“It’s like we’ve got loads of balls that have different things written on them, like food and comedy, and we’ve thrown them up in the air and then we’ve caught different things,” Maria K Georgiou, one half of Mam Sham, tells me when I ask her to talk me through exactly what it is her and business partner/best friend Rhiannon Butler do.
If you haven’t heard of Mam Sham, then I recommend looking them up – they’re worth having on your radar. The question was a necessary one because Mam Sham is one of those businesses/enterprises/initiatives that has its finger in a number of pies, so to say. Whether they’re hosting their own events – not quite supper clubs, not quite comedy shows, more “theatre” as Georgiou puts it – or catering and event-planning for companies, Mam Sham has a special approach to food and experiences.
“When we started Mam Sham, we didn’t have a business plan or a strict view of what we were trying to achieve,” says Butler. “We wanted to create something honest, something that was different to a lot of the commercial nights out that are very money driven.”
Their first ever event was described by both Butler and Georgiou as “overcomplicated”. “Our first one was for like 70 people, and looking back on it, I’m like, the sound was so wrong, the lighting was wrong, we under-budgeted for everything. But it was so much fun. It was amazing. And that’s where we started,” says Georgiou. “We’ve been best friends since we were 11, so 20 years,” adds Butler, “and so we can’t help but put ourselves in it and as they grew they were representing more and more of me and Maria and our interests and the comedy that we like to see. It was all very selfish, all of it has been based around our personal likes, our integrity, and the creative freedom that we’ve given each other.”
Georgiou touches on the dichotomy between London restaurants and experiences in general, discussing how the city is awash with incredible restaurants that put producer and provenance front and centre, but that this has failed to connect with the city’s incredible array of events. “It’s this weird thing like, the two are never going to collide. But you want to do something that’s fun where there’s an emphasis on quality,” she adds.
If you had to strictly define Mam Sham, and Georgiou and Butler’s job in general, they say the intention is to entertain. And entertain they do. While Mam Sham’s ticketed events (the ones they host themselves, where all proceeds go to charity) used to be themed, these days they build the menu around the comedy acts and their set for the night. “The first thing we’ll do is talk to the act and find out what they’re talking about,” says Georgiou, “and then, actually, it normally starts from a packaging perspective, and then we get into the food.”
Both Butler and Georgiou have experience in the graphics and art worlds – Butler was working at a vinyl press when they started Mam Sham – and this experience has shaped how their events function “We’re both very visual, and we’ve always been surrounded by things that are interesting outside of just like the food on the plate,” adds Butler. “We were talking to Missy (Flynn) from Ritas last week, and we were using the example of watching The Sopranos and him eating cold lasagna out of the fridge. It’s the sensation of that, not just the lasagna. It’s like, how do you create these very particular experiences, because all of our stuff is in props – it’s very interactive.”
Both Butler and Georgiou talk about being underestimated by some of their peers – “quite a lot of guys that come to our events, like guys with big social media followings, kind of cheffy chefs, they’ll be like ‘that was actually really good’. Like, of course it was, we’re good at what we do. There is just that thing of being underestimated,” says Butler.
Not that this has ever served as an obstacle to the pair – and, in fact, they say that often being women in the industry has guided and shaped their career in very specific ways. “Nearly every time we’ve had a big thing come in, it’s been because of a really good connection with another female,” says Butler. She references their first corporate booking – an event for ASOS – which came about thanks to a female journalist attending one of their earlier ticketed events and writing about it. A woman who works at ASOS read the article, and decided to reach out and bring Mam Sham on board. “We’d only ever done two events when we got that,” says Georgiou.
They have both, of course, experienced the negative side of being a woman in hospitality – as most have. “I’ve worked in some really shit places where I’ve been really badly harassed and made to feel very uncomfortable,” says Georgiou. “I was really lucky in my last job at Bad Sports that it was a very safe space; unfortunately you can’t always control the customers, but I was really lucky to be supported there. Everywhere else I’ve worked I’ve been increasingly harassed.”
Butler seconds this. “I’m very lucky that in the last three hospitality positions I’ve had I was never made to feel unsafe by the people around me,” she says. “But I think that’s one of the major differences now working in hospitality. I’ve worked in it for 10 years and at the beginning I wouldn’t have made that change in my life to get out of an unsafe situation. Whereas now I would never work somewhere where I didn’t feel safe.”
As women in the industry, the conversation inevitably comes up often in their professional lives – sometimes organically, and other times when they approach it themselves “Every time that we talk about it on Instagram, the amount of people that get in touch is quite overwhelming,” says Butler. “You almost have to set a day aside from everything if you’re going to start that conversation online. Because there’s so many people that message you. It’s a huge problem.” They both touch on how the safety issues extend beyond simply the safety of women in the workplace, but also to generally health and safety within the high-risk areas of hospitality. “There is a huge lack of training. You’re working in an industry where you have to work with knives and wet floors and difficult members of the public and you’re just trusted to have your own intuition with that, which isn’t really fair.”
It’s safe to say Mam Sham is unlike anything else in the hospitality and events world at the moment – and for good reason. Butler and Georgiou possess an enviable level of creativity and industry knowledge that is hugely necessary to not only pull off events of this scale, but to do so with such riotous success. It’s not hard to see why after speaking to them – the two bounce off each other, their long friendship helping them develop complementary senses of humour that is so good they hardly need to employ comedy acts. Despite all the jokes and frivolity, these are two women to take completely seriously. Make no mistake; a ticket to a Mam Sham event is the hottest ticket in town at the moment.
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