Feastly’s users gather in the homes of amateur chefs to eat dinner with strangers. (Courtesy of Danny Harris)

Since the dawn of online dating, the Internet has become populated with companies that provide offline experiences for online users. First, there was Meetup, whose members form Internet groups around common interests and meet in real life. Later came Airbnb, which allows people to stay overnight in strangers’ homes.

Now, a hybrid of the two concepts comes from a new D.C.-based start-up called Feastly, which signs people up for “feasts” at the homes of amateur chefs — in the company strangers.

“Feastly is serving as a platform where people can come together in a stay-at-home setting,” said co-founder Danny Harris. “We’re seeing this movement grow around people who come for the food and the community.”

The idea came to Harris’s co-founder and friend, Noah Karesh, when he was traveling through Guatemala and found it hard to get authentic, home-cooked meals. He channeled that frustration into a pitch during November’s D.C. Startup Weekend, in which entrepreneurs launch a business in 54 hours. Feastly was the result.

How the meals work

On a recent Thursday in March, a handful of strangers gathered in a Columbia Heights row home to experience a sushi-making “Feast” organized by two of Karesh’s friends, Greer Gilchrist and Lisa Markuson. The event began with an introductions game and a sushi-making demo. The attendees didn’t seem to mind dining with people they didn’t know — in fact, some relished it.

“It’s fun to be in someone’s house and have homemade food,” said David Edmonson, a blogger. “You usually only know a few people at a house party anyway, so there’s not really much of a difference.”

Feastly has held roughly 20 meals so far, but the founders plan to hold two to four each week as the business grows.

Each feast runs about $30, and Karesh and Harris make their revenues by taking a margin from the transaction.

At the sushi meal, the attendees and chefs all had some connection to Karesh and Harris — for now, the pair largely rely on word-of-mouth and their personal networks to fill up the meals.

“D.C. is a small enough city that, as word has been getting out about Feastly, we’re getting everyone from mothers whose children have left for college to people who have come here from other parts of the country and the world,” Harris said.

While the meals are currently organized via a weekly e-mail, Karesh and Harris are building a technology platform that they hope will allow for an expanded universe of at-home chefs and Feasters.

Safety concerns

But there are safety risks that arise when people gather in strangers’ homes. One of the most high-profile examples occurred last year, when a Airbnb user ransacked a host’s San Francisco apartment after using a fake identity on the site.

Airbnb spokeswoman Emily Joffrion said the incident was a “wake-up call” for Airbnb on the need for better host protections. The company quickly enacted dozens of new safety features, including adding verified profile photos and phone numbers to user accounts.

Harris and Karesh are forthcoming about the lack of health department inspections at any of the home kitchens, and they’re talking with lawyers and insurance companies about how to protect hosts and guests at the food-based events.

“We’re making good-faith efforts to make sure our chefs are working at the same standards that are put forth in other food-based establishments,” Harris said.

Ann Miura-Ko, a partner with Floodgate, a California firm whose portfolio includes companies similar to Feastly, said another major challenge for these kinds of start-ups is getting consumers to switch from the status quo — in Feastly’s case, just going to a restaurant.

“There’s no competitor out there for this type of business,” she said. “It’s about changing the mind set of the regular person to think about these services. It goes beyond trust to building awareness.”

She added that the prevalence of social media sharing makes consumers more open to those opportunities than they might have been before.

“The younger generation is more open to sharing info about themselves,” she said. “This is the evolution of people discovering friends online and creating offline interactions.”

Follow Olga and OnSmallBiz on Twitter