“I’m not a foodie, but I love to eat,” Israeli entrepreneur Guy Michlin said. “And when I travel, I always seek to meet the locals, and not just the touristic places to see and say that you’ve been there.” During a trip to Greece in 2011, Michlin— who started such companies as CleanScores and SolarPower—got fed up with tourist traps and the “typical” food they served. So, he made a series of calls, tapping into his personal and professional network, and managed to get an invitation for dinner with a local couple—at their home, where he ate food he’d never be able to find in a restaurant. That’s when he got his big idea: One year later, Michlin and two partners launched EatWith, a website connecting diners with locals—hosts who prepare your meal and simultaneously share their home-grown culture with you.
When it piloted in December 2012, the site only included Israel. In February, it launched officially in Israel and Spain. Now this month EatWith is jumping the pond and launching in New York. “EatWith is going to change the way people think about eating out,” Michlin told me. “Previously, the choices were eating in or eating out. New Yorkers will now have a third choice: eating out in people’s homes.”
Visitors to the site first pick a city, then use filters for neighborhoods, locations, language, age group, dietary preference, cuisine, meal type, group size, even interactive or more discreet hosts. Some hosts present a pre-planned menu, others rely on seasonal, market availability.
Meals currently on the site run the gamut in both culinary and cultural terms, from a traditional Yemeni dinner with dancing, to a seasonal vegetarian lunch at an ecological farm. From “my grandmother’s recipes,” to Japanese meets Middle East fusion, authentic meals are hosted by both professional chefs (some former Michelin-starred) and amateur cooks who are simply passionate about cooking—and about people.
“There’s a variation between different hosts and the motivation of the hosts,” Michlin said. “Some people just love food and only want to cover the costs, other people are doing it for a living. Most hosts allow you to come and cook with them before the meal.” When it launched in Spain, 700 people applied to become hosts within one month alone. For some of them, EatWith provides a valuable income: “It’s a free marketplace,” said Michlin. “Each host sets his own price.” EatWith takes a small percentage, vets hosts themselves when possible, and deploys bloggers and photographers remotely, to ensure quality.
Meal prices range from an average of $30 to $50, consistent with restaurant prices in each area. Hosts serve an average of six to 10 people per meal, but meals can be more intimate, or cater to much larger groups. Of the 100 hosts, 18 are professional chefs who cook with their teams, executing their versions of a multicourse, gourmet restaurant dinner. But it’s still a home, not a restaurant: “We don’t allow people to host more than once or twice a week to avoid it becoming too commercial,” said Michlin.
What makes the perfect evening? Michlin says it all comes down to the people: “The host plays a very important role. If they’re welcoming and hold a crowd, are a good storyteller and know how to bring people together, then everything else falls into place. The food still has to be good, but it’s how people connect.”
Those connections have led EatWith to become popular among locals as much as tourists. In Israel, half of the bookings come from Israelis—like 34-year-old Tel Aviv-based foodie Orly Burstein, who first went for the culinary aspect, but is now hooked on the human element. She has gone to two dinners in Tel Aviv in the past three months. “There are two things that happen that you don’t get in a restaurant,” Burstein explained. “One is that you meet other people; that’s the X-factor. Everything is around the food and the story of the person who’s cooking it, but there’s something that’s not discussed: the fact that there are other people at that evening, strangers, all sharing the same experience. You’re not going to get that in a restaurant or bar. I met some very, very interesting people from around the world that I’d never meet otherwise. You become like a traveler in your own city. That’s the extraordinary experience.”
Burstein enjoyed the food, too, describing her favorites as a dish of oranges in wine with raisins, artichokes, and garlic, as well as homemade pasta and succulent lamb that “melted in my mouth.” Luigi Piacentini, a 43-year-old Italian married to an Israeli, hosted Burstein for her first EatWith meal, a menu of Israeli and Italian cooking served in his apartment in Tel Aviv. An architect by day, he welcomes strangers to his home both as a way to fuel his passion for food and also to meet new people. “I started to host in Israel just to make connections,” said Piacentini. “I have been around food since I was born. For me, it’s part of my way of life. I like to meet new people and share my stories.”
EatWith has become a platform for such alternative events as challah-baking workshops, holiday meals (including a kosher French Shavuot feast), a meal with poetry readings, dinner with a Middle East political expert, and other unusual selling points—all with locals, all revolving around a freshly prepared eating experience. Venues range from farmhouses to sailboats. The experiences are so unusual that corporations have begun working with EatWith hosts to create memorable events for clients and employees.
Michlin and his partners are increasingly receiving requests for customized events, including singles evenings; there’s already been one match at such an event, resulting in a couple who met at a dinner last year and are still together. “Even if you don’t meet someone, you still have a great night because everyone who’s there wants to meet people and talk about food,” Michlin said.
For guests like Burstein, it’s that shared interest that is the key ingredient to EatWith’s success. “It’s about community,” she said. “That’s my strongest memory, more than the food.”
As is the case with any good idea, EatWith now has competitors, but with the expansion into New York, Michlin hopes the site will remain the market leader. There are plans to launch the site in a new city every month starting in July. Cities are determined based on demand, so fans hoping to see EatWith in their hometown are encouraged to register their interest through EatWith’s site. Michlin says feedback from potential hosts and guests will help them choose each new location.
“The idea is to go global, just like Air BnB,” Michlin said. “We want to offer an alternative dining experience wherever you are in the world.”
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