The Consumer Dinner Club

Posted on July 10, 2012
Many mental health consumers have the financial resources to enjoy their weekend leisure time but cannot, because they lack the social opportunities to fully participate. The Consumer Dinner Club that I coordinate attempts to provide a chance for consumers to congregate and better enjoy their weekends by offering the one resource that they may lack – each other.

The Consumer Dinner Club started with a modest group of three - my girlfriend, my best guy friend, and me. All three of us had met as Fountain House members and were used to frequenting diners in the Hell’s Kitchen area. We wanted to embrace more members, and also the limited diner-restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen were becoming tiresome. I decided to ask other FH members if they would provide me with their emails and cell numbers so that I could invite them to a restaurant elsewhere in Manhattan. Almost everyone who I spoke to said that they wanted to come and gave me their contact information.

In the beginning, I relied on members’ suggestions of restaurants (now I do my research on yelp.com, a web site that posts astute restaurant reviews.) At the start of the week, I send out my email invitation. The invitation lists details about the restaurant, such as its name and location. I also include some anecdotal remarks, such as what menu items may be best and the approximate cost of the meal. If the restaurant takes reservations (I usually choose restaurants that offer reservations and are group-friendly), I make a tentative reservation at the restaurant immediately. I ask that people RSVP by the end of the week, so that I can call the restaurant with a more accurate count.

In previous FH gatherings outside the house, prior to the formation of the Consumer Dinner Club, we have had a number of issues. Sometimes members would come mainly to hang out and would either order too little or tip too low (often very low). Also some members would come and behave inappropriately and embarrass the group.

Therefore, I have a few rules with regard to the Consumer Dinner Club. Firstly, everyone who comes must order dinner and everyone must tip 20% on their pre-tax balance. As is common with people on fixed incomes, Fountain House members have been used to getting a separate check for each person, so that each individual could tip what he or she preferred. This is still a good method for impromptu gatherings, but I wanted to ensure that people tipped adequately, so that we could be appreciated by the restaurant wait staff and management. The group receives only one check and I calculate each individual’s or couple’s amount owed, which is based on what they order and a 20% tip (as well as sales tax.

Secondly, to limit behavioral problems, I maintain control over who may attend the Consumer Dinner Club events. Club members are told that any guests they wish to bring must be approved by me. Usually I know the members’ desired guests and can assess whether or not they would cause trouble. In general, a Dinner Club member’s significant other or good friend will be welcome. If an attendee causes a problem, that person will not receive an invite again. I try to be ethical in my decision-making; I am mindful that although I may not like a Dinner Club member, the member may not be a problem to the group and therefore is welcome at the events. If I am ever overly concerned that my approach is becoming draconian, I am mindful that even Fountain House has rules about who may attend at the Clubhouse.

Thus far the Dinner Club events have gone well and our attendance continues to rise. At our last dinner we had a group of thirteen. Those who attend are genuinely excited about the events and enjoy them. We usually go out to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant and also a café afterwards to chat further. I try to choose a new restaurant each time. Currently, I plan two dinners a month. The events can be a little pricey for some members, so I suggest that members with small incomes try to come occasionally.

I am gratified that I am able to provide a service that is truly needed. Dinner Club members are able to develop better friendships with each other outside of Fountain House. At present the major attendees are Fountain House people, but I am thinking about opening the program to the entire consumer community in New York City. 

Jonathan Brachman
Reception Unit, Fountain House  

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