By Ben Schiller
Airbnb grew unexpectedly to become a bone fide alternative to a hotel. Can dining clubs achieve the same thing in the restaurant space?
Melba, a network that started in England, recently threw a launch event in New York: Four big tables in someone's apartment; roast pork and sauerkraut gravy on the menu; about 40 people talking and stuffing themselves (read a nice recap of the event here; it looked like people were enjoying themselves).
"It's a social experience, getting people together," says Santiago Tenorio cofounder of Melba. "Food is a social network of the ages. We want to be a bridge to connect people."
Host-cooks organize the meals, and charge what they like--the average is about $35 per person. Tenario sees advantages to dining at someone's home, rather than going to a restaurant. It's more personal. People can share their culture, and personality--sometimes in idiosyncratic ways. "There's no limit to the creativity and personality of the host," he says.
For example, one member called Ilyas Kassam recently threw a Nietzschean Cuisine evening, with readings and ice cream representing emptiness and solace.
Melba has had 125 "feasts" since August. They have ranged from one-pot dinners to six-course blow-outs (always likely to be cheaper than a restaurant).
Melba is free to use at the moment, though it plans to start taking a 10-15% cut soon. Tenorio sees several "monetization opportunities": including selling artisan/host food through the site; and working with dating agencies. "People are hooking up, and date startups have approached us about co-operation," he says.
Tenorio is aware that informal dining is a legal "gray area" at the moment (like informal accommodation). He stresses that Melba stipulates standards at its events (sanitation, etc); that it facilitates, doesn't "host" events; and that it hopes to offer event insurance soon.
But Tenorio doesn't seem too worried. "Technology always changes quicker than the law. Airbnb is supposed to be illegal in New York and San Francisco. And yet, they are its two biggest markets."
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.