‘Uber dining’ brings strangers together

Tom Moore, Kepner-Adney's husband, prepares steaks in their home. Photo provided by: Laura Kepner-Adney
Tom Moore, Laura Kepner-Adney’s husband, prepares steaks in their home in Tucson, Arizona. Photo provided by Laura Kepner-Adney

Arizona couples have given a whole new meaning to “guess who’s coming to dinner.”

The cooks are trailblazing in Arizona the national trend of social dining experiences by hosting home-cooked meals for strangers, connected through websites such as Bookalokal and EatWith.

It’s like Uber, except for eating.

“I think food is a great way to bring people together,” said Laura Kepner-Adney, a bartender and musician from Tucson. “Hosting makes me happy.”

Kepner-Adney is the sole Arizonan dinner host on Bookalokal. Her first and only customer so far has been Evelynne White, founder of Bookalokal, which has 10,000 registered users in Arizona. The menu? Burgers, with local produce and meat bought at a University of Arizona meat sale.

Capella Kincheloe of Phoenix said she started to host because she loves to cook and “it seemed like a good way to meet new and interesting people.” She said that in the past year, she has hosted four times through the website EatWith.

The process begins with an inquiry, then a view at the full user profile, some conversation about food preferences, and then getting a group together. Guests typically pay about $30 a plate.

Kincheloe offers one dining experience that she calls “Southern BBQ with Southwestern twist.”

The concept is similar to Uber, where anyone can get a ride from citizen drivers via a mobile application. These are citizen cooks, linked with hungry diners via websites.

EatWith, a company launched in Barcelona, has expanded worldwide to connect local chefs with tourists and other locals through food. White, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, created Bookalokal while she was living abroad in Brussels.

Both websites connect a local city chef with people who sign up for specific types of dining experiences that range from regional fare to food tours and personal specialties.

“It’s not about mimicking a restaurant experience,” White said.

“There’s something you can’t get from going to a restaurant,” said Naama Shefi, communications director for EatWith. She said guests can connect with chefs personally and ask them direct questions face-to-face.

Shefi, who lives in Israel, said only 4 percent of the thousands of applications they receive are chosen to host meals, often following a demonstration dinner or video interview.

Emily Weber, community manager for Bookalokal, said becoming a host is a process of verification through meeting and tasting a sample meal.

The ideal host, according to Weber, is someone who is excited and hospitable.

Weber has hosted meals and used the site when traveling. “It’s really fun not knowing who is coming to dinner,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

As international organizations, social dining websites are “a young space,” according to White.

Currently, neither site is regulated by government for health or safety standards. Shefi and Weber said they have not had to deal with guest or host safety issues to date.

“I’ve never heard of this before,” said Laura Oxley, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Health Department.

According to Oxley, if a food safety issue were to arise from social dining, the governing county health department would do an investigation, but it would most likely be handled in civil court if the diner sued. The state health department would help in an investigation by liaising between counties or states if the case belonged to an out-of-state consumer.

White said many people who have used the social dining website as a traveler said the experience was the best part of their trip.

“I have no doubt in 5-10 years, this will be how people dine when traveling.”

Megan Mohler is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at meganmohler@email.arizona.edu.

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