“You’re Invited to Friday Night Dinner”
This post is written by Julia Levy, a OneTable host, and was originally posted on LinkedIn – check it out here.
Content. Community. Commitment.
Pivoting around these three themes, I set out to curate a dinner series that’s about more than the meal. Founder Fridays Atlanta began with the idea that there’s a lot to talk about besides the news or the weather—and that after a long week, many of us are looking for a place to connect for meaningful conversations and the possibility of interacting with interesting and diverse people who we might not ordinarily cross paths with in our daily lives. Finding those people to meet isn’t as easy as a grown-up, but once you do, it becomes the type of night where you tuck away your phone and don’t even notice that it’s missing until the end of the meal.
After imagining this perfect evening, I sketched out my plan for how to make it happen. I needed a guest to bring people to the table. I needed to find someone that I not only wanted to talk to, but who others would be curious to meet too. The setting would be the opposite of formal remarks on a panel or at a lecture, but built instead as equals where everyone has a seat at the table.
I already had a few of my featured speakers in mind because for the past year, I have been meeting intriguing innovators in my hometown while interviewing them along with my dad for our podcast—Peach and Prosperity. As we told stories of economic inspiration, cultural creativity and historical significance, I wanted to keep the conversations going and to share this experience in deeper discussions beyond the microphone. A casual dinner table for fifteen to twenty seemed like the perfect setting for this experience.
Three dinners in, we’ve accomplished this goal and a lot more. We learned how Lauren Janis (episode two) of Big Daddy Biscuits innovates in the dog treat baking business. We explored how Jermail Shelton (episode eleven) of Just Add Honey cultivates a hub of tea entrepreneurship. And we discovered how Elaine Read (future episode) develops Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate, a craft chocolate company. This dinner took a different twist by recording her interview live during the event for an upcoming episode. The concept resonated positively with guests, and it was fun for me. It was my dad’s idea, but the only caveat is that he couldn’t be a part of dinner since it’s for people in their 20s and 30s; however, I made sure to include his list of questions in the interview.
In addition to our featured speaker—who sits around the table matters. I refer to our dinner guests as community even before they arrive. This is because I’m seeking shared traits of curiosity, honesty and humility in order to foster my magic Friday night dinner vibe. To attend, you must embrace exploring new ideas. You should enjoy meeting new people beyond collecting a business card, but for an authentic connection that could lead to sharing a future cup of coffee or providing feedback on a startup idea.
And you must bring your whole self to the table. During introductions, I ask three questions in the spirit of Shabbat—the Friday night Jewish tradition that gives you permission to slow down, disconnect and reflect. These questions revolve around three rituals: lighting candles—what brings you light; drinking wine—what sweetness do you celebrate; and breaking bread—what nourishes you? With this introductory framing, we go around the table for each guest to answer. Their responses are authentic, raw and reflective. While we begin the night as strangers, we end as friends who have shared our stories and listened to the community share their deep reflections in a circle of confidence.
Candidly, I started these dinners to help me create the community that I crave. As a “grown up,” it’s not easy making friends, especially when you start over in a new city. But, for me, Atlanta is a mix of familiar, yet foreign. I haven’t lived here in fifteen years. I’ve been back for two years, joined a few organizations and attend a bunch of events, but I’m still searching for my community. As I curate the guest list, I’m reaching out to the past while embracing the future. It makes me smile that old friends from sleep away camp, Hebrew school and high school have joined conversations because it’s rare to be able to connect with people after years apart and to get to know each other as adults again.
Research & Development
And then, there’s the new people—the ones who I meet at events around town and the ones who I meet on the internet. In all seriousness, I go surfing for Friday night dinner guests. I log into LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram and search for people my age in Atlanta who I want to meet. I research who works at companies, organizations and nonprofits that I admire. I set out to invite people of different backgrounds, careers and cultures because the concept of sharing the power of Shabbat with others enriches the experience. Once I figure out which email addresses to write to, I introduce myself and compliment their unique contributions to our city’s ecosystem. When possible, I ask for an introduction from a mutual friend. Then, I wait.
The feeling of anticipation is similar to that of sending a message on a dating app, but here, the stakes feel different with friendship! When the positive responses began rolling in, I felt joy. My “cold call” strategy has an approximate 40% response rate so far. For each dinner, that feeling of glee happens every time a seat is reserved. In addition, I keep the dinners open on the OneTable platform, the organization that nourishes the meal by underwriting the cost to make it affordable and gives it the spirit of Shabbat. As the new girl in town who has had to invite herself to a lot of events, there’s something special about being inclusive to let guests find us and add themselves to the table.
These strategies have brought together an accomplished, curious and diverse crowd. The people who have joined for dinners turned out to be even more awesome than I expected. Around our table of sixty guests so far, we’ve hosted athletes, activists, assistant professors, authors, branding experts, city planners, community organizers, entrepreneurs, educators, farmers, fundraisers, lawyers, researchers, social media superstars and photographers. Oh, and a few dogs—they were at our first event with Lauren of Big Daddy Biscuits.
After three Friday night dinners, several members of our community have started to feel like friends as we’ve met up to explore other events around Atlanta. While I’m always scouting for interesting guests to add to the table, I want to purposefully keep the dinners relatively small with fifteen to twenty guests per meal for everyone to have the chance to connect authentically and bring back returning members in order to create a community.
But, there’s a major hurdle to planning these dinners—they can’t happen without commitment. And in today’s world with multiple events taking place at the same time, it’s not as easy to know who will join. Along with these event organizing adventures, I’ve discovered there are the people who have plans and the ones who don’t plan.
When the planners respond that they are already booked, most are gracious and ask to be included in the future. Some people are not as thoughtful. This process has taught me how to thoughtfully decline an invitation because I know what response I’d like to receive. I’ve also attempted to engage the FOMO’ers to reserve their seat sooner than their typical style. For anyone on social media, you know what I’m referring to—this fear of missing out culture leads to indecisiveness. I’m attempting to establish AOCE—the advantage of committing early. Since we have limited seats and a catering order from local restaurants, I need the estimated numbers a week in advance.
In order to provide all the fixings from appetizers through desserts, I ask guests to contribute by buying a ticket—it is about the cost of a good bottle of wine—$15-20 per person. This also ensures that they are more likely to show up once they’ve paid. For our dinners, we’ve sold out each time. But, it’s still a nail biting experience as I wait for the confirmations. Frankly, it’s changed how I think about commitment when I’m invited to attend events. I understand more so than ever the importance of being decisive, planful and polite to hosts.
So far, our dinners have taken place in a loft that’s actually a co-working space by day— Elementatl is operated by Jewish Federation of Atlanta. To host us, they ask for a small donation in return for reserving their open kitchen concept with a large dining room table from the home of my future. It’s the kind of table that I once saw on an HGTV episode where there’s room for friends and family to gather and interact. This space is also located in an area of town that is easily bikeable or walkable, which in Atlanta isn’t always as easy.
Gratitude & Challenge
As our dinners conclude, we end with a closing blessing of gratitude—an expression of appreciation for the meal, for our time together and for the week that we’ve left behind. Here again the conversation becomes honest and raw, including for me. I open up about what’s on my mind and share the why behind these dinners that I’ve shared in this article.
I also always thank guests for saying yes—for taking a chance on this experience. And I challenge them to extend an invitation to someone else—either a dinner guest they met that night or someone they meet at another event in order to pass the spirit of Shabbat forward. It doesn’t need to be for a Friday night, but it should come with content, community or commitment.
Our dinner table is always growing. Do you know someone who lives in Atlanta who wants to join us at the table next time? Drop me a line to be added to our invite list. Oh, and if you are receiving a random invite from me, I hope that you’ll accept and say yes to dinner.
Special thanks to Zoe Plotsky and Shira Rothman Hahn for believing in this dinner series and OneTable for providing the nourishment. Thank you to Isabel Ranner and Jori Mendel as well as Jewish Federations of Atlanta for the space at Elementatl. To the new and old friends who’ve joined me for a meal, it means more than you know.