There’s nothing like dining with a local when traveling. A homecooked meal is often a welcome reprieve from a week of restaurant dinners and the insider tips you can glean from someone who lives there beat any tour book. If you’re not lucky enough to have friends or family in Israel (or even if you are), a new company called EatWith is your virtual insider friend.
Part supper club and part social experiment, the idea for EatWith came to founder Guy Michlin while on vacation with his family in Greece in 2011. “We always look for the authentic places [when we travel], but we couldn’t find them and fell into every possible tourist trap,” explained Michlin in a phone interview. “On this specific trip almost by accident I managed to get us an invitation to a local family for dinner and this was by far the highlight of the trip.”
Israeli-born and a graduate of Stanford Business School, Michlin had been on the lookout for a start-up idea, and he knew he was onto something. “When I came back to Israel ,” he recalls, “we started thinking about it and brainstorming. How can we take this unique experience and turn it into a business?”
Airbnb, a community site that allows locals to rent out their homes to travelers, quickly became the model for Michlin and his tech-saavy business partner, Shemer Schwarz. They hope that what Airbnb has done in the hotel industry, EatWith can do in the culinary industry.
When you travel, says Michlin, “you want to meet locals and immerse yourself, but [often] you don’t talk to any locals except the taxi driver or bell hop. Through food you can connect people and bring people together through different cultures.” EatWith facilitates that experience by hooking up hosts with guests.
The hosts set the menu and cost, which includes a 15% commission for EatWith, and is payable through the website. Prices range from $31 for a casual “bottomless arak and sandwiches night” to $287 for a “luxurious and authentic Mediterranean dinner.” It’s meant to offer an alternative to restaurants, but not necessarily a less expensive one. “Hosting at home is not a cheap thing since you…don’t buy at wholesale prices and you have to spend a day or two shopping and cooking; The prices are [set] just to get money back that they spent on the food and the time they invested.”
Anyone in Israel can sign up to be a host, but Michlin and his team check out every single applicant to ensure quality and safety. “For 95% of the hosts we were at their place, tasted their food, took pictures. The ones that we’ve done say ‘EatWith verified.’” In the same way that Airbnb relies on reviews of both the hosts and guests, EatWith currently has a system in place for guests to leave reviews, and soon will implement a way for hosts to review guests as well.
Users have a variety of meal experiences from which to choose, from traditional Yemenite or Kurdish dinners to authentic Italian or Japanese. EatWith hosts are located across the country, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but also in towns in the Galilee and ecological farms in central Israel.
Luigi Piacentini has been an EatWith host since they launched and loves the experience. “I started to do the dinners [for] fun,” he said when he and his wife hosted a recent multi-course Italian feast. “It’s the way I like to meet people, how to make friends and make connections. I just landed [in Israel] two and a half years ago and I didn’t know anybody. I say a good way is to invite people to my home. We write together a story about food, about ingredients. Every time the dinner is different. Then we go on, we change, we feed the season.”
In addition to the local meal experience, there is also a social component to attending an EatWith event since there can be up to 10 people — mostly strangers — dining together. But that’s part of the idea and the fun as well, as folks connect over a meal and their shared interest in food and Israel. It’s exactly this aspect of the experience that’s been attracting other locals to the dinners, as well as tourists.
“Since I came from a touristic experience,” says Michlin, “I was sure [EatWith] was only for tourists. But I was surprised to see in Israel more than 50% were locals and it turns out people see it as a real alternative to restaurants — either to celebrate private events or because its like a social gathering where you can meet new people, which is a great thing. I didn’t realize it but you meet people who are very much with the same interests as you; they’re already self-selected in that they like food and socializing, so it brings a certain type of person together.”
In addition to Israel, EatWith has also launched in Spain, and has plans to slowly roll out their business model around the world, with their sights set on Italy next. They’re moving slowly to ensure that there is quality control every step of the way. “The idea ultimately is to be global because we want to provide tourists the opportunity to go wherever they travel. We vet each and every host to make sure everyone has an amazing experience. Since we need to control them we need to have people on the ground so we can’t open the whole world [at once]. So, we’re going country by country.“ Soon enough, look for EatWith in a country near you.
For more information about EatWith, visit their website.