This afternoon, the trustees of the local micro-philonthropic group, A2Awesome, handed over $1,000 in cash to the founders of the Bona Sera Supper Club, in order to help them open a cafe in Ypsilanti’s historic Kresge Building. Following is a brief interview with Bad Fairy and Wonder Woman, the anonymous women behind Bona Sera, in which they discuss their plans for the space, why they chose to make Ypsilanti their new home, and their ongoing efforts to help raise money for local non-profits by hosting incredible dinners in unusual locations.
MARK: To start with, can you tell us a little about Bona Sera, the folks behind the scenes, who make it happen, and what it means to be an underground supper club?
BONA SERA: Bona Sera Supper Club was founded as an underground supper club. We began in 2008 and our first charity dinner was in February of 2009. The underground supper club, aka, secret suppers, are a truly international occurrence but usually are held for profit. Bona Sera has always held charity secret suppers. We choose a different community cause for each dinner and raise money through ticket sales. All funds raised go to the charity, after the cost of the food, and all Bona Sera Crew are volunteers. The folks behind the scenes, the founding members, are Bad Fairy and Wonder Woman, but Bona Sera wouldn’t be Bona Sera without its loyal group of volunteers.
MARK: Can you give us an idea as to the scope of the operation. Just how big is the Bona Sera family? How many volunteers are we talking about?
BONA SERA: Bona Sera has some steady volunteers who have been with us since the beginning. We have volunteers who run the front of the house, serve, wash dishes, take photos, do plating, and help out wherever we ask them to. We also have one person who coordinates all of our entertainment for the secret suppers. We include our gracious venue hosts as volunteers and they usually get lured into becoming steady volunteers or great friends after that. We have a core group of 10-12 volunteers, but depending on the event and set-up we have had up to 25 volunteers.
MARK: How would someone find out about upcoming Bona Sera suppers? And, can you give us a sense as to the kinds of food that you tend to feature?
BONA SERA: If you know about us, then you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or our web site/blog. We usually announce a dinner a few weeks before the dinner date, and the dinners tend to sell out within a few days. You can also email us, and we will add you to our mailing list.
We feature food that we love, often with our own twists, using local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Usually a few glasses of wine helps… We take things like shrimp and grits, and think about other ways we like shrimp… like in Tom Yum soup, or a banh mi sandwich made with Italian porchetta… but wait, let’s put that on a soft, warm, slightly sweet Chinese steamed bun the size of a taco that we have made special for us at a Chinese bakery in Madison heights… wow.
We also like to develop themes for our dinners… Con-fusion, Mexican Street Food, 1940′s Classics (for the Jazzistry benefit). But, overall, our roots are with Italian, French and American Southern comfort foods.
MARK: What’s the underground dining scene like in the area? I’m familiar with your work, and that of the folks at SELMA Cafe, but I imagine there are more folks that are involved in the scene, right? How would you describe the underground dining ecosystem in S.E. Michigan? Has it reached a level maturity, or is it still in its early stages?
BONA SERA: There are a few folks doing some underground dining in the area, but, as far as we know, we are the only secret supper club in Michigan. There was one in Detroit, but they have not been active for a while, as far as we can tell. The unique twist Bona Sera has is that folks have to register online and make their donation online to secure their space. Then, those registered diners receive the secret location and instructions 2 days before the event… even the Bona Sera volunteers don’t get the location until a few days before the dinner. We feel that we are only in our early stages with secret suppers… with a commercial kitchen, it can only get bigger, better and more adventurous! Which means we will be able to raise more funds for community causes.
MARK: I’d like to ask you about the new commercial kitchen in a minute, but, first, I’d like to ask how the idea for Bona Sera first came about?
BONA SERA: Wonder Woman was relocated to Ann Arbor from Chicago for a job opportunity. She had worked with underground supper clubs in Chicago and San Francisco and thought it would be a good way to meet new people and give back to the community. Bad Fairy thought she was crazy, but she was just as crazy… so here we are today… 3 years of underground supper clubs later, in venues that have ranged from pop-up constructed kitchen spaces in warehouses, to barns, private homes and halls.
MARK: How much money has Bona Sera raised to-date, for local non-profits?
BONA SERA: Bona Sera has raised over $20,000 thousand dollars for community causes. Here are some of the organizations who we have contributed to:
Lansing Area AIDS Network
Washtenaw Interfaith Community
Alternatives for Girls
AIDS Partnership Michigan
Camp Take Notice
Ann Arbor School for Creative and Performing Arts
The Neutral Zone
Ozone House-Kicked Out Fund
US Positive Women’s Network
The Ann Arbor Skate Park
Uncle Rocky’s Place
The Ride For AIDS
Ypsilanti Friends of the Freight House
MARK: How do you determine who it is that you’ll assist? Is there a formal application process? Are there certain things that you’re looking for in the groups that you choose to work with?
BONA SERA: We discussed a formal application process, but never really written it down. Here’s how it usually works: Our volunteers, or diners, bring suggestions to us. And, we check them for a few things….
1. Are they a non-profit organization? Do they have a web site, or info on the web, that we can send out as a reference?
2. How is the organization currently funded (federal grants, private donations, foundations…)?
3. Can Bona Sera make a difference to that organization? We have typically raised $700-$1000 for our charities… but with our growing number of diners, and our ability to shop wholesale now, we have been able to make over $1000 for the charities that we’ve worked with recently.
4. Some organizations have specific programs that we can impact with smaller donations… like the Ozone House – Kicked Out Fund.
5. Occasionally organizations approach us and we look into them using the criteria shown above.
6. We also see the value of bringing a cause to light in the community… for example Camp Take Notice… many diners did not know about them, and it was great to have a member of the homeless camp at the dinner to tell his story, and let folks know how their donation would be used to help the organization.
7. We always give one member of the organization a space at the dinner so that they can inform the diners about what they do.
MARK: According to your application to A2Awesome, you now want to do something a little different, right? Would I be correct in saying that you wanted our help in going legit?
BONA SERA: Yes… we want to have a business where we can focus on making people happy with good and unique choices for dining. We plan to continue underground dinners as fundraisers for important community causes, but, by going above ground, we will be able to have just one focus (instead of working our other jobs at the same time). We believe that our style of cooking is different from anything else available. We have fun creating unique dishes and dining experiences.
MARK: Why was it important, after three years, that you get a commercial kitchen and start Bona Sera Above Ground?
BONA SERA: As we continued to create unique dining events as charity fundraisers… we realized we were gathering a larger following; selling out dinners in less than 3 days. Our dinners went from accommodating 25-40 people to over 70 guests at each dinner. The challenge of cooking in “non-kitchens” became increasingly difficult.
Demand for catering grew as well, and the challenge of producing food in a non-commercial kitchen became more and more difficult. We also realized that our dream jobs would be to continue to create and cook together.
Our initial plan was to purchase and run a food truck in Ann Arbor, but we quickly learned that the city does not permit food trucks… so we began to think about Ypsilanti as a home for Bona Sera. Then we started to hear about the Mix Marketplace and the dreams for that space. We visited on the sly one Saturday, and snuck around the kitchen… we were blown away. We instantly felt a good vibe in this space. We think folks that visit will feel that same comfort we felt.
MARK: I imagine there are also legal complications when you’re working out of unlicensed kitchens, right? Did you feel as though you’d grown Bona Sera Underground to the point where you might be on the radar of the health department?
BONA SERA: We know we have been on the radar of the Health Department for some time. There are some usual ways that underground supper clubs stay inches away from fines or arrests… and we have used the tips we have learned from The Ghetto Gourmet and Clandestino to stay under this radar. We always ask for a donation for the dinner… so we are not selling anything, and we never return to the same location… we also have at least 3 Bona Sera volunteers that are ServSafe certified.
With a commercial kitchen we will also be licensed to cater… and underground dinners will then be legal!
MARK: You mentioned that Ann Arbor doesn’t allow food trucks. I’m wondering if there’s a movement afoot to see that changed. Are you aware of one?
BONA SERA: We hope so… because a truck is still something we see in our future. Either way, we would need a commissary to cook out of, and Bona Sera Cafe will supply this. With the current Michigan food truck rally craze gaining popularity in Detroit, Ferndale and Royal Oak, we hope that Ann Arbor will choose to re-imagine its regulations.
MARK: What, exactly, will your $1,000 A2Awesome award be used for?
BONA SERA: This is the exact amount for our Food Establishment License! So the award will be used in our licensing packet for the health department.
MARK: And the for-profit business, as I understand it, will, by providing a home to the non-profit venture, allow it to keep going, raising money for worthy community endeavors, right?
BONA SERA: Correct!
MARK: I’d thought that you were just going to be using your Ypsilanti space to do your cooking, but you just used the word “café.” Would I be right to assume that you’ll be serving food there?
BONA SERA: The space in Ypsi will become Bona Sera Café. The plan is to serve lunches and dinners Monday- Saturday. We will also use the space for catering. We hope to offer the kitchen space for rental at a reasonable rate to other entrepreneurs just like us.
Secret Suppers will continue in SECRET LOCATIONS… AND WE NEVER USE THE SAME LOCATION TWICE.
MARK: Speaking of these secret locations, have you ever said no to one? If so, why?
BONA SERA: There was one warehouse location where they actually built us a kitchen with several stoves and a sink with a vacuum pump… the diners were about a football field away from us, and the kitchen area was not heated, and this was on a snowy February evening. Bad Fairy chooses to opt out of conversations about this particular dinner…
So, the answer is, no. We haven’t turned down a location, but we are much more selective now. Each location has had its challenges, but each of those challenges has made us better at what we do… we feel prepared for most situations that other caterers and restaurant owners have never have had to deal with.
MARK: Could you speak more to this hybrid between the for-profit Above Ground venture and the non-profit Underground venture, and how you see it playing out? Will it complicate things having paid and unpaid staffs interacting, for instance?
BONA SERA: There will be limited staff in the beginning of the venture. Volunteers will also be hired as paid staff for catering gigs, and we have a nice pull of volunteers to consider for full-time staff when we get to that point.
We will all be volunteers at the underground dinners and things will continue as usual.
MARK: When do you intend to open the Café?
BONA SERA: Our hope is that we will be open by July. For now we are getting temporary licenses and cooking at our friends’ Harvest Kitchen each last weekend of the month, and serving the food at Mix.
MARK: Are you planning to do anything new with the Michigan Avenue space? Are there renovations that need to happen?
BONA SERA: We will be reorganizing the kitchen space and taking down a few of the short countertop spaces, to make more prep room. But our renovations will be minor. We just want to get cooking.
MARK: I’m trying to imagine how you’ll be using the space. Will that Café take the entire first floor, or just a portion of it? How many seats do you intend to have?
BONA SERA: The Café will be in a portion of the space… with seating around the kitchen and windows, as well as outdoor seating in warm weather. We’ll have seating for about 50-60 people to start with.
MARK: Will Mix Marketplace still happen? If so, will it happen around the Café (perhaps on Sundays, when the Café is closed), or will it move into the basement, which is also a pretty incredible space?
BONA SERA: There are big plans for Mix and we are excited to be part of the plan. We are subleasing the space from a group who has applied for a liquor license. The bar downstairs will become a martini and wine bar serving Bona Sera’s small plates. There will also be a wine tasting bar upstairs for folks to enjoy a drink with lunch or dinner. The market, with local vendors, will continue for now. We all hope to have an actual Italian Market as part of the Mix at 200 West Michigan.