Imagine throwing a dinner party where the invited guests are strangers who don't know what's on the menu, or even where they're going until the very last minute; a social disaster waiting to happen or an exercise in building community?
It's the former Neal and Melinda Michael were dreading when they hit the send button to email notifications of their first PopLuck pot luck dinner in July. It's the latter they're hoping the events will become as they prepare to host their second, a pot luck brunch, on Sunday.
Inspired by similar Al Fresco dinners in Vancouver, and the famous White Dinners in Paris, where guests wear their finest dinner whites and show up with folding chairs, tables, white tablecloth, china and candle to a secret outdoor location revealed by organizers only hours earlier, the Michaels saw an opportunity to create a unique happening that would bring people together and show off some of the beauty of New Westminster.
"I think New West is ready for cool stuff," says Neal, 32, who's lived in the city for five years. "With SkyTrain, it's so easy to get to Vancouver to do things, but lots of people like to stay in town to do something."
The Michaels crafted a proposal for the ONE Prize program, an initiative by the River Market and Donald's to create community and nurture local, independent businesses. Of 30 submissions, the Michaels' idea for pop-up pot luck meals received the second most number of votes from ONE members, earning them $1,000 to put their plan into action.
They used the money to create promotional materials and purchase a couple of Molo soft block tables that fan out from the size of a thick binder to create a honeycombed low table that can seat up to 30.
They scouted potential locations that would show off the city.
"New West is a beautiful city," says Neal. "We want to bring attention to different spots in New West."
Then they hit the social media, Facebook and Twitter, to build an email list of invitees.
Their first PopLuck event was a dinner held on a Friday night on the pedestrian overpass linking Hyack Square to the Quay. Of the 70 invitations sent by email, about 20 guests showed up. Some were friends who'd known about their event through the ONE program. Most were strangers. To the Michaels and to each other.
"Food is the perfect icebreaker," says Melinda. "Everyone got comfortable with each other pretty quickly."
The food they brought ranged from sliders to tuna tartar to salted cod cakes to cupcakes with icing made of Guinness beer. There was more than enough to go around.
As plates were passed, conversation flowed. Music wafted up from the Friday night dance program at Hyack Square. Passersby did a double take, curious about the impromptu dinner party on a bridge over railroad tracks. Some left their email addresses.
"It appeals to that kid in you where you're doing something unconventional," says Neal.
By the end of the evening, they knew they'd tapped into a new zeitgeist for New West.
"We met a lot of people who are really interested in the community," says Melinda. "We like New West and we want it to be even better. There's an energy here."
To find out more about the PopLuck New West events, go to their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PopLuckNW. To learn about upcoming events, join their emailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition to Sunday's brunch at a still to be announced location, the Michaels are hoping to host at least two more outdoor events this summer.