In Melbourne, eating with strangers

MELBOURNE -- Would you dine with a stranger? Two Melburnians play matchmaker in the city, connecting lonely travelers and strengthening neighborly bonds along the way.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE -- Wine glasses clink together in noisy unison to coincide with a murmur of "cheers." The eight diners exchange cordial comments about the salads on their plate; a palette comprising such medleys like avocado, mango and pinenut, and a kangaroo prosciutto, fig and cheese.

It looks like just any other dinner party in inner-city Melbourne and to an extent, it is. But before today, none of these people knew each other.

These strangers have visited the website Eat With Me (EWM), a global social networking site bringing people together in communal eating. On the site, members can log in, find the eating events happening in their city and then join up. If there isn't one, they have the option to host an event themselves, posting it on the site.

EWM events are often themed; from the simple Summer Salad Smash to the more unusual Swedish Sandwich Cakes. Often they include some kind of recipe-swapping or skill-sharing sessions such as the Wonton Making Workshop or food excursions that include foraging and chocolate making.

Originally founded in Melbourne in 2010, the concept of EWM is based on sharing a meal with friends, acquaintances, strangers, neighbors and even travelers. The idea of eating with strangers has gained prominence around the world, as seen in sites such as Grub With Us and COLunching, both much slicker, sponsored versions of Eat With Me.

However, as far as co-founders Bethany Jones and Liisa Vurma are aware, EWM is the only group which acts as an 'open source' service; members are allowed to host their own events (by posting via the website), including choosing their own location (often in someone's home).

Jones, a 31-year-old music lawyer for Mushroom, explains that EWM members use their services in many different ways. "There are no hard and fast rules," she says, "The most important thing is that you respect the people you're with."

"It is more about a collaborative lifestyle, kind of based on the Epicurus quote, ‘We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf,'" Jones says.

Despite the simple format, the premise of EWM was born out of rigorous research. The concept was conceived during a university project that Vurma was involved in. Vurma's assignment brief asked her to design a service that would be relevant in the future and in response, she identified the rise of the single-person household as the focus of her study.

This social trend struck a personal chord for the Estonian-born Vurma who had just moved to Melbourne from Berlin. "At the time, I was single as well and combined with the fact that I had no prior networks in Melbourne when I moved here, I really craved some sense of belonging, a local family of friends," Vurma says.

The idea to combine the social network idea with food actually came later. At first Vurma thought her idea seemed too out there and she assumed that once she handed her university project in the idea would end there. But after presenting the idea, she received such positive feedback from fellow students that she was encouraged to make it happen.

"At that time, we didn't have so much happening in the sharing scene and even the term collaborative consumption wasn't around," Vurma, a 32-year-old service designer, explains, "Something amazing has been happening in the last few years and I can only see the sharing economy becoming more and more mainstream."

Jones, a Melbourne local, felt a similar disconnect. "In a big transient city like Melbourne, most people rent, and renting often sees a high turnover of faces, places and neighbourhoods which means that despite best efforts, it is sometimes hard to connect with the community. We all know the benefits of a strong community and friendly neighbourhood but often we don't know how to engage or start the conversation," Jones says.

She believes that meals are the very best forum in which to meet new people. "There's something about the act of eating with someone, I think you can get past that basic conversation because you're doing some kind of activity -- cooking, drinking or preparing food -- that allows people to open up a little more," she says.

Today the popularity of EWM has extended well beyond its member base. Just last Thursday, EWM hosted a dinner at the Sharing House restaurant at Melbourne's South Wharf Promenade. Further back in 2011 the State of Design Festival included an EWM event as part of their festival program. Colin Oh, a 34-year-old software developer and Melbourne local, found EWM at one such event.

"My initial interest came from reading about ‘Dining With Strangers' on the State of Design website and thinking it was a great idea. What motivated me to sign up to that event 15 minutes later was the fact that there was a bit of a diaspora of all the people in my small social circle at the time and I saw it as a great way to meet new people," Oh says.

Similarly EWM member Chelsea Herman, a 29-year-old part-time postgraduate student and communications professional, also found herself at an EWM event. Having moved from Canada to study at Melbourne, she found herself without a social support network.

"In my first few months here, I found it really hard to meet new people," Herman says. "There were also all these cool food and drink spots in the city that I wanted to try, but no one to go with. When I stumbled upon EWM's Dining With Strangers event. I thought it was a perfect solution to my problem."

There are many others like Herman in Melbourne who have found friends and a support network via attending the EWM events. Conversely there are others who simply can't fathom the idea of eating with strangers.

"We're often asked ‘have you met anyone weird?' I always find that a funny question," Jones says. "I personally haven't. People I've met at these events are open-minded ... genuinely interested in meeting new people. You simply go along and have a dinner... The worst that can happen to you is that you leave with a full stomach."

Jones says that she's made a lot of friends from EWM events, but there's no sense of obligation to see members out of this environment. She simply takes pleasure in sharing meal, seeing familiar faces, extending her network, and feeling connected to the people around her. As she puts it, "I kind of like to think of Eat WIth Me as eating my way to a stronger community."

EWM is currently operating in over 80 countries including Argentina, Israel, Japan, Germany and many others. But Melbourne is, by far, EWM's strongest community: 800 out of the 4,500 members worldwide are Melburnians. The uptake of EWM in Melbourne says a lot about the city's inhabitants.

"Food is very important to Melburnians, and so it does fit in with that whole cultural scene which fundamentally comes to sharing a meal with somebody. But it doesn't matter how great the food is ... sometimes you remember the company more," Jones says.

Photos: Alexander McIntyre and Eat With Me.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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