We’ve all been there: 8pm on a London Friday night, all alone at home with nothing but the happy sounds of chatter wafting in from the street and last night’s leftovers for company. You briefly consider stopping by your favourite restaurant but the image of the waiter sneering at you while you whisper ‘table for one, please’ keeps you glued to your couch staring dejectedly into your mobile.
It was precisely moments like these that drove hospitality professional Dimple Lalwani to create Social Belly, a “community marketplace” for people to discover and host dinner parties.
“Let’s face it, despite being a city with 8 million people, living in London can be excruciatingly lonely. When I moved here from Spain, I missed that sense of community that is a part of the Spanish lifestyle,” she says. Even at networking events, she thinks the environment is not really conducive to relaxing and forming a real friendship.
It was the realisation that food formed an integral part of any social gathering that led Lalwani to combine the concept of dining with socialising. “Whenever we meet friends or go on dates, it’s always for a meal, coffee or drinks. I figured that a lot of us would love to share a good meal with like-minded people but don’t have any options that offer both,” Lalwani says.
Her startup offers a platform for people who want to monetise their passion for cooking by hosting dinners, which they charge for. Guests sign up to find like-minded individuals to socialise with and hopefully form new friendships. When hosts or guests sign up to be members of the community, they create a profile that lists their interests. Those with maximum interests are ‘hooked up’ and a dinner date is set.
“It is like ‘fixing up’ people but for friendship. It’s purely platonic; there’s none of the drama of awkward dating,” she laughs, adding that sometimes she also makes suggestions based on the interests of the parties involved and helps them set it up.
The experiences currently on offer range from an exotic German Prussian meal to a three-course Persian dinner and even a simple macaroni.
“All the meals are extremely personal to the hosts; the food is inspired by their own stories,” Lalwani says.
“Our role is limited to the selection of the hosts; we meet them when they sign up, check the place where they want to host the meal to see if it is hygienic and offers the kind of ambience that will enhance the experience,” she says. She also checks out hosts on social media before including them in the community.
While the company was set up in 2013, it wasn’t until March this year that the product was launched. The concept got a real boost in 2014 when it won the Get Started competition and received a £50,000 prize. “Our business model aims to simulate a real marketplace. The hosts set the price of the meal according to food costs involved, labour, electricity etc. The guest looks at what suits their budget and taste and signs up accordingly,” Lalwani explains.
Similar to the concept of Airbnb, Social Belly charges a 10 per cent commission from the host and a 5 per cent fee from the guest.
Now she is looking for angel investors to take the project further.
And while Lalwani admits that the meals currently up for grabs are expensive at up to £20, she says the user is also signing up for an experience. “You have the option of meeting people with similar interests, in the comfort of their homes, for a meal they have prepared for you. That has got to be priceless.”