February 11, 2024 - 2:15pm

“The perfect first date would be espresso martinis at Soho House.” Does this sound like a tempting proposition? According to a LinkedIn post from August by one Jack Raines, it was the key to making $343,000. Raines explained that he had created an AI-generated dating app profile for an “8/10 brunette” woman living in New York featuring that very line. Her 30,000 matches (“ChatGPT has been handling the conversations”) would all fork out thousands of dollars for a membership, bumping up Soho House’s earnings and giving Raines a unique trading advantage.

This, of course, didn’t actually happen. It was one of Raines’s many LinkedIn “shitposts” featuring satirical get-rich-quick schemes. The true state of Soho House’s finances, according to financial analysts GlassHouse Research, will have members weeping into their signature “Picante” cocktails. GlassHouse published a stinging report this week, alleging the chain had a “broken business model” with “terrible accounting”; had admitted too many members, with a corresponding drop in service standards; and that its worth, after 28 years of never turning a yearly profit, was “zero”.

Soho House rejected all this as “false and misleading”. But with its board members now buying back shares to potentially take the company private, something is clearly amiss. In December, founder Nick Jones acknowledged the overcrowding complaints by announcing a yearlong freeze on new members in London, New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of Soho House’s predicament is a meme posted by the Instagram account Sohohousememes, following the format of a sweating superhero having to choose between two buttons: one says “make money”, the other “be a good members club”.

That’s it, really. The point of a club is that some people aren’t part of it. But you can’t charge non-members membership fees. The original Soho House — a house, in Soho, at 40 Greek Street — was meant to be a haven for creative types, like the Groucho Club a minute’s walk away. A slightly try-hard “no tie” policy was loosely enforced to keep out those boring bankers. But Soho House ended up becoming much more than a single Soho house. It now has 41 branches across the world and 250,000 members. This doesn’t exactly reek of exclusivity.

Scaling up vertiginously without worrying about profit is standard corporate practice these days. This is all very well if you’re in the food delivery game, but the mystique of a club will not survive such a process. In a way, Soho House was a victim of its own success: it kept opening branches and people kept baying to be let in. But somewhere along the way, it stopped being a club and became another upmarket hospitality brand, selling expensive cocktails, boutique hotel stays and even furniture, if you want to take the vibe home with you.

And it might be that vibe which truly explains things. Maybe, back in the days of Tony Blair and David Cameron, when wearing a suit without a tie marked you out as a maverick free-thinker, Soho House was genuinely cool. Today, it represents the normie’s idea of tastefulness, with tightly harmonious colour schemes and vague gestures towards mid-century style. The decor, music and clientele are a little more interesting than you might find in a Ritz-Carlton, but not so interesting as to be challenging.

There’s none of the arcane tradition of a traditional London gentleman’s club; none of the Bond-villain eccentricity of the Tory-slash-oligarch hangout 5 Hertford Street, nor the scruffy ease of bohemian nooks like the Academy Club or Trisha’s. And this is why Soho House could expand the way it did. The only time I’ve been to the original Greek Street branch, I was the guest of a friend working for an asset management company, who hadn’t updated his LinkedIn account for fear of jeopardising his application. He had, I think, joined mainly to take dates there. Maybe Raines’s LinkedIn post wasn’t such a joke after all.

Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.