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New startups help people connect offline over meals

Mike Green, Yaron Sadka, Samantha Stern (L to R) brunch at Joe's Restaurant as part of
Mike Green, Yaron Sadka, Samantha Stern (L to R) brunch at Joe's Restaurant as part of
Josie Huang
Mike Green, Yaron Sadka, Samantha Stern (L to R) brunch at Joe's Restaurant as part of
Shawn and Nikki Smith have brunch at Joe's Restaurant as part of Grub With Us.
Josie Huang

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So you have over 1,000 friends on Facebook. A kajillion followers on Twitter. But do you still feel like you're missing something? Instead of G-chat, do you just want to chat I.R.L, In Real Life?

A host of new startups are now using the Web to help people connect off-line and grab a bite while they're at it.

One such startup,, sells a "social dining" experience to users looking to bond over a shared meal.

"People have reached out to us and say they're so tired of socializing online,” said Daishin Sugano, co-founder of Grubwithus. “You're socializing with your fingertips. You're typing."

Sugano and his Grubwithus co-founder Eddy Lu came up with the idea about three years ago when they were living and working together in Chicago.

"At the bars it was really difficult to meet new people,” said Sugano. “I would approach a guy, and I'd be like hey, 'Did you catch that game yesterday? That was a thriller ... A lot of the times they thought I was trying to pick them up.”

There are a lot of websites for dating, but when it comes to just making friends, there are fewer options to choose from. Like dating sites, Grubwithus has members make profiles. They can then choose from a list of group meals around the city or create their own meals.

Yaron Sadka, who used Grubwithus to set up a brunch at Joe's Restaurant in Venice says the process is simple, all you need are "a date, a time, a name for your event, and they kind of all put it all together,” said Sadka. “You don't even need a location if you don't want one."

Grubwithus partners with restaurants willing to host up to eight or so people. A seat at the table costs around $25, and the company and the restaurant split the profits. The company started out in places like San Francisco and New York, but a $1.6-million boost from angel investors like Ashton Kutcher has helped the company expand to smaller cities and collect 35,000 members along the way.

Now based in Venice, Grubwithus isn't the only Internet company taking a bite out of the social dining scene. Let's Lunch out of Silicon Valley features one-on-one lunches between professionals. Vancouver-based Social Feed specializes in meals with up to 40 diners in their 20s.

"It's interesting that you are using online means to enhance your offline lives, because of the general concern that people have that online technologies or online media are taking away from the richness of offline interactions,” said Shyam Sundar of the Media Effects Research Lab at Penn State, who has been following the growth of these sites in his research.

Sundar adds that sites such as Grubwithus help people build a community based on physical proximity. He says the sites may have found the recipe for success by centering interactions around meals.

"Breaking bread represents the sealing of a relationship,” said Sundar. “And in terms of absorbing conversation and engaging in it, the meal time is one of the few times where we're not multi-tasking with cell phones and other devices."

At Joe's Restaurant, brunch finally ended after two hours. There were e-mails exchanged and promises to stay in touch, but do these brunch-goers really have plans to keep in touch? Schoolteacher Samantha Stern says, sure.

"I think everybody was really nice," Stern said. "It could have been a lot more awkward."

If anything, she has at least has a few more friends she can add on Facebook.