The Internet is at once a window and a veil. Politicians, hackers, and rebels use it as a platform to engage the masses around a single cause, often with a hidden identity, while students and their grandparents cross generational gaps to share openly with one another on a daily basis. The results can be forgettable or revolutionary, sometimes passing over the course of a single day, but they can also feel, at times, too intangible.
A subject of discourse in recent months has been the shrinking of the gap between our digital and physical lives, as services that engage users on a moment-to-moment basis with their surroundings are gaining significant traffic. Grubwithus, founded in 2010 by Eddy Lu and Daishin Sugano, was founded on the premise that meeting like-minded people is simply difficult. And it is. Without the infrastructure of, say, a college campus, life in a new city is daunting and somewhat eye-opening, an experience that forces us to realize just how pre-arranged much of our early social lives were.
The service, which began in Chicago and has since expanded to seven other cities, allows users to join pre-fixed meals at area restaurants through an online seat reservation system. As the site cleanly demonstrates, users create a profile and then pre-pay for the entire experience, save the alcohol and special orders. The meals are prearranged by Grubwithus; all attendees have to do is arrive on time at the destination, where they’ll meet everyone else. Those who take the plunge and register first pay the least, and the price increases as the seats fill up. The Y Combinator graduate had 22,000 registered users by August, just several months after its birth, as well as 450 vendor partnerships. It’s been growing, city by city, ever since.
Despite the success, the founders are not presumptuous; the experience is, from the outset, nerve-wracking, but the business model is one that encourages without overwhelming. “We create tasting menus with the restaurants and prepay everything, so when you get to the meal, you simply meet new people, enjoy the food and conversation. It's completely hassle-free,” Sen Sugano, director of business development for the brand, explained. Friend referrals and special interest tags - "tech startups" and "jet setters," for example - give familiarity a boost beforehand, but, as is often the case in this space, those digitally-inclined are often already closely connected. “People should know that chances are you'll grub with someone who is somehow connected to you. For example, I went to a dinner in Boston and found out that I had a mutual friend with the guy sitting next to me,” Sugano said. “Later that night, he friended me on Facebook and we found out we actually had 16 friends in common.”
Working in Grubwithus’s favor is an all-too-rare understanding of the risk on the end of the vendor, many of whom have turned a cold shoulder to flash sales and social media, in large part because of past losses and mishandled partnerships. Both users and servers are provided a realistic experience; food is neither overpriced nor extensively discounted, but balanced somewhere in the middle to guarantee joint benefit. “We've learned a great deal from Groupon's model and the feedback we've received from these restaurants. We never drastically discount a restaurant and we always make sure they make a profit,” Sugano said. “We usually charge something comparable, but slightly less than what people would normally pay. This guarantees that if our users enjoy their experience and the food, they can definitely afford to return to the restaurant.”
Unfortunately, it is sometimes the case with social services that user appropriation can spiral in a direction not in-line with a founder's original mission (Chatroulette, anyone?). Grubwithus would appear a ready victim for group dating, a two-hour round robin for curious singles, but the open, lightheartedness of the experience both online and in-person has maintained the purely-social mission. “People oftentimes think we're dating, but we're really not - we're all about meeting new people and making new friends,” Sugano said. “Of course, there have been grubbers in the past who have met their significant other at a meal, and we think it's even better that it happened organically.” Already expanding into birthday parties, alumni dinners, and corporate events, Grubwithus hides it leanness well, fully-functional and confident, but pacing slowly toward widening the reach of a service largely unmatched.