The dinner was a Japanese-inspired six-course meal made by a chef in Brooklyn. The sample menu included dishes like "steamed silken tofu with edamame sauce" and "stuffed potato ball in Dashi soup" and a roasted green tea crème brûlée for dessert. For a night out in New York City, the $57 price tag was a steal. I signed up for one of the limited spots and received an email telling me the full address of the dinner, and a note — in all caps — that shoes were not allowed inside. But then, the morning of the dinner, the event was cancelled by the chef. She wrote that it was her "sincere regret" to cancel because she hadn't reached the minimum number of reservations needed to host the meal.
"Unfortunately, due to the low number of guests, we will have to reschedule this dinner."
EatWith, the service I used to schedule this meal, is just one in a sea of others just like it. They allow chefs to promote private dinners, usually of six or more guests, and — if all goes well — make more money than they might in restaurant kitchen. Diners, meanwhile, are offered the promise of a delicious meal, perhaps some interaction with the chef, and the hope of making new friends around the dinner table.
I hoped the second try would go better. At $69, EatWith dinner number two was pricier. The night's event would be a culinary trip to "K-town" with three courses of foods like warm veggie kimbap, galbijjim, and, of course, a variety of kimchi to choose from. Former guests left unanimously glowing reviews like, "A fantastic night made perfect by a fantastic host" or simply "Outstanding!" One reviewer wrote, "Do yourself a favor and go into a very interesting environment when you meet completely new people and share a completely amazing menu." Reviewer, I tried. But once again, I was sent a note reading, "Unfortunately, due to the low number of guests, we will have to reschedule this dinner."
This, in a nutshell, is the issue facing apps and services like EatWith (henceforth collectively dubbed "Eat With Strangers Apps," or "EWSAs"). Not only do they need an army of wannabe chefs offering to sell their services and dinner tables; they need people to attend the meals, too.
EWSAs want city dwellers to stop sitting at a bar stool intensely checking their phones, stop ordering so much delivery, and make some real life connections. As Noah Karesh, founder of Feastly says, "We look at the dining room table as the original social network." Like many businesses that can be squished into "the sharing economy," EWSAs are often called "the Airbnb of food." The companies take a cut of each ticket price (and sometimes charge chefs to sign up too) and diners can eat foods too adventurous to be served in the average restaurant. Wannabe cooks that aren't interested in the high-stress/long-hours environment of a typical kitchen can play chef in the comfort of their own homes.
The first EWSAs started making headlines in the early 2010s. There were articles from both the food and tech world about companies like GrubWithUs, Kitchenly, Grouper, EatWith, HomeDine, Leftover Swap, and many others. Despite over $6 million in venture capital funding, GrubWithUs went out of business in 2013. HomeDine and Kitchenly similarly, no longer exist. (Somehow, Leftover Swap — which started as a joke — is still holding on.) And those were just a few of the companies that popped up. Lured by the promise of becoming as wealthy as Airbnb, more and more companies started coming on board. Many of these EWSAs disappeared almost as quickly as they came.
Some of the problems with EWSAs stem from the same mentality that has replaced "dinner and a movie" with "drinks at the bar" as the first date activity of choice. There are already interest-specific sites like Meetup or individual Facebook groups that facilitate making new friends. But rather than choosing between people who have only been brought together because they like food and are willing to dine with strangers, they focus on actual interests or hobbies. Want to go ghost hunting and then grab snacks at a local bar? There's a group for people like you! Plenty of groups in cities all over the world specialize in adventurous eating if you're a food lover who wants to avoid the usual tourist traps.
And it's hard to tell whether the companies that are left are doing well. Even in big cities, there aren't always a lot of meals for customers to choose from. If a would-be diner finds an EWSA they want to try for, say, tonight or tomorrow, they may not be willing to plan three or four or five nights ahead (or travel for 40 minutes) just to test out a new product. For diners and chefs, posting these events on Eventbrite or similar could work just as well as turning to a EWSA. But for companies hoping to make Airbnb-sized profits, that involves a lot of facilitation for a small cut and less overall control.
On a Thursday in the last week of March, the app EatWith had five different dinners available for the upcoming weekend. Despite a unanimous four and a half or five star rating for each host, each of them had at least five seats left. These are for dinner parties that range in size from five to 12. In all likelihood, many of these will end up cancelled at the last minute.
While Feastly often has meals available only a day or two away, (and some that are "waitlist only"), the majority of them are based in San Francisco. On a recent Monday, Chicago had no scheduled meals listed, New York had one, DC had two, LA had four, and the rest for all these cities were "available by request" — meaning, essentially, if you already have a group of friends who want to eat together, the chef will cook this meal for you.
The enduring principles that keep EWSAs going into 2016 are that people want to make friends, people like trying new foods, and there are a lot of good chefs and cooks who are looking for extra money. Putting these three things together feels like a no-brainer.
And for some chefs, it is working. Kevin Schuder, based in San Francisco, has a decade of experience working in restaurants but now doing meals for Feastly is his main source of income. With only a "couple of dinners a week and a bit of catering," he's making as much as when he was a head chef. Because of the abysmally low pay for most back of house staff, Schuder feels that a service that allows him to cut out the overhead, pay his staff better, and really focus on the food "pays off for the customer too."
With only a couple Feastly dinners a week and some catering, he's making as much as when he was a head chef.
However, he does think there's still a place for restaurants. "Consistency is important to helping cooks establish their skills," Schuder says. Just because these dinners only serve, say, 24 people at once doesn't mean the challenges and multitasking chefs have to do on the line no longer apply. "If someone doesn't have that self-discipline, they're not going to learn it through Feastly."
That's one of the reasons both Feastly and EatWith (as well as services — Homemade or Josephine are just two of many — that focus on stand-alone foods like plates of lasagne, cookies, and more) screen their cooks before adding them to their roster. In the same way a restaurant (these days) lives and dies by its Yelp reviews, so too do these businesses need their reputation. Diners want to feel like no matter what chef they choose, the meal will be a winner every time.
Currently, Feastly still only exists in a few major cities, all of them in the United States. But if they move outside it, there's one area that holds a lot of potential for EWSAs: the international community. Karesh says that they have "tens of thousands of folks" who have applied to be chefs from all over. His spiel about how this could bring income to people in poorer nations, provide opportunities for women, and how food doesn't just "fuel my body but fuel my sense of connectedness" is compelling — even if it all starts with a website.
If EWSAs haven't made great strides outside the country, they can at least showcase lesser known cuisines from foreign cooks living in the United States. Ma Hmwe, a Feastly chef from Burma (while multiple chefs from multiple services were contacted for this article, all those who responded happened to be from Feastly) worked at Burmese restaurants in San Francisco for many years before "leaving to become a Muni driver," as her bio says. Today she continues to cook simply because she loves doing it and loves the cuisine of her country. Often she spends hours cooking meals entirely from scratch something, she points out, that is hard to find at other restaurants where ingredients might be made ahead and frozen. The people who come to her meals are from many different cultures and many are trying Burmese food for the first time. So she takes pride in representing it with precision and care.
For chefs who want to host a meal that may not work for an actual restaurant, Karesh believes EWSAs are the perfect venue. One of Feastly's chefs likes to make bug-based meals which "aren't a restaurant business model you could do but they work on our platform." But the pop-up model, which facilitates meals like this, has been around — and growing in popularity — for quite some time. Last year Manhattan's Blue Hill restaurant did an event where the entire menu was made from food that would have otherwise been thrown away. Underground supper clubs like A Razor, A Shiny Knife do everything from hosting dinners on the L-train in NYC or a Black Banquet in London featuring the darkest foods. There are people making the pop-up work (strangers, as at any event, are secondary to the experience), the question is whether EWSAs can do something the average pop-up can't.
As for the trouble of dining with strangers you may have nothing in common with, Karesh believes the fact that someone signed up at all is a common ground. "Everyone is there because they're interested in the event," Karesh says. This broader commonality may be the key to "interacting with someone you wouldn't usually interact with in terms of race, gender, and age."
But in addition to the still oversaturated market for EWSAs — which makes it hard for diners to reliably find a meal and cooks to reach enough diners — there are some potential regulatory issues. While Airbnb offers hosts at least some insurance against property damage, this is not the case for the average EWSA. Meanwhile, the Health Department usually considers any meal prepared in exchange for cash to be a food service establishment requiring all the same permitting as your average restaurant. These are not permits most EWSA chefs have. Schuder believes that EWSAs are operating in a "legal gray area" that, while it may someday become an issue of note to politicians, doesn't matter today. In fact, skipping the bureaucracy is beneficial in many ways. Citizen Fox, a San Francisco restaurant he helped get off the ground, is still waiting to open at their permanent location. (Schuder attributes the hold up to city regulation issues.) It's been almost two years. "The restaurant industry moves really slow sometimes and cooks have new ideas; they want to move fast."
In the past, regulators have only cracked down on "sharing economy"-style businesses once they got big enough to disturb the status quo, a la Uber or Airbnb. So the thus-far only minor successes of EWSAs may be a benefit in this particular area.
Despite all the challenges and signs that perhaps this is an idea that will never really take off (much less become the next Airbnb), the idea continues to maintain a hold on the start up imagination. Because if it connects people and has a chance to make revenue in the process, there's no reason it shouldn't become a viable business. It just has to work. Yet perhaps EWSAs will always be a better model for their users — whether chefs or diners — than a money-maker for the business itself. If there's a start-up that can feel successful because they run a site or app that simply works for its users, maybe EWSAs will come out on top after all. But will they be rolling in cash? That's still less of a certainty.