Micheal Sparks, CEO of Underground Kitchen, is a fashion-designer-turned-culinary-entrepreneur who created a pop-up supper club that offers its members unique fine dining experiences, set in unexpected, secret locations within their city.
After 35 years of working as a fashion designer, Sparks transitioned into the food industry when he moved to Richmond from New York in 2009. It was a perfect time, as the culinary scene in Richmond was just beginning to flourish.
As an avid home cook and food enthusiast, Sparks engulfed himself in the city’s hidden gems of comfort and luxury while looking for ways to share them with others. Eventually, he connected with several of his neighbors, and together they formed The Underground Kitchen, a shared fine dining experience with the spirit of community at the center.
BLACK ENTERPRISE spoke exclusively with Sparks about the inspiration behind this unique supper club experience.
When did you launch Underground Pop-Up Supper Club?
Sparks: It all began in my backyard, moving from NYC to Richmond in 2009. We didn’t know anyone. As a home cook, I thought a great way to engage with others in our community would be by throwing New York-style dinner parties. As these parties grew, all the profits went to organizations that provide relief to local areas with food insecurities.
Within the first six years, we provided culinary experiences to 32 cities along the East Coast, which has now grown to 42 cities, with a concentration in a 4-hour radius of Richmond, Virginia. We put on four to five events each month, 54 events per year, including a dinner at the James Beard House with five diverse chefs cooking during an event focusing on a collaboration of diversity. At Fort Monroe, we curated a beautiful event honoring the history of this site and those who passed through its walls both at the beginning and end of slavery.
What was the mission/inspiration behind the company?
Sparks: The mission or vision behind UGK was to create a safe space free from discrimination and abuse for people of color, women, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community. This allows chefs to express their art through food with authenticity while honoring their culture. Our chefs are shown appreciation for talent rather than oftentimes finding themselves supporting white male chefs doing most of the work without recognition.
Our chefs are not just offering amazing food but an experience. Seeing a disproportionate representation of minority groups and their contributions to the culinary community, I knew that this needed to change. When people think about American cuisine, the ethnic foundation of our food, its flavors, preparation methods, and origins are too often overlooked, and UGK brings this to the forefront.
I had the privilege to tour Richmond’s historical sites with Ralph White. The feeling I had listening to him tell the history of the area was indescribable. He showed me and brought to life the sites of the slave trade and the dangerous path to freedom many took by way of the Underground Railroad, and how the locations were always changing for the protection and safety of those seeking freedom. In conjunction with this experience —and what I know of women like Georgia Gilmore funding the civil rights movement through an organized network of home cooks selling their food door to door to support the effort of much-needed change in our country—I was deeply inspired, and I wanted to honor those who came before us.
Through their struggle, tenacity, and strength, we are allotted opportunities they never got, and we cannot forget their sacrifice. UGK allows chefs to tell their stories, honors those who came before us, and creates a setting to share the experiences of others through food. One thing a good meal is good for is bringing people together.
How has the pandemic affected business?
Sparks: The pandemic allowed us to look beyond the exclusive dinner experience, and so came The Underground Kitchen Community First. UGK Community First has provided hearty soups rich in flavor and fresh-baked bread; all prepared thoughtfully by our chefs to over 170,000 families in need as well as first responders over the course of the pandemic.
We are continuing to deliver soup and bread to those in need today and actively working with other nonprofit organizations to continue to provide good whole foods and the means to prepare food to those in areas that are often overlooked.
What does the future of the Underground Pop-Up Supper Club look like?
Sparks: The demand for our experience is growing and expanding across the country. We have many corporate events and a TV offer on hold as we wait for Covid to subside. Our main focus for the future remains the same, and that is to provide a platform that allows a diverse selection of chefs an audience to spread awareness, start owning their heritage, as well as reclaim and present it in new ways.
We want to empower them to move toward owning their own brands and creating a platform to share their story through food and culture with the ability to sell directly to the public.