In the years just after college when your friends disperse from campus to start careers, it isn't always easy to find a pal to dine with. Enter Grubwithus, a company created by 30-year-old partners Eddy Lu and Daishin Sugano.
The friends, who met at the University of California at Berkeley, had worked at many a corporate job and started their share of businesses, one of which involved relocating to Chicago. "It's when we arrived in Chicago that Daishin and I discovered that most of our college friendship base had dwindled," Lu says. "Meetup groups are good, but they're usually geared to an event. When you're eating at a restaurant, you're locked in place for an hour or two. You have to socialize with the person sitting next to you."
The pair decided to see if their idea of creating a "social meal experience" would resonate with people. To test the concept, they created a restaurant event in Chicago and sent a Twitter message inviting people to meet for dinner. "We weren't sure what to expect and then, all of a sudden, we were getting emails with payment information," Lu says. "We were ecstatic." That 12-person dinner sold out in a day. Shortly after, Lu and Sugano moved to San Francisco, officially launching the business in January 2011, out of Y Combinator, a company that provides seed funding for startups.
Growth Spurt: In one year, the company has raised $1.6 million from angel investors, including actor Ashton Kutcher, and managed 7,000 restaurant reservations. Grubwithus, which takes a cut from participating restaurants, employs 15 people and is active in seven cities. Lu declined to disclose the amount Grubwithus receives from restaurants or the company's financial results.
Why It's Worth Watching: In a Groupon world in which many customers have come to expect discounts or other deals, Grubwithus presents restaurants with a different business model. Like Groupon-type promotions, Grubwithus drives traffic to restaurants, but instead of savings, it offers people a new way to socialize. "We're building sustainable relationships" with the restaurants, Lu says.
Why It Matters: In a world of virtual relationships, Grubwithus represents a return to old-fashioned conversations over a meal, which some people crave. "These days, we interact virtually with almost everyone," Lu says. "I think our company brings people back to their roots."
Grubwithus targets its face-to-face social networking to people in the 24-to-38-year-old set--the "after-college pre-parenting" group. But Lu and Sugano have found that people of all ages are attracted to their dining events. Users browse the site to find a meal in their area and make their reservation. Attendees can read in advance fellow diners' profiles, which include information on where they work and where they went to school. Groups are limited to 10 to keep the meal cozy, and people who reserve early pay less--a reward to those willing to sign up before seeing whom they'll be sharing a table with.
"The first time someone tries it, he or she may bring a friend, but they usually discover that it's more fun to go alone," Lu says. "That way you get to talk to everyone." During a recent Grubwithus meal, the participants had so much fun they ended up going out for a movie afterward, Lu says. Some of the diners who met during the launch meal are still in close touch. "One girl in Chicago wrote us a three-page testimonial about how she met her best friend at that meal," Lu says.
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Looking Ahead: Grubwithus has just launched an iPhone App so customers can book meals on the go, browse through profiles of fellow diners and even chat with other diners before and after the meals. In addition, the partners recently devised a "create your own meal" feature so customers can use Grubwithus to set up a booking--only this time you eat with people you know. This option will enable the company to expand beyond the seven current cities.
"Anyone can now use our site to host a dinner in any neighborhood or even the smallest of towns," Lu says. "We're becoming the platform to host these social gatherings." The partners also plan to use social media marketing. "We haven't yet done any advertising, but we'll certainly start that relatively soon, whether on Facebook or Google," Lu says. "We'll branch out from there." So far, Lu says, he isn't aware of any direct competition.
Tip to Stay Ahead of the Curve: During the startup's first year, Lu has become convinced that it's most important to be in sync with what the Grubwithus customer wants. "We used to curate all the meals, and we'd get emails saying, 'Can we do a birthday party at this or that restaurant?'" he says. "So we're doing this. We've also gotten emails asking if we can do more meals in one area or another or at specific restaurants in a particular city. I've learned that if you listen to your customers' feedback, you can stay ahead of the curve and cater to what they want."
Lambeth Hochwald is a freelance journalist, whose stories have appeared in magazines such as Coastal Living, O The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple and Redbook. She is also an adjunct professor at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.