“We’re not the Rotary and we are not the Garden Club,” said Ben Hennington from the “Godfather” booth at Island Dogs. “We don’t have meetings, because they are boring. We have gatherings. We don’t do 5K runs and we don’t wash cars. We drink, we have a good time and we give back.”
This is the Sunset Social Drinking Club (SSDC). It was born out of one man’s innovative thinking and fear of conformity. It takes place every month, or so, and has grown into one of Key West’s most recognizable social spectacles. It isn’t advertised in many media outlets, as most attendees either hear about the phenomenon or get invited by one of the hundreds of members. The venue typically changes between restaurants, but the fun that creator Ben Hennington envisioned has been a constant feature for more than three years.
Ben Hennington, known as the “Everywhere Man,” (it even says so on his business card) launched the Sunset Social Drinking Club concept with three girls — Debi Hindsley, Tina Hindsley and Petra Dean — and the help of the community. The first event was at Hog’s Breath in October of 2010.
“I’ve been throwing parties for restaurants and bars for more than two decades and this just made sense … I got a liquor sponsor so the first drink could be free and 75 people showed up,” said Hennington. “They didn’t know what to expect and we didn’t either. We decided to give everyone a fake name (a drinking name), which was something I brought with me from New Orleans. And we just grew from there.”
Hennington, who came to Key West by way of New Orleans, brought with him an extensive background in restaurant marketing and public relations. At one point, Hennington bought a restaurant in the Crescent City with little money and few initial customers.
“Thank God I had a restaurant because I would have gone hungry without it,” said Hennington. “When I bought Pelican’s Roost it was empty. We did everything from selling Christmas Trees in the parking lot to offering candlelight dinners when the power went out one evening. It’s all about being creative.”
However, after Katrina hit the Panhandle, Hennington relocated to Key West on what he refers to as “hurrication.” Using the same inventive devices and out-of-the-box marketing he learned in New Orleans, the entrepreneur began searching for a creative outlet in Key West.
“I don’t want to throw a party if I’m not going to win,” said Hennington. “There is a formula that works. I know we are successful when people are having fun and they stay well beyond the two hours we offer at the gathering. And in the end, we give back to the community”
Hennington’s formula has worked. Through the years his organization has donated tens of thousands of dollars to non-profits in town including MOTE Marine Laboratory, Reef Relief, Key West Police Horses, the Lodging Association Scholarship, Womankind, Diver Judy and the SPCA. In fact, at the SSDC’s premier event, called POSH (Paws Often Steal Hearts), the club raised more than $19,000 for the SPCA … in three hours.
Today, the SSDC is sponsored by the likes of Walgreens, Tito’s Vodka and Fury, along with dozens of local participants. Membership is free and so is the first drink. To attend, bring a positive vibe and a creative drinking name, because it will be placed on your nametag.
While attendance is through invitation, Hennington is offering Key West Weekly readers a chance to visit the club on Facebook to sign up for the next affair. (Just search under Sunset Social Drinking Club.).