Looking for love

Dinner 4 Six proves to be the right place for many Chico singles

Shawn Ramsey, who owns the Dinner 4 Six singles organization, cherry-picked her own boyfriend, Steve Davis, from among the members. In the background, dance instructor Bob Walker leads a couple of dozen members in an activity.

Shawn Ramsey, who owns the Dinner 4 Six singles organization, cherry-picked her own boyfriend, Steve Davis, from among the members. In the background, dance instructor Bob Walker leads a couple of dozen members in an activity.

Photo By Tom Angel

The tables in a side room at Nash’s restaurant have been pushed toward the walls to make way for a dance floor, and two dozen people are learning to step and twirl. In between the instructors’ directions, they talk intently with partners they’ve only just met. A college professor is paired with a dentist, a social worker locks arms with a rancher, and after a while everyone switches partners and starts over.

There are no wallflowers here. That’s because everybody is the room is looking for love, having decided that if Cupid hasn’t knocked on their door by now, they’re going to come looking for the arrow-toting little red guy themselves.

They’re members of Dinner 4 Six, a singles social organization—”not a dating service,” owner Shawn Ramsey reminds inquirers—that’s been pairing up Chico date-seekers for years.

“The slogan I’ve always used is, ‘Meet quality singles,'” said Ramsey, who took over the business six years ago. Most members are professionals and well-educated, and there are many teachers, health care professionals and business owners in the mix.

Ramsey sets them up for dinner out in a group of six people hand-picked for age and interests.

“It’s like blind date times three,” Ramsey said. “Most of my members say, ‘I would never place an ad, I would never do international dating and I would never hang out in a bar. … You can’t figure out the chemistry over the phone or by e-mail, so we start with the dinner and make them talk to each other in a safe environment where they can relax and hopefully be themselves.”

In the era of deceptive Joe Millionaire, cringingly captivating The Bachelor, entertainingly lowbrow Elimidate and a slew of voyeur-on-a-blind-date TV shows, Chico’s version is so low-key most people don’t even know it exists.

The group has about 200 members, 70 percent of them from Chico, with about a dozen joining and leaving each month, keeping the mix fresh. Most of the members are 45 to 55—the baby-boomer set—but Ramsey is getting increasing interest from those in their 30s and even 20s.

They pay $100 for a lifetime membership and $20 in dues for each month they want to participate in activities. (A trial dinner is $25, after which, Ramsey said, nine out of 10 end up deciding to join.) Members also pick up the tab for their own meals, lessons and so on.

Members have experienced wine tastings, picnics, golf lessons, trips to the farmers’ market and bunco game night. “It’s a way to meet somebody with the same interests as you,” Ramsey said. “There are plenty of things to do [in Chico]; there’s just nobody to do them with.”

Every four months Dinner 4 Six hosts a mixer with 40 to 60 people in attendance. Members gathered at Chico BrewHouse for a Super Bowl party and planned a dance in the days before Valentine’s to, Ramsey said, “give them the opportunity to meet their valentine.”

Ramsey said that’s what Dinner 4 Six is all about: opportunities. “I’m not a matchmaker. I’m an opportunity-maker.”

When “Jean” and “David” joined Dinner 4 Six, they each set their expectations low.

Jean, in her late 40s, and David, a little older, had both been single for several years. They missed getting out and socializing, and if joining a singles groups meant they wouldn’t have to have dinner alone, they were up for it. Any random arrows Cupid might shoot across the table would be a bonus.

But Jean admits she was sick of being single. She’d work long days at her social-work job and then go home to Paradise ("very, very slim pickings up there,” she said of the dating scene on the Ridge).

Jean was typical of singles in their 40s and 50s, who may be ending long-term relationships, aren’t sure how to start over and find themselves in an awkward position when it comes to dating. They’re either out of practice, don’t know where to start looking, or both. (Ramsey said a lot of her members lack opportunities to meet people because they work long hours in career jobs alongside employees they can’t date or people of the same gender.)

“I was out of the dating game for 30 years,” Jean said. “I wasn’t meeting anyone.”

For Jean, Dinner 4 Six sounded safer, even easier than trying to navigate the potentially treacherous dating scene in bars, personal ads or online. “[Ramsey] basically did all the footwork,” she said. Filling out a survey of her likes and dislikes “narrowed it down.”

Dinner 4 Six’s “membership profile” lets singles note everything from profession, religion and pets to whether they “desire a new baby.” They also have to sign a contract promising they’re not married.

“Everyone has their basic wish list about what kind of people they want to meet,” said Ramsey, who then tries to structure the dinners around potential matches.

She’s tried to guess who will end up together, but more often people she never would have imagined as partners end up together. “That’s always a surprise to me,” she said. “The ones who hooked up I would not have predicted.”

Jean figured if she happened to be seated with a woman who would make a good movie-going companion, she’d be happy. She went on 12 dinners, but no one “clicked.”

“I met this gentleman on my last dinner,” she said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Where were you 30 years ago?'”

The fellow Jean met, “David,” who works in agriculture, was similarly startled at the romantic turn of events.

“I had been single for quite a few years,” he said. “Initially, I checked out the bar scene. It was always just the same old people, the same old stories, people having too much to drink, and it just got old.”

“It gave me a reason to go out, and I wasn’t going to dinner by myself,” he said. “I didn’t have any pressure on myself to meet someone. I just took it one dinner at a time. Everybody I met was nice. If I didn’t feel the match, I wouldn’t pursue it.”

If someone at a dinner, where only first names are allowed to be revealed, decides he or she wants to pursue a one-on-one date with someone else, that person calls Ramsey. If the intended partner does the same, it’s a match, and Ramsey coughs up their respective phone numbers.

If it doesn’t work out, Ramsey said, at least you had dinner out. “You’re not stuck buying dinner for somebody you can’t stand. … When the conversation lags, there are five other people to pick up the conversation.”

Ramsey acknowledged that there is a bit of a competitive element to the setup. “People may say this is only for geeks and nerds who can’t get a date. It’s actually the other way around. The geeks and nerds can’t stand the heat. … When I tell people that our group is mostly professionals, it eliminates people who are intimidated by that.”

Before Ramsey bought the Dinner 4 Six business, it had been called Circle of Friends. “I took it on as a second job, or as a hobby almost, just as a social outlet for myself,” she said. For 10 years, Ramsey had worked in a similar role, placing high-school foreign-exchange students with host families. Now, she runs Dinner 4 Six full-time.

Ramsey said she averages six dinners a week and has even had four going on during one night. The dinners must take place in restaurants that allow both reservations and separate checks, such as Nash’s, Kramore Inn, Redwood Forest and La Hacienda.

“I don’t know very many people who are enjoying their job as much as I am,” she said. “I get to vicariously enjoy everybody’s love life.”

Ramsey screens the applicants to filter out the freak factor—although there’s a clause in the contract stating Dinner 4 Six is not responsible for the “behavior or interaction” of its members. (Rule-breakers or those “judged undesirable by three or more members and/or the management” are kicked out.)

“My group offers a feeling of protection, of safety,” she said, adding proudly: “I’ve never had anybody stalk anybody. You feel so protected because nobody knows your last name and nobody know anything about you other than what you want to tell.”

It doesn’t hurt—even though she’d never use it to her advantage—that her ex-husband is District Attorney Mike Ramsey. That seems to weed out the ex-cons.

The $100 one-time membership fee also narrows the field. As one member put it, “The sleazebags aren’t going to pay that.”

While the women are more interested in meeting someone honest and trustworthy, “the men are more visually oriented. Most of the men want somebody slender, attractive and younger,” Ramsey said with a little disdain. She’s even had a guy walk out of dinner after deciding he didn’t like what he saw.

Ramsey makes sure the members critique each dinner. If they ended up with people they’d never want to spend time with, she wants to know about it so she can do better the next time.

During one feedback session, she listened to a member describing the type of women he was looking for and what his interests were. “After each dinner, his descriptions brought somebody to mind. I kept thinking, ‘He’s describing me.'” Claiming owner’s privilege, she asked the man out herself, and they’ve been dating for more than six months.

Ramsey will offer dating advice, if members want it, on everything from how to dress to general etiquette. “I’m the dating guru. I’m the den mother. People ask me all kinds of questions, and I hold their hands.”

Also, she’ll tell people to back off if the spark’s not there. “Life’s too short to waste somebody’s time.”

The setup whereby phone numbers must be exchanged through Ramsey has a benefit beyond safety: If a man were to ask a woman out at the table, and she said no, he might ask someone else there. “She knows she’s No. 2, and she’s not going to go for it. So if a man plays his cards right, he can get all three numbers.”

David, who found his match with Jean, said it’s a tough decision to put oneself out on the sometimes-cruel dating market. “It’s difficult being single,” he said. “I got by OK. I could do for myself.” But there’s a desire in almost everyone to be “partnered up.”

Then, once you start meeting people, there’s the initial awkwardness of “talking about yourself without being a braggart.” And when things start looking like they might get serious, a whole new crop of questions pop up. A common one with those in their 30s or 40s is the issue of children still at home. “You wonder, wow, do I want to get involved with another family?” David said.

David also worried about whether the potential dates were emotionally ready for a new relationship. “Many of these people had gone through divorce or had a death,” David said. “Nobody wants to get hurt a second or third time.”

That’s how “Bonnie,” who calls herself “middle-aged,” felt about dating after being widowed. “After my husband died, I thought, ‘OK, my life is over.'”

“A really good friend said, ‘I don’t want you to sit at home anymore.'” Bonnie wasn’t sure she was ready for a new man friend, but she immediately met several women with whom she became friends.

(Dinner 4 Six also hosts “ladies’ nights,” where they dish the guys. Bonnie kept getting friends to join so she wouldn’t have to pay the fee.)

The Chico woman went to wine tastings, picnics and bunco. “I started seeing this one guy at each one of the things.” They “chatted and chatted some more.” By the time they were partnered at a dance lesson, Bonnie and “Bill” were in full-fledged flirt mode. “I asked him how tall he was, and he said, ‘Six-two, and what’s your bra size?'”

Soon, they started dating exclusively, and after four months together traveled cross-country for a vacation. “I’m completely floored, because I wasn’t seeking. I was just going out and having fun with the girls,” Bonnie said. “To again meet someone is amazing to me.”

“Zelda,” a 38-year-old business owner, joined after a bad breakup capped off a bad relationship during which most of her close friends bailed on her. She just wanted to get out and meet people again.

“There was a few months where I did the online thing,” she said. “It was just scary, because even though you chat with them on the Internet, it’s an absolutely blind date. [And] I hate bar scenes. Once a year my sisters talk me into going, and I come home saying, ‘Why the heck did I go?'”

At her first dinner, Zelda got numbers from two women with whom she had things in common. At the second dinner, at La Hacienda, she met a man—a school counselor—and “the next thing I knew I was in love with the man.”

Tom and Lechia Dickinson met through Dinner 4 Six and immediately hit it off. Less than a year later, they were married.

Photo courtesy of The Dickinsons

Now, she jokes around to her friends: “I paid for him.” “Most people thought it was really cool.”

Patricia, a widow who works in health care, is still looking. After a period of mourning, she said, “You go, OK, where are all the single men? How do you get over the loneliness?”

She’s met some nice people though online dating but likes Dinner 4 Six because it keeps her active. “It’s a social thing—it’s getting out,” she said. “I’m going to take it as it comes. I’m going to meet people and make friends.”

Another member, Gary, joined because “what guy doesn’t want to meet lots of girls?”

The activities add to the experience, he said, because, “It’s not a club where the only thing is dating and romance and sex.”

Gayla, an auditor/accountant, has been a member for 10 months, having joined with the goal of “getting out and meeting people and being able to go out and meet people as a group.” She had been married for 28 years, and when that ended she was struck with the fact that “this is a college town and there’s not that many places to meet people who are middle-aged.”

She’d always wanted to learn to dance, and with Dinner 4 Six’s gatherings, “I have kind of a captive audience. They have to dance with me.” The whole experience has boosted her confidence. “The first couple of times I came I was scared to death.”

That was how Madeline Keaveney, who teaches communication studies at Chico State, felt at first. “It’s difficult for me to go into a room full of people that I don’t know. I get very nervous and uncomfortable,” she said. But knowing that everybody’s in the same boat made her feel better.

She started slow with activities like game night and dances but now goes to about two dinners a month as well. “It’s really expanded the circle of people I know,” said Keaveney, who added that university folk may hesitate to expand their horizons, and “it’s very easy to get immersed in your work.”

“Being single in Chico requires a venue to meet appropriate people,” said Jerry Bodman, who works in management at a local business and joined Dinner 4 Six eight months ago. “You don’t create successful relationships in a bar environment. This gives us an opportunity to have a structure to it. There’s no pressure on anybody. The whole initial awkwardness is prevented.”

“If you’re not out there getting involved in the game, you’re out of the game,” he said. “If it happens, it’s wonderful, and if it doesn’t, it still gives me a venue for social interaction.”

The ultimate reward, Ramsey said, is when someone finds a long-term match. “I’ve only been invited to two weddings in six years, but I know there’s been a lot more than that,” she said.

One couple who met through Dinner 4 Six is Tom and Lechia Dickinson, who married in October 2002 after having met at a February dinner.

“I had a pretty good idea of the kind of person I wanted,” said Tom, a recreation professor at Chico State University whose daughter had suggested he join Dinner 4 Six after she waited on the group at a restaurant. “I was intrigued by the idea.”

“I had supreme faith that the right person was out there,” said Tom, while Lechia was skeptical when she first joined.

Tom went to several dinners before being grouped with Lechia, a medical social worker who had signed up after hearing about Dinner 4 Six from an acquaintance. The dinner was her fourth.

“When he walked in, I said, ‘Umm-hmm,'” Lechia remembered. They talked about common interests—fishing and baseball—and two or three days later, Tom called Lechia and asked if she wanted to go to the symphony.

“I screamed, ‘Boy, would I!'” Lechia said. They also went out to eat and to Wildcat basketball games. “It got serious pretty fast,” she said.

Ramsey pointed out that, in life, a love match can strike at any time and any place, so why not push it a little and up the odds?

“Prince Charming is not going to come knock on your door. You have to put yourself out there."