“In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, and people bump into you. In L.A, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” -Graham (Crash)
This quotation, from the opening credits of the movie, Crash, exemplifies the growing dissonance between physical and social contact between people.
Let me elaborate.
I will text, Gchat, Facebook, and Email my friends before taking the time to make a phone call. At work, the deceptive silence is masked by a slew of keyboard clicks, signs that people are in fact communication – albeit through the internet.
While I’ll feel “connected” with my friends, no amount of texting will compare to the experience of meeting up for lunch or going out on the weekends with my friends. S. Shyam Sundar, director at Media Effects Research Lab, explains, “online contact and networking might replace offline interactions, but offline is still so precious that we’re creating ways to bring offline even more front and center.” Furthermore, “Physical proximity plays a big role in terms of building relationships.”
How Does it Work?
Grub With Us, a social networking startup out of Venice, California, is trying to change that. Their weapon of choice? Food. Funded by startup incubator Y Combinator, Grub With Us is using social networking to connect people physically through the least-awkward way possible – dinner.
Targeting social networking adherents looking for a low-stress environment to befriend others with similar interests, Grub With Us has found success with 20-somethings realizing that making friends post-college is much harder and professionals who are looking for networking opportunities beyond the workplace. “This is a really non-awkward way to meet new people. You’re taking your online social network offline, and you’re doing it over food,” explains Grub With Us development director Sen Sugano.
To make the meals accessible for the unemployed and the affluent, restaurant partners offer prix-fixe, tax- and tip-included meals for around $20-$30. These deals, usually around 70% of their original price, mark a sweet spot for foodies who are looking to expand their taste palettes on a budget without being clumped into the bargain-hunter category of Groupon and LivingSocial users.
Although Grub With Us aims to harness the human desire for physical interactions, it also understands the role social media plays in facilitating such events. In order to sign up for a dinner, users are required to make Grub With Us profiles. Users can use these profiles to join interest groups, friend others, chat amongst grubbers, and showcase their inner foodie with a history of their Grub With Us purchases. These features add a whole other layer to the synergies Grub With Us is creating between social and physical interactions. In order to grease the wheels of conversation, users can find similar interests with other foodies, ranging from microbrews to venture capitals.
A Grub With Us ambassador is present during each dinner to make sure everything runs smoothly. While having a company representative at a social event might seem like a barrier to conversation, Grub With Us ambassadors are all young, vibrant interns who are just as enthusiastic about food at Grub With Us’s customers.
Restaurants have been receptive of Grub With Us’s business model too. Founder Eddy Lu exclaims, “Restaurants love us because we want to create sustainable relationships with them and tell them to make sure they still make money using us.” “Users also use Grubwithus for social utility, not financial utility, so it’s a bunch of high-quality users coming into these restaurants, not deal-hunting cheapskates.” (obviously a shot at other daily-deal sites).
The Future of Grubbing?
Foodies and restaurant owners aren’t the only one munching on the idea. Grub With Us recently secured $1.6 million in investments from Andreessen Horowitz and First Round Capital, among others. With a legitimate round of investments in place, Grub With Us is looking to move beyond “ramen profitability” (a term coined by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham which emphasizes innovation and hard work instead of excessive investments) in order to expand into more cities. Currently, Grub With Us is operating in Boston, Chicago, L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC, but Grub With Us encourages its users to vote for cities they want the company to expand to, gaining valuable market information on a budget.
Grub With Us is indeed bringing social interactions back to its roots through offering a medium of communication – sans cellphones, laptops, and tablets, at an affordable price. This innovative model is a beacon of light where other social networking companies are suffering from tunnel-vision by only looking into expanding internet-focused services.