Recently, Reuters broke the news, that Airbnb, the hegemony of community marketplaces for shared lodging, was riffing off of their original concept: extending their resource from pillows to plates by allowing travelers to pay for meals in strangers' homes.
The idea seems pretty sound, and was spawned from an interesting byproduct of the accommodation rental process: sometimes pay-to-stay interlopers like to become friends with their hosts. What was founded as an online space for travelers to exchange reasonably priced rooms for money, Airbnb quickly morphed its ethos to become both the champion and enabler of authentic experiences.
Despite the spate of negative press involving makeshift brothels and illegal rentals that violate local laws, most people would agree that the marketplace has been a boon to budget-conscious travelers, especially in cities like New York, Paris and Rio with impossibly priced hotels. (And, of course, on the flip side it's been a cash cow for proprietors of enviably central real estate.)
As someone who actively seeks out opportunities to meet locals when I'm abroad, I relish the accidental nature of the friendships forged when you're sharing an apartment with someone new.
Now that Airbnb is launching its food-centric pilot project, encouraging San Franciscans to open not only their homes but their pantries as well, I wonder if this somehow cancels out the opportunity for that authentic interaction that the company covets so much.
When you're exchanging money for accommodation it feels as though you are contributing to the property's rent and maintenance -- a fee that can be easily rationalized away when you're standing face-to-face with your temporary landlord. Sure, the experience can feel purely transactional -- and at the end of the day that's all it's really built up to be -- but sometimes your host can be exceptionally friendly, or sometimes you'll find yourself gleefully forking over your money when the digs are super swank and you recall that the hotel down the block is twice as expensive.
With food, however, the experience is more complicated. There's a social element that underpins the entire engagement. Eating is an event, an opportunity to commune with cared ones.
Never mind the naysayers stating that a kitchen-cum-restaurant is completely illegal (surely Airbnb will find loopholes to maintain their clout), what's more concerning to me is the nature of the experience itself: sure it's local, but is it actually real?
Authenticity in travel is a topic of great debate, and in a world seemingly governed by social media, it's become the benchmark of a successful vacation. So can you truly have an authentic homecooked dining experience if you're paying for it?
Of course it goes without saying that a dollars-for-dining experience in a stranger's home can lead to friendship and fun, but the initial act of paying someone to host you for a meal implicitly removes the gratification derived from a random act of generosity.
In fact, my most cherished travel memory is a meal shared with strangers. I was backpacking through southern Vietnam at the age of 19, and became temporarily obsessed with finding the perfect bowl of pho. A victim of the "Bill Clinton ate here" apocrypha, I pulled up a chair in an unassuming noodle house when a young Vietnamese couple sat down beside me. They were quiet and smiley at first, but a mere 15 minutes later we were bonding over the difficulties of our architectural studies, and they were offering me advice on which appetizers to avoid. I motioned to pay for all three of our meals, but the waitress informed me that the bill had already been taken care of. It was indeed my perfect bowl of pho (I have no recollection of the quality of the food itself) and it's remained ingrained in my memory forever. Not because it was local and authentic, but because it was kind.
Although Airbnb didn't pioneer the homecooking scheme (websites like EatWith and Cookening are offering variations on the theme already), the powerhouse -- which was reportedly valued at $10 billion -- will undoubtedly be a gamechanger when it launches its food portal in earnest.
I just hope it doesn't sully the age-old custom of breaking bread with someone because they are a friend, not because they come with money.