Matchmaker. Fashionista. Mother. Glamorous lady. Someone who enjoys the low key aspects in life. Worldly. Exceptionally well spoken. Would you necessarily put all these adjectives together? Maybe not but on meeting Salima Manji; founder of Asian Dinner Club all your pre-conceived notions change. Salima is successful woman yet extremely down to earth. Who reminds me a little of Mallaika Arora. Who enjoys the Indian food of Southall Broadway and Bollywood movies. Salima used to be an investment banker but hated it. As I imagine many people do, investment banking has been a controversial industry to be in over the last few years. Material benefits may be many but Salima detested working for someone else. However she loves fine dining, food, talking to people, networking so she started Asian Dinner Club. A club where professional people meet and dine at fine restaurants, they network but all happen to be single.
We spoke over Hummingbird cupcakes and coffee in the heart of Kensington on a warm and sunny Saturday morning. We discussed how she went from being an investment banker to triumphant matchmaker. Poised with my new Samsung Galaxy S as a recording device and a list of questions I started off by asking Salima how she went about starting Asian Dinner Club and what was the catalyst that made her go from investment to matchmaker extraordinaire.
When in 2007 I found myself single my friends and I used to complain about how difficult it was to meet other like minded single people in London. We could easily meet singletons in bars and clubs but they weren’t the kind of people we wanted to have interesting and intellectual conversations with so I put together the two things that I enjoyed the most. Which were going out to nice restaurants and bars with great conversation. I set up a ‘desi’ version of a supper club. Asian Dinner Club.
I actually, secretly, hated investment banking; it wasn’t for me; the corporate life and the politics. Working for someone else was also a major issue for me. I wanted to have my own schedule especially having children. I did it for on and off 6 years because of my children which I had in between so the only driving factors for me were the material benefits but it got to a point when that wasn’t enough.
You have the money to buy all the nice things you wanted as a child but it was so unfulfilling. I wanted to do something which was fulfilling; where the children came first. Where I could take them to school and didn’t have to rely on nannies and family – get more involved in their lives. So I loved networking, I loved eating out and I’m a people person. Through the Dinner club I found my calling and with the danger of sounding cliché but ‘work doesn’t feel like work to me’ it just feels like I’m getting up in the morning and having fun.
A lot of people don’t have time to meet people as they have extremely demanding jobs, it leaves them wondering where to go to meet people and this is where these clubs come as a godsend. I wouldn’t ever sell it but if I ever had to I would have to sell it to someone who gave the club their heart and soul. They would need to give it their all otherwise it would completely fall apart. I have been told by various people not to give this up because I’m so good at it.
Setting up the Dinner Club
I honestly hadn’t done any market research at all so all I really knew was that my friends and I really enjoyed going to really nice restaurants and that was it. I didn’t know if the desi community would embrace the journey I wanted to take so while I made plans I thought about the branding; the logo the web design the visions, I was looking around and seeing what else was happening in the market.
I’m good at marketing so I know what is needed on a website. I knew it need to look upmarket because of the vision I had. So I worked with an amazing web designer into the night to get this website looking as exclusive as it does today. That was the point I quit investment banking. I didn’t know if it was going to be a success if people were going to turn up to the events but I just had a feeling it would work; just because I was so passionate about it.
The first event
The first dinner party was at Quaglino’s in Mayfair which is an exquisite restaurant that has been there since the 1920’s and is simply stunning. 13 people turned up to the first event and we had a great evening. I had great feedback and people said they wanted to see more of it and so it started very slowly with one event a month. In the meantime I thought more about the company and I came across Chilli Tickets which is an events promoter and it was through Chilli tickets that my events got bigger and bigger.
Marketing, Promotion and Media Coverage
I promoted my first event through my website and using Google AdWords. I used words including Asian events and Asian single professionals. If you don’t know what Google Adwords is you can optimise Google so that if people search for specified search words your website can be the one that comes up first. So I used Google Adwords, word of mouth, a plethora of my singlemy banker friends, Chilli Tickets and a month later, I paid a PR company for 3 months. It got into City AM, The Metro, Asiana, Foodepedia, MR and Glam UK.
If someone is organising their social calendar and they have the option of going to a ubiquitous drinks event or they could be dining at a lovely new restaurant and conversing with intelligent individuals what do you think they would choose? All this with a group of Asian people who are all enjoying the restaurants and are closet foodies.
We recently chose a restaurant in Marylebone called Trishna’s which is a sister restaurant to Trishna Mumbai. Widely recognised as one of the best seafood restaurants in the world. We had a Muslim only event there and I am planning a Hindu and Sikh event there soon. The menu is wonderful; they had such exquisite dishes on their menu like tandoori prawns and crabs. The food was a twist on Asian food that you couldn’t imagine, it was on another level and it was a major talking point.
I am the hostess with the mostess so I love dressing up. People ‘wonder what Salima is going to be wearing’. I do only wear western clothes however I am planning a little surprise for my members and they are going to be in for a treat. I have been contacted by a few Indian and Pakistani fashion designers to discreetly help them promote over here. For example a friend of mine who lives in Dubai has contacts with fashion houses. I spoke to her just this morning asking whether I could find a cream kaftan, which is a mix of eastern and western, because it looks so beautiful with its gold embellishment and they all come at reasonable prices. They look lovely with skinny white jeans or with desi bangles. It is a good mix of subdued desi clothing; you don’t want to look like you are going to a bollywood wedding at the events!
Passion and Karma
I would definitely say that if you are passionate about something and want to make it a success then go for it. If your goal is just to make money I don’t think it is enough, you need passion to make the business a success. Money will follow after that but don’t chase the money. The more you chase money it the more it will slip from your hands.” Be a good person, have a good heart, karma is a bitch but karma is a good think as well, if you help someone it will come back.
I was just saying last night this girlfriend of mine who was trying to set me up with a friend of hers. It felt so nice that someone was looking out for me and this wasn’t even someone who was a good friend… this was a friend of a friend. This is where Karma comes in. If you’re nice to others it will come back to you. This was a lovely kind girl and I thought there was no harm in giving it a go. The tables definitely turned and I hope this is how people feel when they speak to me.
The minimum age is 26 and max is 42.
When I first started Asian Dinner Club we just had all Asians together but now it is religion specific. This was all through feedback and once a month I have a drinks event which is for all our Asian members. Everyone is catered for. I had a lot of Muslim and Hindu’s dating and you would be surprised that it just doesn’t work. You would think that in this modern world that it wouldn’t be the case but it is. But the religion specific parties are a major success and are getting bigger and bigger. We had a few events in Dubai and have another few planned there in September.
It is a common occurrence that the morning after an event is spent chasing up emails from the night before. Many times it happens that guys are useless as describing the ladies from the night before but want to contact them. He might just say ‘the girl with the black dress’ but a lot of the girls might’ve been wearing a black dress, they do need to give me more info as it is time consuming and sometimes you just can’t work out who they were talking about. But if I can I will contact the girl and tell them that ‘so and so would love to meet you’ or give her his details. It is common as it is intimidating to go up to someone and speak to them on the night. It’s the process and it would be wrong of me not to get involved and people wouldn’t want to come to the events if I didn’t get involved and people would think ‘what’s the point?’
Ladies – Smile and engage with the guy. Eye contact is important and a guy loves a girl who smiles; it will draw him to you from across the room.
However, a girl who is overly confident will make a guy run a mile. Even though a guy might not say it but it goes back to the traditional years when the guy was the provider, a guy does want to provide for his family, even the modern ones!
Dress sense – if you’re coming straight from work there’s that dilemma of what to wear. Make sure you tidy your hair, put some lippy on, accessorise a little e.g. scarf will reflect on your face or some earrings and the guys will remember you as maybe ‘the girl with the blue scarf.’
Men – If coming after work men sometimes bring work with them. Don’t bring laptops, leave work at work, focus on where you are actually going and the journey for the evening. Women don’t want a guy who will prioritise work over you. Be warm and friendly when engaging in conversation. Ask questions but listen. Men think the more they talk the more it will cover their insecurities
Choosing the Restaurants
I steer clear of restaurants where you can hear a pin drop or which are overly noisy. I like a funky vibe, which is buzzing, has romantic lighting and doesn’t have canteen-bright lights. I don’t want to be at a place where I’m shouting at people yet I don’t want to be somewhere that everyone can hear my conversation. Ambience is key.
For example we had a event at the Royal Academy of Arts, they gave us a private room, I thought the art would be a great talking point, however we were in a private room where you could hear a pin drop and the atmosphere was dead, in a cold room and it fell flat. But that comes with experience.
You would be surprised at the number of people who get together with people they have met through events but don’t let you know; I am almost forgotten. I thought they would be willing to divulge that sort of information. But it is what it is, I don’t expect an invite to every single wedding but we have had two marriages that I know of, two engagements this year and other people who are living together or dating. I am considered a modern ‘aunty ji!’
I have a few couples who are living together and the guy has confided in me before proposing. One guy is planning to propose in July; a year after they have met. That’s how I measure my success rate but I wish I had a better way. I, basically, have to wait for people to get back to me. I hope and wish more people would. I’d offer them an incentive – a congratulatory bottle of Champagne from me!
Salima’s Ideal date
My ideal date, surprisingly, people look at me and think I would want to be wined and dined at a Michelin starred restaurant or that I want everything but honestly I like everything to be low-key. I’d like to go to Southall Broadway to Madhu’s or watch a Bollywood movie. Men think I’m joking when I tell them. They think they’ll need to re-mortgage their house to take them out. I have been dated and taken to Brighton for fish and chips on the wharf which was so simple but lovely it doesn’t matter where you are.
Are we becoming too picky?
I think we have become a lot, lot pickier. People go around with a checklist but they don’t admit it. I have put together people who on paper who don’t tick each other’s boxes but people pay me to match make them and I look out for them. I’m their eyes and ears. I match made a guy with a girl who he is probably going to marry now and he basically said he didn’t want a girl who had been married before, he didn’t want a girl who had children, he was being romantic and wanted to be the first one to experience that with her and it was really sweet. I introduced him to a girl who had been married and had three children but not to antagonise them or stir anything but because I thought that they would be compatible, they are perfect for each other. When he was telling me what he was looking for I had that image of her in my head, she was my number one choice but he was being really specific and I was really nervous about introducing them. I didn’t tell him about her history. I asked him to give me feedback after the date and asked him to call me the next day, he called me up after the date and told me “Salima, this is the quickest money you have ever earned, she is perfect’ but he didn’t know about her past but they went on a date in the same week, it has now been 9 weeks and their families have met and they are planning their future together now.
I am the only desi matchmaker that I know of in London. I will set everything up, email both parties and tell them that they need to be at a certain place at a certain time. Although once a girl did turn up to the wrong venue, lucky I was on hand to direct her to the right place!
It’s quite easy because as women we are used to juggling and multi tasking is my middle name.
You need a really good support system; family and friends, babysitters on speed dial who know your children in and out. It is only with the support of your family and friends that you can do this, regardless of whether you have children or not.
When you are pursuing your dreams, if you don’t have the support of your loved ones it’s not going to happen. It’s another obstacle. Kids or no kids a good support system is the critical thing that you need in your life. Do a regular detox of your friends, cleanse! If you have those people in your lives that bring you down and provide with negative feelings. E.g. they ask you ‘why you never learn’ how much nicer would it be if you have positive people around you who say ‘Priya you know what… you’re a beautiful person and you deserve better but you do what you need to’ and that would be such a nicer thing to hear and wouldn’t stop you from what you were doing. You have to keep that close inner circle of friends who want the best for you. All my friends are waiting for this Bollywood wedding and this massive party shmarty of celebrations and it would be totally glamorous! They want the best for me.
The people who I have met at my events are all very independent women, the events are priced at certain levels and pitched that way too. They aren’t guys who live at home, some girls do but that is more accepted, traditionally, of girls than with guys. These people have respect for their families yet have their high flying careers and they are their own people.
Even their families have now evolved. 5 or 10 years ago their families would’ve said to them marry e.g. ‘a Sikh guy from this caste only’ and then what happens is over the years they have seen maybe a cousin marry a English guy or someone in the family marrying a Hindu guy so that boundary has come down. We are evolving and the boundaries are coming down however they aren’t so low that Muslims are dating Hindu’s and Sikhs.
London Dinner Club is next. I have been contacted by the Asian members and they say they love the events but their non Asian friends would like to come along. But the ‘Asian Dinner club’ is unfortunately Asian Only. This is where London Dinner Club will address that gap in the market. The level of events would be the same, the website would still have the classy feel, the regal crown, the venues, eye catching and beautiful and you know you aren’t going to meet a married guy there!
And finally Salima, can you match make me with someone?
Yes, I have a nice Gujarati guy for you……………………………..x
I would like to thank Salima Manji for giving me her time on this blog, for the cupcakes and the delicious cappuccino. I wish her and her and Asian Dinner Club every single success in the world. I hope many more marriages take place and I look forward to meeting a man through the Manji Match Making process! x
Most importantly, if you want to register with Asian Dinner Club just visit the website: www.asiandinnerclub.com and remember to give feedback.