Finding a True ‘Sharing Economy’ at the Dinner Table

Meal Sharing wants to facilitate cultural exchange over home-cooked food—if health departments let it.

(Illustration: Susie Cagle)

Aug 21, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Susie Cagle is a reporter and illustrator based in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Al Jazeera America, Medium, and elsewhere.

All Jay Savsani wanted was to have a nice dinner. Visiting Cambodia with family and friends, Savsani found himself eating time and again at subpar tourist traps. “So I went to the front desk and asked [the hotel clerk]: ‘Could you find me a home-cooked meal?' I thought he’d say, ‘This guy’s crazy,’ but he lit up.”

The clerk quickly amassed a group of locals eager to feed Savsani. Soon he and his friends found themselves on a long rickshaw ride into the country for a home-cooked meal on a small farm.

“We chatted about everything from Michael Jackson to Pol Pot,” Savsani recalls, “and the meal itself was the liaison to that cultural exchange.”

Back home in Chicago, Savsani, a technologist, created Meal Sharing, a website designed to bring that experience to other weary, hungry travelers. “First I did what every new entrepreneur would do—I posted on the community section of Craigslist” looking for someone who would have Savsani over for a meal. His first meal-sharing experiment was a success. “We realized we’d tapped into something deep, and it’s just grown from there,” he says.

(Illustration by Susie Cagle)

From Jesus to the Pilgrims, breaking bread has long been an act and symbol of cross-cultural exchange and relationship building. Food is deeply personal, life-sustaining stuff, and the dinner table is tied to our instincts to come together over food. Along with couch surfing and carpooling, potlucks and dinner parties were the original sharing economy.

But we don’t share like we used to. When technologists are not attempting to replace food altogether, they’re trying to revolutionize the way we eat in other ways. If we’re sharing our homes, our cars, our stuff, then why not our food too? New sharing advocates say all this economic activity is spurring a new kind of community connection. Meal sharing is uniquely positioned to blossom where the sharing economy is embraced, though these start-ups face narrow profit margins and singular legal challenges.

This isn’t Uber for dinner—try SpoonRocket, Munchery, Seamless, GrubHub, or any number of other mobile apps for that. No, this is sharing in a more traditional sense. It just might work—not only to bring people together for a low-cost, homemade meal but to bolster community and foster real-world social networking, both locally and internationally.

(Illustration by Susie Cagle)

Dining is one of the few businesses that has the potential to reach all consumers—we do have to eat, and the average American household spends almost half of its total food budget on eating out at restaurants. Those businesses are constantly evolving and searching for new revenues. Over the last decade, pop-up underground restaurants have proliferated in large cities across the U.S. For some chefs, they’ve been an entrée to larger commercial operations; for others, they’ve just been fun.

The same ethos inspired Savsani’s business, but as the sharing economy has expanded in recent years, “meal sharing” has taken on new connotations. Since the service first launched in 2010 with minimal backing from the Impact Engine incubator program, many other competitors have popped up, some with significant venture capital investment: Kitchenly, Feastly, EatWith, SupperKing, Gusta, and others.

“There was a period of time two years ago where I kept getting a pretty much identical phone call from people: ‘Hi, I’m going to start a company that’s like the Airbnb of food,’ ” says Janelle Orsi, an attorney and the executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center. “Truthfully, of all the kinds of sharing-economy activities out there, this might be one of the harder ones to make money at, for legal reasons”—meeting commercial health codes is no cheap task. “So I actually didn’t think it would take off.”

Indeed, many of those earlier efforts haven’t panned out as planned. Despite well-publicized launches within the last couple years, Kitchenly, SupperKing, and Gusta all appear to be dead.

“I think there are people who have the illusion that they can make a lot of money at this, and I’m only skeptical for legal reasons,” says Orsi. “If it were really legal to operate a restaurant in your home, I know there would be people making tons of money doing it.”

Just trying to meet people and have a fun meal? Not only do you have a totally different feeling in the kitchen and at the dining room table, but according to Orsi, “it makes a big legal difference too.”

While competitors take percentages of each meal price, Meal Sharing has no fiscal incentive for home cooks to increase their prices, as the company takes a flat fee on each transaction. In terms of cost, the average Feastly meal in the San Francisco Bay Area falls around $30 a head but ranges up to $150. At Meal Sharing, the default option for a host’s home-cooked meal is $10 per head. “It’s really up to the provider to choose how they approach it,” says Savsani. “If there are hosts that are able to make money, we want to provide that platform too.”

When Airbnb announced its upcoming foray into the meal-sharing business, health department officials in San Francisco and New York were adamant that the $10 billion home rental business would be breaking even more laws, opening up meal hosts to thousands of dollars in fines. Savsani says Meal Sharing hosts have reported no legal issues, nor have they received any complaints from local restaurants—Savsani has no interest in disrupting the food service industry. “We’re probably not on their radar. It hasn’t deterred me from eating out—home cooking is just a totally different experience.”

There’s also the matter of intent. Unlike more gourmet services, Meal Sharing emphasizes home cooks, not chefs. “We’re not in it for the novelty—we’re into the lifestyle,” says Savsani, who eats through Meal Sharing several times a week and hosts frequently. “We encourage guests to become hosts—that's part of the culture. It’s important that it’s not segmented.”

“We want to keep it accessible to everyone, and we especially emphasize a ‘make what you make’ attitude,” says community manager Jessica Smith Soto. “Some of the best meal shares have been simple food, and it’s an atmosphere where anyone can participate.”

Not only could that bring people together over family recipes rather than the fussy fare of pop-ups, but it’s part of what might shield Meal Sharing from the legal challenges other similar platforms could face.

The law is not vague when it comes to paid food service, even when payments are called donations, though membership in private clubs provides legal loopholes when it comes to many regulations. Like almost all sharing economy businesses, Meal Sharing operates as a kind of closed club: To use the service, you have to create an account and answer some questions about yourself, which helps everyone involved in a shared transaction feel at least a little more comfortable about eating a stranger’s food. But Meal Sharing offers an extensive battery of profile questions about particular food experiences and anecdotes—Where have you traveled? What’s the best thing you ever ate?—along with the usual allergies and preferences.

“It definitely helps trust and safety when you feel like you can get to know a person by their profile,” says Soto.

The legality of a shared meal “really just depends on the details of how you set it up,” says Orsi. When she advised sharing economy start-ups in the past, she encouraged them to form and operate within their own social networks. “There would be a limited number of people they could connect with, so you create an extended family and friends network—which would be legal,” she says. In other words, the legal protection seems to mainly hinge on the social network and the intent of the gathering—if it’s more for connecting people, it’s arguably legal; if it’s more for selling people food, it’s much more like a restaurant business.

Savsani says some Meal Sharers use the service up to five times a week. And it’s not just the gourmet meals that appeal: Two of Chicago’s more popular hosts are a “grandma and grandpa duo.”

As other sharing economy businesses have grown, so has Savsani’s—Meal Sharing now operates in 450 cities worldwide. But outside its tight-knit community, the real test for Meal Sharing will be market saturation: There still aren’t enough hosts operating in large U.S. cities to book a meal any given night of the week on Savsani’s or any of his competitors’ platforms. Uber-like growth wouldn't suit this model. Meal sharing might take some time. But this flavor of collaborative eating could be a rare place where the sharing economy does mean sharing.