When planning a trip, some tourists look first (or only) to major attractions—museums, monuments, buildings and other landmarks that give character to their destination.
But many travelers are hungry for more authentic travel experiences, those that allow them to “live like a local.” And the best place to start, Jay Savsani says, is in a local’s kitchen.
Savsani, a Chicago-based web designer and digital strategist, argues that sharing a meal is the best way to understand other cultures, which is why he founded MealSharing.com, a website that connects tourists with locals who offer home-cooked meals.
Savsani has helped build a community that, in less than a year, has stretched across nearly 400 cities, from Paris to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Los Angeles to Berlin. But more than connecting people across continents, Savsani says the network can also build a better economy and help Americans reimagine what it means to share.
In a nutshell, can you explain your big idea?
Meal Sharing is a website that enables travelers and locals to connect with each other over home-cooked meals. Hosts around the world are now able to open up their kitchens to people so they can experience their life through food.
Tourists search for a host in the city of their choice and then send a meal request for a particular date. You can also search by one of the varieties of meals on the site, from traditional meals to experimental food to vegetarian cuisine. There is something for everyone.
To become a host on Meal Sharing you have to fill out a few more questions about your style of cooking or recent dishes you have made. This helps potential guests get a sense of what they should expect. Before the meal is confirmed, guests message with the host about dietary restrictions, directions and a meeting time. After the free meal, tourists can go back on the site and review the experience to help build trust and safety for future users.
The website facilitates community building through shared resources, promotes cultural exchange and encourages people to cook at home to enable a healthy lifestyle. It is an idea born out of our own traveling experiences and our desire to connect with people. We wanted to create a platform that uses technology to make human interaction easier and safer.
So wait, it’s free?
Getting a meal with a host at the moment is free. We are currently building out a payments platform to allow hosts to charge per person. This will help offset the cost of ingredients and time. We also have an events platform in beta that allows hosts to put on large group meals—Italian food night or Game Night, for example—usually with more than six people. There is a price per head for these type of events.
How did you get interested in this topic?
My passion in this space started with Airbnb a few years ago. I started renting my home out on the site, hosting travelers from all around the world. This was my first true integration into the sharing economy. I had intermittently used Craigslist and Ebay—the pioneers of the sharing economy—throughout the years, but Airbnb really turned sharing into an experience. Their ability to seamlessly craft a web application that lives online, but whose sole purpose was to facilitate meaningful offline connections, was deeply inspiring.
What evidence do you have to support your idea?
At this point, there are Meal Sharers in more than 375 cities worldwide after a pretty short history; we’ve only been in business about 10 months. There are about 1,000 hosts around the world.
We learned early on that authentic travel experiences are becoming increasingly important to people. Time and time again people are asking, "Where do the locals eat?" and "What are the non-touristy things to do?" It became clear that Meal Sharing addresses both of these issues within a trusted network. There is nothing more authentic then eating a meal in someone's home.
We did a lot of experiments in the early days of Meal Sharing. We used to post on Craigslist here in Chicago offering meals to people in the community. In an ecosystem that doesn't have a lot of trust and safety features built in, we still had an overwhelmingly great response.
Every big thinker has predecessors whose work was crucial to his discovery. Who gave you the foundation to build your idea? Who is your hero?
Rachel Botsman has been monumentally inspirational to me. She is a social innovator that has championed the growth of collaborative consumption. I read her book, What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, a few years ago and it laid the framework for how thriving sharing websites function and how important this movement is to a sustainable economy. I think the biggest take-away from her book is that the sharing economy is re-shaping how we view ownership. An economy that is built on ownership is now moving towards an economy built on access. These technology platforms give people the ability to access goods or services when they need them, instead of ownership [Think: car sharing services like ZipCar]. Long term, this allows for the ability to reduce waste, build stronger communities and help micro-entrepreneurs thrive. I modeled Meal Sharing on a lot of her principles.
In researching and developing your idea, what has been the high point? And the low point?
The idea to create Meal Sharing solidified while I was traveling in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had the unique opportunity to be hosted by a Cambodian family for a meal in their home. It was such a magical experience to be in their home, eating traditional Cambodian dishes and sharing tales from our respective homelands. The best part of the evening was when the host busted out his Casio keyboard and played some classical Cambodian songs. It was this first meal-share, even before there was a website, that was a major milestone and highlight.
There have definitely been many challenges along the way. I would say the hardest part was creating in a space that has not been explored before. We were one of the first websites to tackle such a large undertaking, and we had no data to follow, no proven models and certainly no budget. I basically put all my eggs in one basket. With the tremendous response from all around the world, I am glad I did.
Can you describe a moment when you knew this was big?
I have meal shared in Berlin, London and Paris. My favorite meal share was on a houseboat on the Thames in London eating Middle Eastern food. That is when I realized the potential Meal Sharing has for creating such unique experiences.
Along with people using the site while they traveled, we realized that people were using the website in their own hometowns. This showed there is a far greater reach in terms of how this is impacting society. People are now able to experience deeper cultural immersion in their own backyard. We realized we have the ability to broaden the definition of travel from geographical distance to cultural distance traveled. At this point, we find Meal Sharers around the world organizing group meals within their own community.
What is new about your thinking?
We cannot take credit for inventing anything new here. We are simply reimagining an old paradigm, a time when friends, neighbors and communities instinctively shared food. This time around we are using technology to facilitate global and local cultural exchange.
Also, one of the most exciting parts about Meal Sharing is the "make what you make" concept. We stress this throughout the entire site. The concept is simple: make something that you make on a typical night. You don't have to be a chef or create over-the-top meals. The Meal Sharing team wants to foster an environment of sharing. Whether a member creates a five-course meal or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the community will support it.
We have seen really creative meal titles come up. You can find a host doing "Typically Atypical Valencian Food" in Spain or "Americans home-cooking in Berlin.” People have a lot of fun with Meal Sharing, and more importantly hosts are able to express themselves without judgment.
What two or three people are most likely to try to refute your argument? Why?
It is kind of hard not to like the merging of food and travel. I am sure there are some people out there that would like to seek out more traditional forms of spending their time. Though, we do hope that in the near future we become the norm.
Some people might be concerned about safety. Trust and safety are extremely important for sharing economy websites. For Mealsharing.com, we have implemented industry standard safety precautions (phone number verification, Facebook Connect). One important component is the review system. We allow members to review each other after a meal. The review is not about a critique about the person's cooking, but more about how they are as a person. That way other Meal Sharers are able to confidently go to a meal. We also have a commenting system so people are able to chat before the meal and learn everything they would like about the person.
Personally, I meal share all the time. I either host or go to Meal Sharer's home two to three times a week. It has been a great way of meeting people here in Chicago and abroad. When hosting, I usually make West Coast Indian Food (Gujarati food) since my family is from India. I have hosted people traveling all the way from Switzerland to a neighbor a few blocks down the road from me.
I also just went on a three-week road trip across the eastern part of the U.S. with the rest of the MealSharing.com team. We shared a meal every day, sometimes twice a day. We basically only ate through MealSharing.com and stayed with friends or Airbnb. It was a great way to meet our community.
Who will be most affected by this idea?
I get an email a day from a Meal Sharer somewhere in the world saying how much they love meal sharing, but also, most importantly, how it has changed their life. The greatest effects we have seen are for the people who say they don't cook but end up becoming prolific hosts on MealSharing.com. The benefits of home cooking are endless. If more people cook at home and share it with other people, then we are helping people live healthier, more connected lives.
How might it change life, as we know it?
Our goal in the next few years is to allow people to point to anywhere on the map and be welcomed to a home-cooked meal. When we reach that level of critical mass, the world will have changed for the better.
What questions are left unanswered?
The sharing economy is still in its infancy—what is next definitely depends on a lot of factors. The next time there is an emergency, like Hurricane Sandy in New York City, for example, could people in the Meal Sharing community step up and help? Something as simple as a meal can mean the world to someone during hard times.
What is next for you?
Meal Sharing's goal in the next few years is to have the number of hosts sharing meals around the world exceed the number of “Top 3” major fast food restaurant locations. That would really say something if we succeed—that the world stood up and said, "I would rather trust my neighbor for food.” With enough people Meal Sharing, we will have people eating healthier and wasting less, all while breaking down cultural barriers.