Business, Finance & Economics

Tech entrepreneur starts online service to connect travelers with home-cooked meal

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Jay Savsani, center, shares a meal in Cambodia arranged through his Mealsharing program. (Photo courtesy of Jay Savsani.)

Jay Savsani says he’s no gourmet cook. He thinks of himself as just a few steps above instant ramen or mac-and-cheese.

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But that doesn’t matter. It was Global Sharing Day, an effort to break the world record for the most meals shared.

“It’s going to be a massive meal and the exciting thing about that is that there are meals going on around the world,” Savsani said, in a bustling Chicago kitchen.

He’s the founder of Mealsharing, an online network aimed at helping travelers connect with a home-cooked meal anywhere in the world, and in their own communities.

Savsani's interest in sharing food began as a tourist in Cambodia. He says eating in restaurants — something was missing.

“We’re in this beautiful country, exploring and trying new things, but we weren’t able to be in somebody’s home or have real food,” he said.

So Savasni took matters into his own hands. He went to the front desk of his hotel and told the manager he was looking for a home cooked meal.

“When I said that, he lit up. He said 'great, let me find you a home-cooked meal.' And I was like, the adventure begins now,” Savasni recalled.

The meal was everything he had hoped: the food was good, the conversations meandered from Michael Jackson to Obama to Pol Pot. Savasni says on the rickshaw ride home, he had an epiphany.

“There needs to be a digital solution to recreate the spontaneity of that evening so you don’t have to go to a hotel lobby to have this happen. Let’s build a community of people around the world that want to make this happen,” he explained.

Savsani set out to create what he calls facilitated serendipity, an online network to share meals with strangers around the world. He says you can now go to 250 cities worldwide and have a home cooked meal — for free.

Mealsharing users make profiles. Each one lists the kind of meals they like to cook. Savsani shows some of the entries. There’s one that says “freshest food with a Spanish twist,” another that offers “exotic vegan” fare.

Then there’s the one that lists “unexperienced but funny cook.”

“At Mealsharing, we support that feel,” Savsani said. “We want to strip pretentiousness out of food so that hosts don’t feel like they have to make something that would be on Top Chef.”

Savsani says he’s met a range of people on Mealsharing, from a Palestinian woman in Paris to a Brazilian couple in Berlin, and it allows him to travel locally too. In Chicago, he’s eaten with a Mexican family. And Phil from Alabama taught him how to cook proper fried chicken. Phil says he marinates the chicken in buttermilk.

“It’s a heart attack on a plate, but hey, what a way to go,” Phil said.

Phil was in Chicago for the global meal-sharing event, and he brought some couch surfers from Colombia and Australia along with him.

Like online services for couch surfers or sites like AirBnB, Mealsharing is part of a trend some call collaborative consumption.

But it’s really an old idea.

“Digital allows us to do what we used to do — meeting up with strangers, hitchhiking and hosting travelers for food or accommodations,” Savasni said. “But this time around we can use technology to make it even safer.”

He says Mealsharing will start verifying users’ addresses and phone numbers electronically to help ensure people really are who they say.

Mealsharing has a ways to go before it becomes mainstream, but it is gaining attention. Savasni spoke to the British Parliament about how sharing meals can build community and promote healthy, home-cooked food.

And, at the Global Sharing Day event, the movement seemed to be gaining some well-fed converts.

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