The boom in collaborative consumption has shown that with the right website, a bit of buzz and some initial financing, sharing just about anything — including a home-cooked meal — can be potentially turned into a business.Taking inspiration from the wildly successful Airbnb — the lodging website that has become the benchmark for success in the sharing economy — France’s Cookening is working to grab its slice of the new sharing phenomenon by matching up amateur cooks with hungry strangers to create a modern-day version of a supper club, where paying guests meet at a private home, eat from a set menu and are expected to fraternize with guests and a host they do not know.
While not the first company to try to convert people’s desire for a home-cooked meal into a viable business, Paris-based Cookening is distinguishing itself by targeting France, one of the citadels of fine cooking, to connect people and culture through food.
Cookening, founded last year by three Frenchmen, has been running in beta since March and was scheduled to open up to potential hosts and paying guests just ahead of Le Web London 2013, a June 5th and 6th conference that gathers the global digerati. While Cookening is open to users around the world, so far most of the meals offered up, for a fee, during the beta trial, are in France with the bulk in Paris.
Cookening’s initial goal is to be a platform for tourists in Paris to find an authentic home-cooked meal. “When you’re a tourist you don’t meet locals, but we can change that with the sharing economy,” says Cedric Giorgi, co-founder and chief executive of Cookening and a scheduled speaker at Le Web London June 5th and 6th. “The real social web is starting now because we’re finally using the web to be social like we are off-line. As a start-up or website developer you can really have an impact on how people live by helping them have an off-line experience.”
Cookening hosts set the fee they want to charge people who come to their house and then the company adds on 20% to what the diners pay. Most full dinners currently offered on the website cost about €30. “For guests the price of a meal is interesting if you compare it with the other possibilities of eating in Paris with locals such as through a travel agency, which will cost you say €70 or €80 a meal,” say Giorgi. “If you’re comparing the price with a restaurant it’s not that cheap, but the experience is very different. The economic incentive is more on the host side.”
A mobile app will be considered once there are more users of the website. For now there is no app, Giorgi says, because you cannot just show up last minute at somebody’s house; they need to be able to prepare for the meal. When there are more dinners available on a regular basis an app could help fill a table last minute when, for example, there is a meal already planned that can have four guests and only three are signed up.
“We’re self-funded so far and are currently looking for funding to start doing some pragmatic and tactical user acquisition,” says Giorgi, 29, who is from the south of France and moved to Paris five years ago. “We’re looking for around 300,000 euros. We have had contact with investors, but we’re still only at the conversation stage. We really want to find an investor that understands what we are doing and perhaps has experience in the food or travel industry.”
It is still not clear whether there is a viable market for businesses based around people who want to open their homes to cook for strangers. But a number of entrepreneurs are taking up the challenge.
Feastly, which has a stated aim of “democratizing dining,” was developed during a start-up week-end competition in Washington, D.C. 18 months ago. It has since expanded into eight other U.S. cities, including San Francisco, New York and Boston.
Some other existing ventures are focused more on sharing food than on making money. Shareyourmeal.net, a non-profit foundation headquartered in Amsterdam, has a model similar to Cookening though meals are taken away rather than eaten in the house of the cook. The idea is not to cater to tourists but rather to encourage neighbors to share meals with one another in order to meet new people and reduce food waste. The cook sets the price but Shareyourmeal.net does not take a fee. More than 73,000 meals have already been shared through the service, which is now expanding globally. Marieke Hart, Shareyourmeal.net ’s founder, is a scheduled speaker at Le Web London 2013.
Other sites that allow people to share meals include Casserole, which connects neighbors who share meals in the Reigate and Banstead area south of London. Mamabake brings small groups of mothers together locally to cook one big batch meal each. The meals are then divided among the group so that the women go home with a variety of already-cooked dinners that can be used during the week. Ampleharvest.orgin the U.S. connects people who grow more food in their gardens than they can eat with food banks.
Mixing digital technology with food and sharing is giving rise to a variety of P2P models. What is not yet clear is whether any of them have the recipe for sustainable and scalable money-making businesses.