Have you ever traveled to an exotic foreign locale, and over a standard-issue burger in the hotel restaurant asked yourself what the locals are eating tonight? And maybe wished you could sit down at one of their dinner tables to share a truly authentic meal and learn about their lives?
It was just such wishing that led to MealSharing.com, one of the most appealing start-ups I've come across in a long time. It all began when founder Jay Savsani was backpacking in Cambodia. "I had the classic problem a lot of people have when traveling, which is: Where is the hole-in-the-wall place where locals eat? But I wanted to eat with locals, not next to locals."
What happened next proves that Savsani has the true nerve of an entrepreneur. He took himself down to the hotel lobby and asked the front desk manager if he could find someone who would have Savsani over for dinner. "He was delighted someone asked," Savsani recalls.
The front desk manager told the other people working in the hotel that this American wanted a dinner invitation. He also went outside and told the rickshaw drivers waiting for fares. Soon, there were about 20 people in the hotel lobby offering to have Savsani over. He wound up taking a long rickshaw ride into the country to eat at a small farm owned by a man named Mr. Pon, where he shared a dinner of fresh pork and amok, a traditional Cambodian curry. "There was heavy conversation about everything from Pol Pot to Michael Jackson," he recalls.
Savsani had been vacationing from his business building websites for other start-ups. But when he returned to Chicago, he knew this was the business he himself wanted to start. At the time companies like Airbnb and Uber were not as large and influential as they are today. Knowing he needed to gather more data, he began taking his car to bars and events, and offering himself as an impromptu (and inexpensive) taxi service. During the rides, he interviewed fares about the meal sharing concept, confirming there would be a market for access to home-cooked meals.
Next, Savsani designed a website for MealSharing.com, then stripped out the graphics and posted it on Craigslist. "I'll never forgot the first email I got," he says. "It was from a guy named Brian who said, 'I've been waiting my whole life for a service like yours.'"
'It proliferated pretty quickly.'
That was a year and a half ago. Since then, the service has spread to 450 cities worldwide, and brought people together for more than 10,000 meals. "We have hosts in places from Auckland to Sao Paulo, Brazil," he says. "Last night there was a dinner in Oslo. It proliferated pretty quickly." The company recently raised some funding from OpenTable founder Chuck Templeton, Savsani adds.
Diners who sign up can either pick a planned meal to join or request one, for instance if they're passing through town. Hosts set a chip-in price, and MealSharing.com charges diners a 10 percent transaction fee when they pay. There's a two-way reviewing system so that guests can learn about hosts and vice versa. "We do phone number verification and links to your social network so you can get a really good picture of the person," Savsani says.
Early in the company's history, Savsani and his team gave it a boost by taking a month-long trip across the United States, eating nothing but MealSharing meals along the way. But, he says, MealSharing isn't just for travelers. "You can travel in your own city. I'm in San Francisco right now, and went to a South Vietnamese brunch. We have people who go three or four times a week. We're creating a world where, at 11 am, people at work start wondering, where are the meal shares tonight?"
Savsani says he's eaten at more strangers' homes than anyone on the planet, thanks to technology. He's often asked what was his favorite meal? "It was at a houseboat by a really small island in the Thames," he says. "Two British women made Middle Eastern food. It was very tasty. And it made me realize how I had access to a place I never would have gotten to otherwise. That's the magic of meal sharing."