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Dining With Strangers: A Startup Takes Social Networking out to Dinner

Dinner, anyone? Web platform Grubwithus makes it easy to connect with interesting people (and potential friends) over a meal.

There's nothing like sharing a great meal to help a crowd loosen up and turn strangers into friends. But if you're new to town (wherever that may be), it may be hard to find the right crowd to get dinner with, or the right friend to organize a meal and invite you. Enter Grubwithus, a new web platform for people eager to socialize around a delicious meal with a self-selecting group of people.

The Los Angeles-based website was founded by Eddy Lu and Daishin Sugano, who—tired of tech careers in the corporate world—decided to open franchises of a cream puff company in Los Angeles and then Chicago. Passionate about food, they were challenged by their hectic schedules to meet people in their adopted hometown in a comfortable, natural way. Lu and Sugano reached out to several Chicago restaurants to host Grubwithus' first public dinners for locals seeking new friends. The project launched as a company in the summer of 2010. Now it operates nationally and recently closed its Series A round of funding for $5 million.

Here's how it works: users (referred to as grubbers) can visit their city's Grubwithus page to check out the meals on offer. In Los Angeles, a city with an active user base, the possibilities range from meeting young people new to L.A., to networking with entrepreneurs, to talking shop with restaurant industry leaders, to mingling with singles. If none of those options sounds appealing, users can opt for the "Create Your Own" feature to set up their own meal in a neighborhood of their choice.

Diners pay a fixed price in advance to book a spot at a multi-course meal. Once they've paid, attendees just show up at the the restaurant at the arranged time and enjoy themselves. "There is no format. No agenda, no assigned seating," explains Amy Partridge, director of communications for Grubwithus. "Sit down, find where you’re comfortable. The meal is served family style. It’s a social lubricant. People at the very least can find a conversation by asking someone to pass a dish."

According to Partridge, Grubwithus maintains relationships with a roster of restaurants in each city where it operates. The restaurant agrees to prepare a family style meal for the party of grubbers and hold a table based on how many register for the meal. "It’s essentially guaranteed revenue for [the restaurants]," Partridge says. "It’s group business and its generally on nights that the restaurants are a bit slower. It’s been a very positive marketing tool." Grubwithus keeps the lights on by charging a service fee per reservation.

Partridge says the company can already pat itself on the back for connecting several diners with job offers through Grubwithus meals. Perhaps the one problem with the service is that if it's successful, grubbers will no longer need it and coordinate meals on their own with new friends. According to Partridge, that happened with at least one super-user in Chicago. After coming to Grubwithus meals every two weeks, "all of a sudden he stopped coming to our meals. We reached out to him and said, 'We miss you.'"

Turns out he had met his girlfriend at a meal. His response: "'We’ve been doing just parties of two.'"

Image courtesy of Grubwithus

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