Fast Talk: How GrubWithUs Scales Intimacy

Meet Sen Sugano, Director of Business Development at the dinner-with-strangers startup.

GrubWithUs, founded in 2010, has a simple vision: Bring strangers together for a classy meal at a restaurant, and help them make new friends. The startup just launched a website redesign today. Fast Company called up Sen Sugano, GrubWithUs’s director of business development, to talk about the new directions for the young company. Cheers!

FAST COMPANY: It’s a shame we’re not meeting in real life, over a meal.

SEN SUGANO: The real-life movement is not our idea, but we definitely see ourselves as one of the pioneers of it. Companies like Meetup are trying to get people offline as well.

So how exactly does GrubWithUs work? Is it all curated?

We arrange everything. We have over 700 restaurant partnerships across the nation. Everything is prepaid in advance. You eat, you socialize, and at the end of a meal, you can get up and leave. The bill is paid for, including tax and gratuity, so there’s no awkward check-splitting.

People can meet at bars. What is it about meeting over food that makes for a better experience?

My first GrubWithUs meal, I don’t even know how to explain it. It was amazing. The person sitting across from me was a South Side Chicago girl, and the guy to the left of me was an i-banker. I was just thinking, when would this ever happen? This is such an eclectic group. There’s something about the dinner table that makes people come together. There’s just something about passing plates that eases tension. And at the end of the day, you can always talk about the food.

Your own background is in urban planning. How does it relate?

In urban planning you study how the built environment shapes society. For example, in walkable communities, there are more people talking to people on the street. GrubWithUs fits with this because it’s about building social capital for communities. We’re so disconnected, and we don’t talk to our neighbors. Essentially social capital is dying, and GrubWithUs is building it up again. All of those things tie back to what I studied, and are what makes me love the company.

Your job is to grow the business. But how do you scale intimacy?

We recently launched a create-your-own feature. The reason we’re moving towards a user-generated model is because it’s obviously scalable. We also do things like book tours: Rory Freedman, author of Skinny Bitch, hosted a meal to get to know her readers. We’re working with bands, musicians, and talent agencies to essentially do the same. We also work with some larger conferences and conventions. Those meals are much larger, but we do eight-person tables. We’ll do private meals for birthday parties and alumni groups.

Don’t you run the risk of just becoming another catering company?

I don’t foresee that. At the end of the day, we’ve defined ourselves as being about social dining. The majority of our meals will always be about meeting new people.

For some people, is GrubWithUs really a crypto-dating service?

We’re not about dating, but that’s not to say it hasn’t happened. We had two users in Chicago who would use the site maybe once or even twice a week. Then both of them suddenly disappeared, and we were like, “What happened to them?” We emailed them personally and said, “Hey, we notice you haven’t been around. Is everything OK?” The guy responded and said, “Oh yeah, sorry, I actually met so-and-so”—and it happened to be the girl—“at a meal, and we started dating, so we’re having our alone time, but we’ll be grubbing again soon.”

It’s bittersweet: if you do your job too well, you lose your customers.

That’s kind of true. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be the go-to source for any social dining. We’ve started doing couples meals.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here.

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[Image: Flickr user Rich Moffitt]

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