Startup of the Week / Better Than a Restaurant: Dine at a Local’s

Israeli website EatWith allows host chefs to invite diners into their homes.

Restaurants the world over offer guests a similar experience: a fixed menu, a waiter, tables covered with tablecloths. The guests spend their time with the people with whom they arrived, in isolated cases you form a connection with the restaurant owner and get an opportunity to learn about his life. The Israeli website EatWith offers a new type of experience: meals in private homes, cooked by the hosts, and an intimate encounter with the hosts and with other guests, usually strangers.

EatWith aspires to bring about a revolution in the restaurant field similar to what Airbnb, the website that matches up homeowners with tourists, did for the tourism industry. Airbnb used fairly unsophisticated technology to create a new marketplace, so that homeowners began to earn money from an asset that they own in any case, at a time when they can’t use it. On the other side of the equation, tourists began to benefit from a unique method of being hosted in local homes, which differs from the experience to which they have become accustomed in hotels.

EatWith, established in 2012 by CEO Guy Michelin and CTO Shemer Schwarz, matches up home cooks with diners who come for meals. The guests get an experience that differs from that in a standard restaurant, and the hosts gain a new source of income from their talent.

The idea of starting EatWith originated when Michelin was on a trip to Crete and every evening fell into tourist traps. With the help of friends he managed to find a local family in Heraklion, Crete’s largest city, where he was invited for dinner. The unique experience, the direct encounter with locals and the stories he heard that night led him to consider creating a community of hosts and guests who meet around food. (There is a description in English of this story on the company website: http://eatwith.com#!/brand/about − look for “How EatWith was born”).

So how does it work? Anyone who wants to join one of the meals offered by members of the EatWith community will find on the website a list of hosts and the dates of meals, according to various geographical locations. At present the site includes 23 countries where one can sign up for a meal. In Israel, for example, you can find meals of various cuisines − Indian, Yemenite, Italian − in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities.

In Barcelona, a city where EatWith is focusing its efforts, there are over 200 hosts. Each meal appears on a page that includes details about the menu to be served, background information about the cuisine, lovely pictures from previous meals and criticism by participants who have already eaten at the home of the host.

Some of the hosts offer cooking workshops, for example for baking challah for Shabbat. You can also find events related to holidays and special days − candle lighting on Hanukkah (which includes a concert of classical music) and Friday night dinners. So that the site enables locals and tourists to participate in authentic celebrations and not to be alone on holidays.

The price range on the website is also varied. In Israel most of the meals cost from 100 shekels to about 350 shekels ($28-$100). In some cases the price is the same as a meal in a restaurant, although you don’t know about the quality of the food to be served. At the same time, the dining experience is unique compared to a meal in an ordinary restaurant, because of the human encounter.

In other places in the world you can find a wider range of prices. The most expensive meal in Israel costs 1,080 shekels ($308), and is hosted by a chef who has created a unique Israeli cuisine. The cheapest meal on the website is in a Jerusalem teahouse (which invites the guests to join a jam session with available musical instruments) and costs 13 shekels ($4). The host promises that he sits with the guests who come to the house.

The website also offers experiences that are suitable for tourists, such as a visit to the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem followed by a Mediterranean cooking workshop (for 92 shekels, about $26).

Anyone can submit a request to become a host on the website. Registration includes a questionnaire that the hosts have to fill out. In areas where EatWith is concentrating its efforts − mainly in Israel, Barcelona and New York − a company representative tries to meet all the hosts in order to ensure that they meet the standards of quality in terms of the place, the host and the food.

Chief Technology Officer Schwarz says that the firm is not looking for professional chefs, but the hosts have to provide a good experience for the guests. He says that they get requests from hosts and guests all over the world who are interested in joining the service. The price of the meal is determined by the host, with EatWith charging him a commission of 15 percent.

Schwarz maintains that there are a variety of reasons why people become hosts on the website − the desire to be exposed to new cultures and people, a love of cooking and the desire to earn money. EatWith does not handle tax issues for the hosts, who have to find out, each one in his own country, what they owe according to law.

EatWith joins a wave of companies, in Israel and worldwide, involved in the sharing economy. In other words, they create a marketplace in which private individuals offer for sale a product or an asset they own. This model exploits the capabilities made available by the Internet and promotes an economy that is sometimes more fair, in the spirit of social protests.

The site already has competitors worldwide, such as Dine With Locals, Feastly and HomeDine. But for now EatWith seems to be leading in terms of user interface and website design. The Gusta website, which was started by Airbnb, has closed.

David Bachar