Social dining companies let anyone run a 'restaurant'

Dishcourse party
Brie Jonna, right, gets ready to photograph a group who came to her apartment for a dinner party, Aug. 27, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

When Brie Jonna stepped into her apartment's tiny kitchen, she shed her daytime persona of an arts administrator and became a chef. Well, at least an amateur one.

As the smell of sizzling bacon filled the air, Jonna prepared for her invited guests, and considered her 20 hours of preparations.

"I cleaned all day on Sunday, and then I went grocery shopping and made a bunch of stuff on Monday night," she said last week. "And I made the cake last night. So I've been preparing all week."

The meal wasn't for a typical dinner party. Instead, Jonna organized the gathering on Dishcourse, a service that connects private hosts with guests who may who may not know each other.

Dishcourse is among a number of such companies whose services might create the next trendy new eatery in Minneapolis in the apartment next door. So-called social dining companies give amateur chefs a way to get paid for hosting dinner parties at their homes. But the business model could run afoul of health regulations and zoning codes.

Brie Jonna prepares food for a dinner party with seven strangers in her Minneapolis apartment.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Mallory Kurkoski, the 28-year-old founder of the fledgling company, said going to a stranger's house for dinner has special appeal for people her age.

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"This generation of people, the millenials, grew up with their lives somewhat online," said Kurkoski, an attorney and MBA student who hopes to become a serial entrepreneur. "They may be a little bit more used to saying, 'That person is also on Facebook, or that person has a Twitter. And that person could be my friend. I could find things out about them. I could meet them online and then have friends with them offline.'"

Jonna's party last week was the first event for Dishcourse, a small enterprise. Other new companies trying to build a business on social dining include EatWith, Feastly and Bookalokal. The sites all work the same way: They connect hosts with guests, process the payments and take a cut of the money, varying from 10 to 20 percent.

Jonna invited her guests to make a "suggested donation" of $25. But she didn't do it for the money.

"It's definitely covering the cost of the things I bought and a little bit extra," she said. "But if I really added up all my time — like planning, and cleaning, and prepping — and paid myself a reasonable wage for that, it wouldn't cover it."

Ingredients assembled on host and cook Brie Jonna's kitchen table.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

The social dining startups are part of a larger movement known as the sharing economy. Companies like Lyft, Uber and Airbnb have sent regulators scrambling, because they don't fit existing ordinances.

Minneapolis passed new regulations earlier this year to accommodate Lyft and Uber, while several Minnesota counties are cracking down on people who use Airbnb to rent out their lake homes.

Social dining also presents local officials with a problem, said Dan Huff, director of environmental health for Minneapolis. Because the kitchens aren't up to restaurant standards, there is a danger somebody could contract food poisoning, he said.

"I think they fall in a gray area. We know that a private dinner party is private. We know that a public restaurant is public and subject to the business licensing requirements and state food code," Huff said. "It depends on where we draw the line in that gray area. We don't have a very clear cut answer on that yet."

Running a commercial enterprise out of a residential property poses other problems, said Grant Wilson, the city's manager of licensing and consumer services.

Dinner party
Sam Farrand, Bryan Vasquez and John Bailey, left to right, dine together at Brie Jonna's Minneapolis apartment as part of the first Dishcourse meal.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"It might become profitable for somebody to host these dinners, and they decide they're not going to just host them monthly, or not even weekly," he said. "They might do them multiple times a week. All of those cars on someone's block could become problematic to neighbors."

Wilson said the city needs to develop new regulations to address such issues. But so far, Minneapolis officials aren't trying to stop social dining. They allowed the inaugural Dishcourse dinner to go forward.

Eight guests arrived. Some knew each other. Only one knew the host. The topics of conversation ranged from regional differences to mutual acquaintances and random trivia.

At the end of the night, everyone agreed they'd do it again — even Jonna, who was so busy hosting she didn't get eat with the group. Still, she said it was worth the effort.

Jonna already is thinking about what she'll serve next time.

"I mean we'll see. Maybe if it takes me three hours to do the dishes tomorrow, I'll be feeling differently," she said. "But I love to cook and I love to host, and I would be doing this — maybe not with strangers, but with people I know — even if Dishcourse didn't exist."

Menu for Brie Jonna's Dishcourse meal:

* Blueberry Basil Lemonade
* Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Almond
* GLBT (Guacamole, Lettuce, Bacon & Tomato) Sandwiches
* Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cake