The Washington Post

Food Networking Stars: Bringing ‘friends’ to the table

Down4Lunch was launched in mid-July by Jess Sadick, a 39-year-old D.C. resident who wanted to create a professional networking site with a real world component that trumps Internet-only options.

“It’s all about who you know in this town and LinkedIn has its limits,” says Sadick. “I have 280 connections, but how often do I sit down with those people and build meaningful relationships, so that they will go out of their way when I need it or vice versa? Not that often.”

When users log into Down4Lunch for the first time, they’re asked to create a simple profile and answer a few questions about who they’re looking to meet — their level of experience, industry, gender and age. One thing users won’t be asked for is a credit card number: The service is free.

Users can then create “lunches” at any eatery in or around the District, meals that will then be open to all other users whose preferences match up. Or members can sit back, and the system will automatically show available “lunches” hosted by other Down4Lunchers with matching preferences. (Though the site refers to all meet-ups as “lunches,” one can opt to meet for any meal of the day or just a drink.) Once someone agrees to a meeting, the site puts the two users in contact so they can meet at the predetermined time and place.

The Los Angeles-based company’s development director, Sen Sugano, is quick to say the venture isn’t a business networking site, a dating site or a deal site. “We’re more of a social utility,” he says. “But we have heard stories of people getting jobs and getting together through our meals.”

People who sign up with Grub With Us are offered the opportunity to buy tickets to three-course family-style dinners at restaurants around town, including Matchbox and Mandu. “We want people passing plates,” says Sugano. “It gets people talking, and it allows the restaurant to showcase all their top dishes and impress our users.”

Tickets are sold in a graduated-pricing format, so Grubbers (Sugano’s term, not ours) who buy the first tickets get a steeper discount, though Sugano says that all diners ultimately pay less for their meal than they would normally. The ticket covers the meal, though each diner gets an individual drink check to prevent any awkward tab splitting.

The meals are unhosted, but sometimes the chef or restaurateur will join the group for part of the meal. “It’s really casual,” says Sugano. “You show up and do your thing.”

The site does offer tips on how to make the most of your evening and what not to talk about (apparently medical marijuana is a divisive issue). To further facilitate socializing, each dinner involves at least eight participants.

Ultimately, both Grub With Us and Down4Lunch require users to be both active and proactive to get the best results. But even if a dining experience doesn’t yield a job lead or a BFF, the sites hope that users, at the very least, enjoy a good meal.


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