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The Underground Kitchen is About to Expand Nationally

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Micheal Sparks isn’t great at keeping secrets — or at least, he wasn’t when he launched the Underground Kitchen in 2013. Despite its name, he told everyone about it. And it’s probably Sparks’ big personality that makes the pop-up event series so successful. It’s hard to resist his enthusiasm and passion — you find yourself reaching for your wallet to buy tickets and get in on the action after talking with him.

Now, the Underground Kitchen is poised to go national. But that doesn’t mean Sparks has forgotten Richmond. He intends to hold events here every two to three months. “What I don’t want to do,” he says, “is make Richmond suffer. … I have two crews: I have the crew who’s doing national and a crew who’ll be keeping up the promise we made to the community we serve right now.”

Sparks’ concept is full of moving parts: He snags talented chefs, unusual venues and creates one-night dinner parties with gorgeous food. The catch is that you don’t know exactly where — other than the city — the pop-up will take place until the last minute, and often you don’t know which chefs will be cooking. You also need to be ready — event notifications go out to mailing list subscribers only and tickets often sell out within minutes.

The Underground Kitchen has already made visits from South Carolina to Pennsylvania. And in March, it will begin an 18-month, 31-city national tour in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with stops that include New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle. “I’m trying to scale it so that we don’t lose the integrity of Underground Kitchen,” says Sparks. He plans to bring along local products for all of the dinners.

“There’s so many great [things]. Belle Isle, for instance, so many people in New York and New Jersey don’t know about them — they don’t know they’ve turned into a boutique business.” At the same time, Sparks plans to find other local products elsewhere to bring back to Richmond. “It’s cross-marketing for the whole country,” he says. In addition, the events also expose smaller vendors to corporate sponsors.

Sparks is also pushing other Underground Kitchen events into new territory conceptually. He calls it “enviro dining.” Another way to think about it might be theatrical dining. “It’s like Cirque du Soleil meets dinner party,” he says. Changing video images on the walls surround diners, while dramatic lighting design goes from bright to dark and back again. The sound, too, is carefully scripted. “It’s emotional, it’s sensory overload,” says Sparks. “Everything about the food experience is curated.”

And in January, he plans to launch another offshoot of the Underground Kitchen along the lines of meals-in-a-box companies Blue Apron or Hello Fresh. Think of it as a party in a box. Say you want to have six friends over to your house to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. You’ll be able to go online and choose glasses, linens, dishes, place settings — even flowers — and they’ll all arrive in a box at your doorstep.

I ask Sparks if he feels like he’s spreading himself — and the company — too thin. Not at all, he answers. He consults with a professional logistics company and an entertainment lawyer regularly to see if his ideas are feasible. “These things aren’t necessarily in my wheelhouse,” says Sparks. “But you get people who are behind you so you don’t make mistakes [they may have made in the past]. It’s been seamless — knock on wood — seamless the way we’ve done it.”

You can get a taste of the Underground Kitchen at its Classic Comforts event, with six courses by six Richmond chefs, on Dec. 14 at 6:30 p.m. Visit theundergroundkitchen.org for more details.

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