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Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #30 November 21, 2013

Meal Ticket

People invite strangers into their homes for company and extra money.

By Cara Parks Twitter icon 

Shrimp ready for paella.

If a stranger walked into my house, sat at my table, threw a twenty down, and demanded dinner, I would, like most sane people, call the police, and likely hide, scream, and cry for good measure. A meal made and served in a home stands at the center of most cultures, whether or not the abode is so humble as to lack an actual table. We gather for victuals those friends and family members we hold dear, and the occasional stranger vouched for by one of the former. As any loyal fan of Game of Thrones knows, once you’ve eaten under someone’s roof you cannot be harmed.

That is, of course, until someone goes on a revenge-fueled killing spree after the digestifs and your head ends up on a pike. So I had a moment of hesitation while walking to my first meal arranged via EatWith, an online service that connects people eager to cook with those eager to eat. I chose an afternoon get-together; daytime equates to safety in my somewhat arbitrary life code.

Alex and Alejandro promised a Sunday mid-afternoon feast and a lesson in Spanish cooking. I was spending a little over a month in Barcelona with my partner; while we were having a blast, we also sought activities that would get us talking to anyone besides each other, as well as teach us more about the city. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.

But just as I went to ring the buzzer, it occurred to me that I had, in essence, seen an ad placed on the Internet by two men to come to their apartment for dinner. What sort of woman responds to such an ad? What sort of men place it?

I was the first guest to arrive. I entered their beautifully decorated apartment and installed myself in the kitchen, where Alejandro was frying whole shrimp in olive oil. “So you decided to come to this alone?” he asked me later, while we ate his delicious seafood paella. Yes, I told him. He stared at me blankly for a beat and then murmured, “That’s…admirable,” possibly searching for the word in English but more likely grasping for something other than “bonkers.”

This is the mental hurdle that EatWith is hoping to overcome, as are their competitors in the meal-sharing industry.

Andrea of EatWith and Alejandro check on the paella.

Trust but verify

The “sharing economy,” connecting individuals with resources — temporary and typically for-fee rooms, cars, or power tools — has moved from the tech fringe to the mainstream in the last few years, and was even the subject of a recent Economist cover story.

This acceptance has been driven in part by Airbnb. Airbnb lets ordinary people rent out a room, condo, apartment, house, or mansion by the night, and has reached a reported valuation of $2.5 billion only five years after it was founded. The company recently said it had connected people for five million room nights in the last year.

Today, there are a thousand ways to build online identities that are both stable and deep enough to support real-life interactions. I have no permanent home and use Airbnb almost constantly; I have all but lost my fear of entering an apartment with someone I’ve never met. My many positive experiences help, but most important is the feedback that an ever-growing network of users leave for each other.

As these services and others — such as Lyft, one of several ride-sharing services — gain members and build trust in their ability to provide a reliable insight into their members’ reputations, people are increasingly willing to carry the online interactions with strangers back to the real world.

The time for meal sharing has clearly arrived, perhaps a late entry because of the intimacy of inviting someone to a table. Guy Michlin, founder of EatWith, says that similar projects have been attempted before, but it wasn’t until recently that companies such as his, which “five or six years ago would have been really hard to explain,” make sense to people.

Launched in March of 2013, EatWith has a presence in 23 countries and plans to enter more in the coming months. Meal Sharing, which began last Thanksgiving as a free service (the culinary equivalent of Couchsurfing), is now allowing people to charge for meals and is operating in 375 cities.1 Cookening, which has developed a strong following in Europe, and Feastly a major competitor in the United States, both launched in 2012.

Many of the founders share similar creation myths of an unexpected meal at a local’s house: Jay Savsani of Meal Sharing was in Cambodia, Michlin was in Greece, and Noah Karesh of Feastly was in Guatemala. Those archetypal meals inspired their quest to connect people to the hidden food opportunities all around them.

“There was no one, centralized place to access these experiences in a trusted, secure way,” says Michlin. Meal-sharing sites sought to create that place. Or as Karesh puts it, “How do I take that magical moment I had and scale it?”

A host of challenges for hosts

Of course, “magical” and “scaling” rarely fit in the same sentence. The creation of an industry brings with it a multitude of new challenges to overcome. One is mental: it takes time to establish trust and to get users acclimated to the idea of eating dinner with strangers. With Airbnb, you can easily rent a house without ever meeting the owners, who may leave keys or a door code. With meal sharing, “You spend the whole dinner together, two, three, four hours,” says Michlin. “For better or worse, it adds a social component to the interaction.” Outgoing personalities will lead the early adopters, but will their more introverted peers follow?

Even the most charismatic among us could be stymied by some of the unusual social interactions that meal sharing elicits. In most situations, hosts are fully in charge, providing for their guests and thereby setting the rules and timeline. These are cues most people can navigate: bring a bottle of wine, leave quickly after coffee or when a host says he has an early morning, and offer to help with the dishes and cleanup.

Meal sharing muddles this relationship. Guests are providing the monetary basis for the gathering, giving them some power, while the hosts are still occupying the role of host and all that that entails. Confusion as to who should be calling the shots sometimes ensues. I brought my partner along to two other meals. He rarely eats dessert, but when it was served, what else could he do but eat what was offered like a good guest? But why would he eat something he didn’t want and pay for the privilege? Could he have declined in good conscience? (We felt he could not.)

Leaving was a thorny issue at each gathering, as well. (Not that friends always take the right social cues there either.) “It’s something that comes up a lot, should I leave or should I wait?” says Michlin. “We’re basically inventing this as we go along, so there will inevitably be rough spots.”

While he says his company may get more involved in helping with “offline interactions” next year, he is clear that ironing out every bump or idiosyncrasy is not their goal. “The last thing we want to do is re-create the restaurant experience in people’s homes,” he says. “I’ve probably been to thousands of restaurants in my life, but I hardly remember any of them.”

Food safety

Meal-sharing services face threats for their future and their growth. One is regulation. Airbnb is facing a legal battle in New York City and other municipalities where local regulations require that a property’s owner or renter be residing on site during short rentals, typically shorter than 30 days or a calendar month. New York has sought to subpoena the names of hosts. Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber (its ride-sharing part, not its taxi/livery services) have faced complaints of skirting ride-for-hire laws.

EatWith charges a set rate in Barcelona, where I tried it, but in New York they ask for a suggested donation. Joel Serra-Bevin, the country manager for EatWith in Spain, says “it is a measure to combat [restaurant] classification.” The restaurant lobby will likely prove eager to point food and safety regulators toward these services.

Another set of risks revolves around protecting customers, possibly from each other. Airbnb suffered a public-relations nightmare in 2011 when a young woman’s apartment was horrifically ravaged. The guests looted her grandmother’s jewelry, rifled through drawers, and left questionable substances throughout the house. The violated host compared the experience to rape.

The company apologized profusely weeks later and instituted changes to help those victimized in the future, including substantial insurance policies, a 24-hour customer hotline, and a “host guarantee.” It seems to have worked, at least from the PR standpoint: there have been no similar media reports despite the company’s enormous increase in rental nights since.

Meal-sharing services say they have learned from Airbnb’s earlier missteps, and are trying to hit the ground running. “We definitely don’t come from the ‘whatever happens, happens’ school,” says Savsani. “It’s the core — we’re in the trust and safety game.”

Actually providing that safety net is another story. Traditional insurance arrangements don’t work in such complex and unusual circumstances, and getting insurance companies on board — not known for their swashbuckling attitudes toward new ventures — is no small task. EatWith managed to cobble together a $1 million policy to cover guests and hosts. “It took us quite a bit of time and effort to get this policy, as it didn’t exist when we started,” says Michlin.

Feastly doesn’t have an insurance policy, instead using a guarantee (like Craigslist) that describes the site as a platform and “disclaims all liability” regarding quality, behavior of hosts, and so on. Karesh, one of the site’s founders, says they’re working on getting a policy. Savsani says Meal Sharing will finalize a policy in the next couple of months. Feastly and EatWith both say they vet and verify every host, and Meal Sharing says they use “basically the same trust and safety features as Airbnb,” including phone verification and, of course, feedback.

Chiara, an EatWith host, toasts with a guest before a lunch of hand-made ravioli.

With some reservations

Although they provide the same core service, there are differences between the sites. Meal Sharing has traditionally been free and may appeal to those looking for a more affordable option; Feastly is focusing on their target cities of San Francisco, DC, and New York, and attempting to provide a variety of experiences (“We’ve done things that are more experimental, like trying to teach people how to eat mindfully,” Karesh says); and EatWith, which encourages a more polished experience, is focusing on a rapid global expansion. In this relatively early phase, each may sound like a viable option, but as competition increases, meal sharing may go the way of so many online sectors, where a single behemoth dominates the market.

“The way I see it is, in three years time you can either go to OpenTable and make a reservation in a restaurant, or go to EatWith on your phone and find an alternative dining experience,” says Michlin. Those services have more in common than you might think; Savsani told me that although it has not been officially announced, OpenTable founder Chuck Templeton is funding Meal Sharing through Impact Engine, a startup incubator. “That’s our way of really stepping it up,” Savsani says.

The competition with and connection to restaurants raises a larger issue embedded within the sharing economy. Meal sharing can be a boon to hosts — the ones I spoke with mentioned the extra cash as one of their central, though not only, motivations — but does it also siphon income away from existing businesses that could offer more stable employment?

Karesh says with pride that Feastly is “basically allowing people to engage in what they love” and that they are “creating a lot of micro-entrepreneurs,” citing one host who went on to open a brick-and-mortar bakery after success with the service. Michlin told me that one of EatWith’s Barcelona hosts made $4,500 last month alone, a not inconsequential sum. (Spain’s youth unemployment rate hovers at an unbelievable 56 percent.)

However, sharing services don’t offer benefits, reliable pay, and workplace protections, among other ancillary goods provided in the non-sharing, old-fashioned economy. Evgeny Morozov has called this development “neoliberalism on steroids,” a micro example of the uncertainty facing millions of workers in the global economy. It’s like running a freelance restaurant, hotel, or car-rental company.

That’s how these services might differ from restaurants, but in other ways, they have the capacity to become quite similar. As Michlin says, there is no desire to re-create a sterile, restaurant experience, but it’s also a difficult thing to guard against. The key to each founder’s a-ha moment was the sense of discovering something new and unexpected, of stumbling into a fabulous Greek meal or riding through the dark in a rickshaw.

I loved talking to my hosts and met people I wouldn’t have otherwise, but it was not like, say, stumbling into a conversation in a bar. I was always aware that there was a transactional undercurrent to the experience. Savsani probably came closest when he summed up the interactions as “created serendipity.” The experience is arranged, but you can do with it what you will.

My lunch with Alex and Alejandro was excellent. I enjoyed the conversation, learned to make paella, and ate great food, and they even whipped up my favorite cocktail when we compared our experiences as bartenders. Subsequent meals were also pleasant, filled with interesting conversation and great food. Just a few days after one of the meals, a friend in New York, where EatWith had just launched, emailed me, coincidentally, asking if I had heard of the service. I told her I had and that she should apply to host a dinner.

“I want to,” she told me later. “But I’m scared.”

Photos by the author.

  1. The Magazine covered Couchsurfing’s evolution and two-time near-collapse in Stefan Kamph’s “Loose Stuffing” in our April 11, 2013, issue. 

Cara Parks has written for the New York Times, Slate, and The New Republic. She is the former deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Next stop: Shanghai.

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