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The rise of the sharing economy

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The rise of the 'sharing economy, and Airbnb in particular, has fundamentally changed the hospitality industry. Jon Horsley reports on whether similar initiatives in the foodservice sector could have as seismic an impact

In November last year, food app firm Vizeat hosted the largest food sharing event on the planet, when thousands of Parisians invited guests into their homes for a one-off meal.

It was the launch of a partnership with Airbnb which the company hopes will see it grow to become the first breakthrough company to take advantage of the rise of the ‘sharing economy’. The idea is similar to Airbnb but instead of rooms offered by the general public, instead of hotels, it’s hosts offering meals taking the place of restaurants. Meaning that people visiting a city, can log in and find someone offering to make them and any other guests a meal in their own home.

The idea came to founder Jean-Michel Petit on a holiday in Peru. He says: “I was with my son travelling around the Titicaca lake and we got the chance to share a meal with an Indian family there. We both remembered it as the highlight of the whole trip.

“When we got home we wanted to offer that experience to everyone – to show that the table can be a place of sharing and fun no matter where you are.”

Vizeat is one of a number of similar apps like Cookening (which actually promises an “airbnb for meals”, Eat With  or Kitchensurfing (which is more like Uber, as it gives users the chance to bring professional chefs to your kitchen) which have funding but are yet to really take hold in the public imagination. But if they do – what does this mean for the foodservice industry, particularly given that the rise of Airbnb has taken millions of dollars from the hotel trade?

Alex Stephany, economist and author of The Business of Sharing, is not convinced that it will revolutionise the industry in the same way. He says: “The sharing economy tends to work by making excess capacity available – so spare rooms become hotel rooms. Or parking spaces can be swapped when they’re empty. But is a kitchen quite the same?

“There are interesting apps like Cookisto, which rose up from the crisis in Greece, meaning that people who had extra portions of food could offer up them to people who were hungry – but I think that’s interesting from a different point of view.

“However another factor which makes the sharing economy unique is that it tends to be an experience – with aspects of community. So you’ll see people turning out in support of Airbnb if governments try and ban it because they’ve bought into the idea of the experience and people like them. This is where I can see food fitting in. You pay for an experience and this would certainly be a chance to meet like-minded people.”

Petit claims, however, that it will have a very minor effect on restaurants, also focusing on the experience side of the app.

“I don’t think it will be disruptive,” he says. “What is one of the first things that people ask their hosts? They ask where the good restaurants will be, of course.

“This is a different thing entirely, meeting new people, seeing different things. We have hosts who are offering picnics as a meal choice or a simple meal on a roof garden in Paris. It’s not for everyone all the time. It’s a huge market and we don’t compete with everyone.”

Jon Horsley