involved in their peers and great supporters of the culture.
How do you feel the NYC restaurant landscape is changing?
We’ve noticed that the industry has become a lot more professional, emphasized by the fact that there are many more people taking an interest in the industry – the restaurants, the chefs, the people behind the places. You see that through food media like Eater, The Infatuation, and all those publications that have become a part of the daily news cycle. The way people are thinking about restaurants and food in general are a lot more analogous to other professional industries. With that there’s a greater emphasis on supporting the industry and building it up. We’re seeing a huge number of people make career changes from banking and media and into this space. There’s an appetite, professionally, for the food hospitality industry to catch up to it’s respective industries.
On the guest side, there’s a move away from the formality traditionally associated with great hospitality. We spend a lot of time talking with our restaurant teams about the difference between good service and good hospitality. It used to be that good service meant good hospitality. And that’s no longer the case. We work with Michelin star restaurants to casual neighborhood restaurants. We’ve see time and again the way people lead these casual neighborhood restaurants, the hospitality and the connections they’re building in these less refined establishments, are sometimes surpassing that of these refined elevated spaces. Luxury is going to start to feel more personal and hospitality is driving that.
Where should we be eating in NYC right now?
The prime example is Gabriel Stulman and Happy Cooking Hospitality Group. They have Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey’s Grocery, Fairfax, and more, but most recently Simon & the Whale. We feel very lucky that Gabriel and his team have been close supporters from the beginning. He’s been running this mini empire in the West Village for years now and is so widely admired locally and within the industry for championing a very authentic brand of hospitality. His team is so genuine. There’s no thrills. You know exactly what we’re talking about if you’ve been. They’ve encouraged to hug their regulars. There was even a story that came out a few years ago about someone earning their hug. It was a true New York moment for them. It’s a primary example of taking a local, authentic style of hospitality and beginning to scale it up without losing the authenticity. There was this line he said, “Make your celebrities feel like locals, and your locals feel like celebrities.” He’s really done that.
Any application tips?
We’re looking for people who care about restaurants. In today’s landscape where everyone is a self-identified foodie, it’s an exciting time for us, but we’re looking for people who really want to immerse themselves in dining experiences and build relationships in the space- people who care about the people behind these spaces and people who care about experiences. Plenty of people are art collectors, but we’re looking for the enthusiast. We’re not looking for people who want their selfie with the Mona Lisa.
What’s next for INHOUSE?
We’re looking to expand to Los Angeles and Chicago. We’re also looking to broaden London a bit further. We feel really lucky to be able to have an epicenter of support here in New York with our existing members and restaurant partners. We want to continue to champion and celebrate dining culture by expanding to these cities and hopefully opening up a physical space down the line.
For more on INHOUSE and how to apply, visit inhousenewyork.com
*This article was originally published for Forbes.com.