Move fast and break bread: The strange new world of meal-sharing

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I stood outside an apartment building in Brooklyn with a bottle of wine in hand, finger poised above the buzzer. I was in foreign territory—not the neighborhood, which I ride the G train to on a regular basis, but the situation. I was about to pay for a dinner made by someone I had never met and eat it with strangers.

I do this all the time at restaurants, but what I was about to do—which in feel-good phrasing is called meal-sharing—was different. Dining establishments are regulated, inspected, and in New York City, forced to display their grades in a window. I know what I’m getting into. Meal-sharing, on the other hand, isn’t an off-the-cuff experience: You have to mentally prepare yourself to go to a stranger’s home and let them cook for you. You’re paying for the privilege of possibly being poisoned. This is altogether different from dining at a restaurant.

Meal-sharing is a trend with a spotty track record. Platforms based on the premise have popped up here and there over the last few years, prompted by Airbnb and Lyft’s success with “sharing” (or paying to use) resources like homes and cars. But meal-sharing seems like a tough racket to hang your hat on as a startup, if the number of companies that have tried and failed to gain a following in this arena is any indication.

But startups keep trying, and now Airbnb is getting in on the action by testing its own meal-sharing feature in San Francisco. So I decided to try out two platforms that are active in New York, Feastly and EatWith, to figure out how meal-sharing works and why it might succeed—or fail spectacularly.

I rang the doorbell.

The meals

I chose experiences I can’t get at very many restaurants: a sunset rooftop dinner on EatWith and a jazz brunch on Feastly. Both platforms detail the menu and price up front, so you can pick the food that strikes your fancy (or fits your budget). Booking was easy—there were open seats, so I selected and paid for them. In the case of the brunch, there was only one seat left but I wanted to bring a +1. I messaged the host and he quickly added another seat. It was easier than trying to get reservations at a New York restaurant.

feastly meal

Meal-sharing events begin with Instagramming. 

I thought sitting down to a meal with strangers would be awkward, and it is at first. But everyone’s in the same boat: You know the person you came with—and few arrive alone—but as is the case at any party, you’re gonna have to make conversation. If you’re a friendly person, you’ll meet interesting people. If you’re in it for the food, bring a friend and chat like you would at a normal restaurant.

As I took bite after bite of the home-cooked feasts, I thought about the trust I was putting in these unfamiliar cooks to make a solid meal and not kill me. The platforms don’t require hosts to have any culinary training, and it almost (almost) goes without saying that their kitchens aren’t inspected—though EatWith says a demo dinner and cleanliness check are part of its host vetting process.

And then I thought about the trust they were putting in me, to invite me into their homes and expecting me to be a sane person who would respect their food and their space and not trash their reputation on the Internet. Like Airbnb, platforms like Feastly and EatWith encourage you to review hosts so other diners will know what they’re getting into. It’s a funny balance, and one that could so easily be shattered. So much could go wrong. It’s no wonder Airbnb wants to add dinner parties to its repertoire—renting a room from a stranger is equally fraught.

The law

Not everyone prefers to play this peer-to-peer game of Russian roulette, which is why hotels and restaurants exist, but in my experience, sharing a meal with strangers isn’t at all creepy. Eating a meal prepared by a regular person with no culinary background feels normal. I emerged from both meals unscathed, and with a full belly to boot.

But just like Airbnb hosts are in danger of being evicted if subletting without permission violates their leases, meal-sharing hosts are also putting themselves at risk. They might not face eviction, but one call from a complaining neighbor to the local health department could result in a hefty fine. There’s also the issue of liability. If you get food poisoning or slip and fall, there’s no guarantee that the host's normal insurance policy will cover your medical bills. Feastly is now covering each host with a $1 million insurance policy to safeguard against those risks, and says it’s the first meal-sharing startup in the U.S. to offer that protection. EatWith offers a similar policy for its hosts in Israel and Spain.

feastly chef

Pop-up supper clubs use Feastly to advertise their events.

“It’s a funny business model—maybe there are investors that see something I’m not seeing,” said Janelle Orsi, an Oakland, Calif.-based attorney who has built a practice around the sharing economy’s legal tangles. Orsi, executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, is a proponent of many types of peer-to-peer businesses, but admits to being mystified by meal-sharing’s money-making potential.

“Health and safety laws are made at the state level,” she added. “It’s unlikely that people will be able to change the law to make it legal to turn your home into a restaurant—unlike Airbnb, which violates some laws, but a lot of people are changing those laws at the city level.”

I asked Feastly cofounder Noah Karesh, a restaurateur himself, if he was concerned about meal-sharing’s risks. Karesh seemed unphased—though the company does have a legal team, so it’s prepared to be challenged.

“We’re a platform, not a food establishment, that allows people to showcase their offerings and other people to come on and reserve seats,” Karesh said. “Some of our meals are free too, so where does that fit in with the transactional process? And regulations are different in every jurisdiction.”

Karesh has a point: There are several gray areas, and laws vary by state. Some chefs host dinners in public places instead of their homes. Other hosts charge only enough to cover the cost of their ingredients. Some invite their own friends to make the event more like a supper club and less like a restaurant. As Karesh noted, some chefs even cook for free. Orsi says the organizer’s motivation—community-gathering or profit—and frequency of the events also makes a difference in the eyes of the law. She detailed cases that have set precedent here.

And let's not forget that startups didn't invent meal-sharing. Underground supper clubs have been popping up around the country for years. Laws? What laws?

barcelona eatwith

Strangers clink glasses at an EatWith gathering in Barcelona, where the startup launched last spring.

The tourists

Some food-related startups have taken a different approach to meal-sharing to avoid the legal issues involved in hosting restaurant-style dinner parties. Kitchensurfing connects diners with cooks who will come over and cater a dinner party at their homes, like on-demand personal chefs. Other startups have taken an international approach, setting up shop in tourist-heavy cities like Paris and Bangkok to provide a local experience.

EatWith launched last spring in Barcelona, but the Israeli company recently moved to San Francisco and is expanding in the U.S. this year. Cofounder Guy Michlin said he expected EatWith to be a travel company when he started it, catering to people who wanted a “real, authentic dining experience” when they were exploring new cities. But Michlin found the mix of users was evenly split between locals and tourists in every market. Meal-sharing seems designed for experiences like the one Michlin had when he traveled to Crete and had a meal with a local family.

I can envision booking a shared meal while traveling overseas to get a taste of the culture, but I think I’ll save my dining out dollars for real restaurants while I’m home—kind of like how I’ll Airbnb an apartment on vacation but not when I can crash at my own perfectly decent shoebox.

This story, "Move fast and break bread: The strange new world of meal-sharing" was originally published by TechHive.

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