A potato-themed speed dating venture

In the red-hued darkness of the California Clipper in Humboldt Park, a few dozen speed daters chattered on a damp Tuesday evening. Some arrived alone, others accompanied by friends or coworkers. They sat with name cards that got the basics out of the way: name, pronouns, sexuality. People lean in to hear over the noise or perhaps to flirt.

How to meet new people and form meaningful connections outside of work and school is a ubiquitous and challenging social question. Katie Conway has identified one potential answer through creating Hot Potato Hearts, a series of speed dating and friend-making events occurring at neighborhood Chicago bars.

An event at California Clipper Credit: Courtesy Hot Potato Hearts

After a conversation with a friend last year about wanting to try out speed dating but finding limited options in the area, she went ahead and made a potato-themed speed dating Instagram account. “I created the Instagram, and I just started emailing bars that I knew and liked and felt comfortable in,” recounts Conway. “And I was like ‘Can I host a speed dating event?’ and some bars responded and said ‘Yes!’ and I was like, amazing, let’s do it!”

She expected fewer than ten people to show up to the first event, perhaps just supportive friends and people she already knew. When the time came, 24 people attended after hearing about the gathering on Instagram or Eventbrite. Hot Potato Hearts addresses a need that many might not fully realize they’ve been missing, Conway herself included. “After my first Hot Potato Hearts event, I came home, and I was just like, I feel so much more like myself than I have for the past two years. It was really affirming that not only did other people want it but how much better it made me feel to be back in my element.”

Katie Conway Credit: Courtesy Hot Potato Hearts

Inclusivity and intentionality are vital to the success of Hot Potato Hearts: the events are explicitly LGBTQ+ friendly and eschew the awkward seriousness people may associate speed dating with. It bills itself as “a space for all genders, all sexualities, all races, all abilities,” with four straightforward requirements: “be 21+, single or ethically non-monogamous, open-minded, and looking to meet cool new people.”

Conscious of the ongoing pandemic, all events require vaccination and recommend masks. Conway brings extra masks in case people forget. When it’s warm enough, events are hosted outdoors. The caring, considerate nature of the community she’s built comes into play here; when people feel sick before an event, they’ll let Conway know so she can transfer their ticket to a later event, keeping everyone safe and happy.

Meeting and chatting up strangers in a bar is a situation we’ve all become a little less accustomed to, but Conway emphasizes that people are actually very open to the idea of speed dating. She encourages a casual and inviting environment, saying, “I don’t just push romantic relationships, but platonic ones as well. And also just enjoying a conversation with someone else. You can just talk to someone else for five minutes and enjoy the conversation and not have to interact with them again.”

Nerves are the number one concern people tend to voice beforehand. Once they get going at an event, however, Conway says the anxiety tends to diminish. Participants are also free to take a break or leave at any point if they feel overwhelmed, and Conway makes sure to reach out later to check in.

Potential daters talk across the tables at a Hot Potato Hearts event. Credit: Courtesy Hot Potato Hearts

The structure and culture of Hot Potato Hearts set the tone in many ways. Rotating across five-minute conversations with people who also opted to be there, with question-laden index cards on the tables if you need a starting topic, many of the uncomfortable aspects of approaching or being approached at a bar are removed or smoothed over. Fostering this vibe has been purposeful and quite successful, according to Conway: “I think my online community and marketing do a really good job of pulling the right people to my events. All the people at my events always have warm and welcoming energy, and they’re just there to enjoy their night.”

After the series of five-minute conversations, participants write down the names of the people they’re interested in connecting with on the backs of their name tags. If the match is mutual, Conway shares contact information with both parties. She has heard updates from a few success stories, platonic and romantic, that have emerged from this endeavor.

Hot Potato Hearts has been received positively, with an approximate count of 694 people across 23 events as of the beginning of December. Conway estimates that usually about a third of the people who come to her events are regulars or repeat participants, while the majority are first-timers. The age range of the group tends to hover around mid-twenties to early thirties for the most part, but Conway notes that she has also had older participants as well. Regarding the potential for events specifically targeting an older crowd, Conway acknowledged that, “All of my friends’ divorced parents have been like, ‘When are you doing one for me?’ So it’s on the vision board.”

In addition to speed dating, Conway has begun to branch out and build community in a variety of potato-themed ways. The bi-monthly “Book Spuds” book club read the novel Nevada by Imogen Binnie in November. The group will discuss Janelle Monae’s The Memory Librarian at their January 29th gathering at Dorothy.

Then there’s Perfect Mash, a live dating show that now takes place monthly at Schubas Tavern. Three contestants, nominated by themselves or friends, are featured in a mix of activities like trivia and other games. Audience members take a compatibility quiz and the most compatible receive the opportunity to chat with the contestants on stage. Once they find their “perfect mashes,” pairs can go on a date sponsored by local venues like Lincoln Hall, Avondale Bowl, and Bernice’s Tavern.

The project has already spawned relationships, friendships, and group chats, and has become extensive enough that Conway has been able to hire a part-time assistant to help out and bounce ideas off of. Future plans include growing Perfect Mash, designing more recurring events at bars, hosting sober events, partnering with nonprofits for more fundraisers, promoting healthy relationships and safer sex resources, and engaging with local artists in the city. 

And how exactly do potatoes relate to speed dating? “Potatoes work on many levels because they’re not gendered the way some fruits and vegetables are. And speed dating is kind of similar to the hot potato game ’cause you’re moving around the room as the hot potato,” Conway explains. “But also I just love potatoes, and I refer to myself as a hot potato. Or if a friend sends me a photo where they look cute, I tell them ‘You’re one hot potato!’”

As a self-professed potato-lover, Conway recommends a very thinly sliced potato slathered in paprika, ginger, a little bit of chili, and olive oil, roasted until nice and crispy. Or for a fancier option, sweet potato gnocchi. And french fries are excellent for any occasion, perhaps shared with a friend or romantic interest met at speed dating.

Perfect Mash: a live and interactive dating showMon 1/23, 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, $10, 21+

Book Spuds: a book club celebrating queer storiesSun 1/29, 6:30 PM, Dorothy, 2500 W. Chicago, free but reservations required at Eventbrite, 21+

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