Aug 01, 2019 - 09:32 AM
While it seems like the level of intrusion would play a bigger role in this kind of platform’s success, consider the fact that the social network CouchSurfing has also enjoyed vastly more success and publicity than Meal Sharing has. If anything suggests intrusion, it’s the idea of “surfing” on strangers’ couches without paying.
The age of social media and constant connection has changed our idea of what’s intrusive and what isn’t. A decade ago, using the internet to request a ride in a stranger’s personal car might have seemed shocking, and now it’s a daily norm for many commuters. So we have to look beyond the unobtrusive surface to see why Meal Sharing hasn’t blown up.
Why the Meal Sharing Concept Doesn’t Work
In fact, Mealsharing.com has had a number of competitors which also didn’t succeed. There’s Eatwith, Cookapp, and the Experiences section of ChefsFeed, plus many other startups that have already folded. But unless you’re a food blogger or a particularly tech-loving traveler, you’ve likely heard of none of them.
There are a few reasons why the idea of “meal-sharing” just doesn’t make sense for modern audiences. And since none of Meal Sharing’s competitors have succeeded either, the issue lies with the concept itself, not with this platform’s execution of it. Here’s why it doesn’t work.
Image via Pixabay.
Meal Sharing Isn’t Normalized
First, there’s the fact that intentionally eating with strangers doesn’t feel quite right to many people.
One comment on an attempt to promote Meal Sharing on Reddit is particularly telling: “whats the catch with these people. are these like cooking show hopefuls?” Eating with strangers - on purpose - is so strange that it seems like there must be some ulterior motive at play.
By contrast, staying in a stranger’s accommodations has been a cultural norm for a long time. The concept of a small inn or traditional bed and breakfast, where the owners will be nearby (but still offer you some privacy), is well-established. Airbnb plays on that concept without drastically changing it. Airbnb also offers a cheaper alternative to hotels, making the platform even more attractive.
Similarly, Lyft and Uber have simply made the taxi concept more modern and accessible. People have been paying strangers for their means of transit for about as long as transportation has existed. The only thing that’s really changed is that now, those strangers might pick you up in their personal cars.
If Meal Sharing operated more like a discounted traditional restaurant, allowing you to pay people to cook for you in a semi-public space, it might work better. But the concept seems to hinge on intentionally sitting down and sharing food and conversation with people you’ve never met. This is vastly different from just paying them for a service.
In an Airbnb or an Uber, there’s no real expectation that you have to converse with your host or driver. You don’t need to get to know them, or even like them, to benefit from the service rendered. But sitting down to a meal with strangers is far more intimate. If you find the conversation dull or obnoxious, you’re effectively trapped until the meal is over.
Many people are fine with going to restaurants alone. Very few people go to restaurants alone with the intention of finding strangers to sit with and talk to. (Bars, with their added lubrication, are a different story.) So Meal Sharing is trying to play on a desire that doesn’t really exist.
Image via Pixabay.
Meal Sharing Isn’t Necessary
By that token, it might seem like CouchSurfing.com could also never have succeeded. But CouchSurfing, even though it forces a more intimate stay with your hosts than some people would want, does fulfill an important purpose: it provides free accommodations to those who can’t afford paid ones.
Meal Sharing, however, doesn’t provide free or even steeply discounted meals. If it did, it would probably be much more popular. But instead, it lets you pay other people to cook and present your food - which is what restaurants already do.
If you can afford to go to a restaurant, you’ll probably do that, because it’s what you’re used to. You’re much more likely to gravitate to your familiar Yelp or Google search for restaurants than you are to try out a new social site for restaurant-like experiences.
And if you can’t afford a restaurant, then you likely also can’t afford Meal Sharing. (The prices may be lower than most restaurants, but they don’t seem low enough to compete with fast food and fast-casual dining options.)
Finally, if you’re really dying for the experience of eating in a stranger’s home, you’ll probably do that the old-fashioned way, too. That is, if you’re the kind of person to desire that experience, you’re probably also the kind of person to intentionally connect with new people while you’re out and about. You don’t need to turn to a website for the connection.
So, Meal Sharing doesn’t offer anything new and essential, or even new and enticing. Yet it introduces considerable potential inconvenience--having to share a conversation you may not enjoy with strangers. It does effectively the same thing restaurants do, without offering any additional compelling perks.
Image via Pixabay.
Meal Sharing Isn’t Flexible
When people go to a restaurant, they understand that that restaurant will probably have some flexibility built in to accommodate customers.
While the exact experience can change from place to place, most restaurants can and will do things like make a new dish for a customer who doesn’t like what they first ordered. Restaurants are set up to handle personal preferences and dietary restrictions. The kitchen is stacked with options, and the budget can handle a few sent-back meals. The staff is probably also trained to handle customer requests and complaints.
But when you use a meal sharing service, there’s no promise that you’ll find the same flexibility. What happens when you don’t like the meal? What if your dietary needs can’t be accommodated? It’s not realistic to expect a person cooking in a private home to meet the same demands as a restaurant. Customers know this, and people with specific tastes or diets will probably avoid sites like Mealsharing.com for this reason.
Is There a Space for Meal Sharing?
With those issues in mind, is there any way the meal sharing concept might take off in the future?
I suspect there is some approach that can work, but no one has thought of it yet. It might involve tapping into a more specific niche (such as college students traveling and studying abroad). It might involve offering a different experience (such as taking away the notion that your hosts will sit down and eat with you). Or it might involve something else yet.
Many of the best and most innovative ideas would have sounded ridiculous before they worked. Just imagine time traveling to the year 2000 and trying to explain Facebook. So there’s probably some way to make the meal sharing idea work - but it’s going to have to get more creative, provide more value, and offer something truly unique before it can take off.