New York City’s underground dinner party economy

April 15th, 2019  |  Published in Business

A roast chicken dinner. Photo: Gabriel Garcia Marengo

An out-of-towner lands at John F. Kennedy airport and orders orders an Uber or Lyft to their Airbnb, where they’ve been promised an authentic New York City experience. For sightseeing, they consult Yelp or Foursquare, reading recommendations from incentivized elite users. And when they grow hungry for something unique, they might book a meal on platform like Eatwith, where a handful of New Yorkers sell dining experiences in their homes, eager to monetize a passion for cooking outside of the traditional restaurant business.

Meal sharing platforms are among the latest experiments in a gig economy, the growing movement of task-based and contract jobs that some say is the future of American employment.  Eatwith, one of the most popular of these services, lets users book meals hosted in the apartments of home cooks in cities around the world, with an interface that resembles Airbnb’s.

The Israeli start-up was founded in 2012 and now boasts 20,000 hosts who feed 150,000 diners worldwide. In 2017, it was acquired by a French rival called VizEat, which rebranded its own operations under Eatwith’s name. The company, which now offers dining experiences in 130 countries, is actively recruiting hosts in major cities across the United States by offering $150 referral fees.

In New York City, the company’s biggest American market, there are nearly two dozen listings in any given week, ranging from “Balkan Feast in a Charming Brownstone” to “New York Comfort in the Upper East Side.” The meals cost anywhere from $48 to $125, including a 20% commission that goes to Eatwith.

For the past four years,Maddine Insalaco, 61, and her husband Joe Vinson, 65, have hosted approximately two meals per month in their Lower East Side loft, which they also occasionally rent out via Airbnb. The pair are artists who divide their time between New York and Tuscany, where they run a landscape-painting school and a week-long gastronomic tour during white truffle season. “Before I even applied to Eatwith, we were already making these gourmet lunches in the middle of vineyards and olive growths for painting students,” Insalaco said, of the time the couple spends in Italy. “We already had a background in feeding people.”

Eatwith was a natural extension of the couple’s work, a free way to market themselves, bringing more awareness to their painting school and their week-long Etruscan food tour, where the “serious money” – over $3000 per guest – is made. On Eatwith, the earnings are slim. A full meal, which costs around $80 per person, will typically net about $500 with a full table of 10, Insalaco said. Compared to what the couple puts in, it’s not much: They serve vintage wines and take the time to hand-make their pastas without the aid of a machine. As artists, craft is of utmost importance to them. “I’m not going to lose money, but I’m not obsessed with margins,”  Insalaco said.

Other New York hosts echoed Insalaco’s perspective. Eatwith is side income generated from a hobby rather than a main occupation – though some hope it will help them build up a larger career in food.

Lucinda Goussard, 43, who hosts South African meals from her apartment in Astoria, has a full-time job as an executive assistant in fashion, but her dream is to create a line of South African baked goods. She learned to cook from her mother and grandmother and continued to hone her culinary skills while working as a nanny for nearly a decade. Her $46 brunches net her $200 if all 8 spots are sold, after she pays for supplies and Eatwith takes their cut. “I always end up giving more,” Goussard said, citing cocktail refills and extra food. “I just want people to have a good time.”

Like other sharing economy apps, Eatwith operates in a legal grey area. In New York City, some foods, including baked goods, can be prepared at home with a Home Processor exemption — but foods like meat and fish are prohibited without a Food Service Establishment permit issued by the health department. The permit requires an application and a $280 fee, plus an additional $25 if frozen desserts will be served.

Exemptions and permits are not part of Eatwith’s vetting process, which involves a detailed application followed by a demo meal. Apps like Eatwith are not currently on the city’s radar – but a health department spokesman emphasized that state and municipal sanitary code prohibits restaurants from operating in private homes. The health department has the authority to shut down or fine any establishment that violates the rule.

When Insalaco joined in 2015, the approval process was strict: She had to submit a video with her application, followed by a Skype interview and a dinner for an Eatwith representative and a professional photographer. The process took two months. By the time Goussard applied last summer, photos had replaced the video component. Goussard’s demo dinner was served to her friends.

To account for any liability issues, Eatwith covers all hosts and guests with a 5,000,000 GBP insurance plan provided by Lloyd’s of London. In addition, the company recommends that hosts purchase their own civil liability insurance.

Hosts don’t seem to be concerned. “The restaurant lobby isn’t suffering,” Insalaco said, comparing Eatwith to Airbnb, which faced legal pressure from the hotel lobby. “Very few people in New York even know about this.” Neither she nor Goussard had heard of any host who had encountered liability problems with guests, or vice versa.

Diners simply sign up with Eatwith by entering a credit card and booking a meal. Tony Carnevale, a 42-year-old writer who lives in Brooklyn Heights, first used the platform while on vacation in Italy on a friend’s recommendation. The dinner, which cost Carnevale $60, went so well that the hosts drove him back to his hotel afterwards, stopping at several destinations along the way to give him a local’s tour of Rome. “It was a one-of-a-kind experience I couldn’t have gotten any other way,” Carnevale said.

Carnevale’s memorable experience isn’t unusual. Goussard has kept in touch with several diners, one of whom requested her cooking for a private event after experiencing her meal on Eatwith. Insalaco has witnessed friendships form between dinner guests, and an Eatwith dinner has even brought four people to her gastro tour in Tuscany.

 “I like the concept of meeting people in a non-invasive, low-impact way,” Insalaco said. “I really do believe in it.”

Her next dinner is on Saturday, and it’s booked full.

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