Willing to cook for strangers, but guests are harder to find
Social-dining services give chefs and others an opportunity to share food experiences out of their homes, but many potential guests remain wary
In a penthouse apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown on a recent Monday night, Lisa Larsson chopped shiitake mushrooms and looked rather relaxed for someone about to host a 14-person dinner. She had arranged the party through the app AirDine, which lets users pay to eat at strangers’ houses, rating the experience afterward. The app started in Sweden last year and expanded to the United States and elsewhere in March. Larsson, 26, a painter originally from Sweden, was hosting the first party in the United States.
The guests — half friends and half strangers — arrived. Mostly millennials, they displayed a dinner-party-appropriate gravitas: pocket squares, bottles of wine for Larsson. There was only a whiff of cynicism when Noor Shams, who works in microfinance, said the doorman downstairs did not recognise Larsson’s name and “for a second, I was like, ‘This is a scam!’”
It was not a scam — but whether AirDine and a wave of similar apps can get consumers to embrace them is a question. While other companies have conquered car rides (Uber), bedroom rentals (Airbnb) and errand running (TaskRabbit), AirDine and services like EatWith and Feastly are trying to master shared dining. Yet social dining has not caught on in the same way so far, and a few of the apps have already shut down.
The challenge is not finding hosts willing to invite strangers over. It’s finding guests willing to show up.
“My thought was, ‘It must be hard to find these amazing chefs and hosts, and convince them to do it out of their home’. That actually hasn’t been the obstacle,” said Susan Kim, the chief executive of EatWith, whose site started in 2012. “When people try it, they love it, but how do we get people to try this new way of experiencing a city or a new way of eating out? It’s been an intellectual conundrum.”
The social-dining companies come at the premise from different angles. EatWith focuses on travellers, with meals in 200 cities. Feastly signs up professional chefs as hosts. VoulezVouzDîner lets travellers and other diners request hosted meals on specific days. AirDine asks hosts to arrange fixed dinners and, ideally, fill the table with
strangers. And BonAppetour and VizEat offer food experiences, like market tours, along with meals.
But all try to make money in the same way: The companies take a percentage of what hosts charge guests to attend, usually 15-20%. Hosts can set whatever price they like for guests; Larsson charged US$10 (348 baht) a head, while lots of EatWith and Feastly meals run $80 and up. The companies generally do not charge guests or hosts to join the platforms.
Christienne Dobson, a designer in Harlem and an EatWith host, said she saw cooking as a hobby rather than an income stream. “Basically, I’m not spending money to host people — it pays for itself, which is really nice, so I can source better
ingredients, source different types of food,” she said.
Many of the social-dining sites and apps began around 2012, spurred by other companies that promote the sharing model, like Airbnb.
“After that exists for a few years, you look at your kitchen and say, ‘Couldn’t that be a restaurant?’” said Simon Rothman, a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners, whose firm led an $8 million financing of EatWith in 2014. “At that moment, it starts to be obvious to multiple people.”
Mitch Monsen, the founder of Kitchen. ly, a social-dining app that he shut down in 2013, said diners were particularly concerned about sanitary issues and hosts’ personal-cleanliness standards.
The feedback was, “I’m not entirely sure that the meal I’m going to be eating is safe,” he said.
The apps must also be prepared for regulatory challenges, said Seth B. Weinberg, a lawyer who teaches food law and policy at Columbia Law School. “Once you start charging people, you cease to be a hobbyist and you start becoming a commercial enterprise, even a small one,” he said. Regulators could also potentially require liquor licenses and food-safety standards for meals arranged this way, he added.
To attract more users, some sites and apps are now tinkering with their strategy.
EatWith has begun analysing guests’ ratings to see what works best at dinners, and sharing that information with hosts. The company has found that 12-person parties work, as do pairs of hosts — one cooking and one socialising.
EatWith also began requiring that hosts cook a demo meal with real guests giving ratings before allowing the host on the site; it accepts only 4% of applicants as hosts. The company also plans to expand to South America, Kim said.
Feastly, which used to accept a range of hosts, also now focuses on professionals like private chefs or restaurant chefs. It has added about 100 venue spaces where the cooks can host dinner, said a founder, Noah Karesh, and is planning an expansion across the United States and into Europe.
As for AirDine, Charlie Hedstrom, its chief executive, said he thought that its more laid-back approach — it does not screen hosts and lets the ratings provide feedback — works well and that it will get a boost with more marketing.
Back at Larsson’s apartment, the guests took their seats along a candlelit table to eat the first course of salmon sashimi. But there was a wrinkle: While Larsson had dashed out earlier to get enough plates, she was short on water glasses.
“If you like alcohol, stick to that,” Larsson advised, as conversations started between guests discussing Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister of Italy, versus US President Donald Trump, among other topics.
The second course was fillet mignon and cucumber-pea salad. One guest, Alex Sommer, gave the night an early rave, especially compared with a meal he had attended through a competing app, where the table was crammed against the host’s bed.
Third course: lamb with shiitake-cream sauce and berries sautéed in Hennessy.
“Can we have another toast to the chef?” someone shouted. “I love her!” yelled another.
As the dessert of passion fruit sorbet arrived, guests, short on spoons, plunged forks in. A candle petered out, the music got louder, someone knocked over a glass and the guests theorised about love as the clock ticked on.
Soon after, Larsson’s AirDine ratings came in: five stars from each guest. A few weeks later, several United States hosts had arranged AirDine dinners; almost all still had seats available.