Sam Magarelli wants to create a holiday to honor community volunteers; his wife, Cathy, hopes to start a magazine. Abrah, a 24-year-old with two nose rings, has an idea for an "alternative sustainable-living educational institute" where students live in treehouses. And Jesse, the workaholic owner of three businesses, is looking to write the children's books that have been simmering in his head for years.
They've gathered with 30 others at a dimly lit restaurant in Woodstock, New York. Amid Latin music, a spread of fusilli and tiramisu, and plenty of pinot noir, they're trying to get past their pasts—and push unrealized ideas to reality.
Breakthrough Café, in its second trial evening, is an experiment that fuses dinner-party idea exchange with the focus of a brainstorming session. "If you think back to Henry Miller and other artists, they would meet at cafés. They needed community to further their ideas, and then they'd go back to their studios," says Mitch Ditkoff, the Woodstock-based innovation consultant who dreamed up the idea.
Café participants are subtly immersed in techniques that Ditkoff has used for 20 years with clients such as General Electric and Pfizer. Their first task is to define an intention—the idea they are struggling with—and write it on one of the green badges that serve as icebreakers. As strangers meet, strategically placed "inno-waiters" help guide and stimulate conversation. One device is the "either or d'oeuvres" (yes, the puns are mildly overcooked)—slips of paper served alongside the artichoke crostini that pose questions like "Dalai Lama or Dolly Parton?" to help tease out ideas.
With the wine fueling a healthy chatter, dinner is served and "tablestorming" begins. Kathy, who intends to start a business but feels overwhelmed by options, overhears another woman talking about a friend who runs cooking classes in people's homes. "I was thinking about that exact idea," Kathy exclaims. Judy chimes in, "You could sell it as dinner parties for women." Kathy furiously jots down notes.
At about 9:00, "whine lists" are distributed, kicking off the most intense part of the evening. These menus aren't about alcohol. They're the excuses we come up with to justify not doing what we really want. Guests break into small clusters to describe one another's lives 10 years hence—first, if they surrender to their "whine," and then if they actually take the creative plunge. Finally, they declare their breakthroughs in an "open mike" session. Ditkoff looks around the room like a proud chef. His café is just two nights old, but already his breakthrough has come to pass.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.