Willing to Cook for Strangers, but Guests Are Harder to Find

Willing to Cook for Strangers, but Guests Are Harder to Find

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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 all come at the premise from different angles. EatWith focuses on travelers, with meals in 200 cities. Feastly signs up professional chefs as hosts. VoulezVouzDîner lets travelers 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 to 20 percent. Hosts can set whatever price they like for guests; Ms. Larsson charged $10 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.

“Basically, I’m not spending money to host people,” Ms. Dobson said. “It pays for itself, which is really nice, so I can source better ingredients, source different types of food.”

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Christian Hansen for The New York Times

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.”

He said he understood why hosts might embrace the idea, while potential guests remain wary. “The host has a sense of control,” Mr. Rothman said, including turning down potential guests. “The idea of, I’m going to go to someone’s house I don’t know, it feels slightly different.”

Many hurdles to the business are also cultural. Sagiv Ofek, who brought HomeDine, his social-dining website and app, to the United States from Tel Aviv in 2013, said that it was typical in Israel for people to open the door and invite others over. But “what I discovered in the U.S. is, people are more territorial and more personal about their own personal space,” he said.

After finding limited success with HomeDine in San Francisco, Mr. Ofek tried New York. There, he said, hosts and guests were social but real estate was a problem. “If they had a kitchen, it is a tiny kitchen where they cannot cook anything,” he said. He shut down HomeDine in 2014.

“We found people all over in terms of hosting — we had no problem with that,” Mr. Ofek said. “Our main problem was to acquire new users.”

Mitch Monsen, the founder of Kitchen.ly, a social-dining app that he shuttered 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.

The main course on Ms. Dobson’s menu. Sites like EatWith seek to tap into the sharing economy with social dining the way Uber did with car rides and Airbnb did with bedroom rentals.

Credit
Christian Hansen for The New York Times

To attract more users, some sites and apps are now tinkering with their strategy.

EatWith has begun analyzing 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 where one cooks and one socializes.

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 percent of applicants as hosts. The company also plans to expand to South America, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Larsson had dashed out earlier to get enough plates, she was short on water glasses.

“If you like alcohol, stick to that,” Ms. Larsson advised, as conversations started between guests discussing Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister of Italy, versus President Trump, among other topics.

The second course was filet 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 theorized about love as the clock ticked on.

Soon after, Ms. Larsson’s AirDine ratings came in: five stars from each of her guests. A few weeks later, several United States hosts had arranged AirDine dinners; almost all still had seats available.

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