It’s known the world over as social eating, although it has also been referred to as peer-to-peer eating. It’s a trend that arrived from the US around 2013. It began simply as a way to share meals, a social event par excellence; but in just a few short years it has become a real business opportunity. Monthly Italian food magazine, La Cucina Italiana, defined the concept as, “An opportunity that affords the unemployed who are good in the kitchen a new chance to create a name for themselves and comfortably see themselves through to the end of the month.” It’s a way of sharing that has turned into a form of social network and has seen many platforms - websites and apps - spring up, each with its own niche.
Social eating platforms in Italy
One of the most well-known is Gnammo, with over 200 users and 13,000 events created across Italy. The startup - which originated at Italy’s top business incubator I3P, part of Torino Polytechnic - was founded by Cristiano Rigon (Managing Director), Walter Dabbicco and Gian Luca Ranno. The app allows anyone with a passion for or a certain expertise in food to organise or participate in home cooking events. It’s the chance to share a table with other members of the community. There are various options to choose from: social eating at the house of a stranger, special dinners that allow you to explore cities and tourist destinations through the cuisine at social restaurants, or the experience of meeting new people as you dine at a restaurant.
- Le Cesarine is a social eating experience with expert chefs. The project was selected in the final stage of Future Food, Digital Magics’ Call for Innovation. The network, which runs nationwide and is coordinated by a dedicated workforce, brings together food lovers and those available to host gastronomic events in their own homes. The aim is to remind the best home cooks in Italy that the most authentic recipes are surely those written in notebooks handed down through the generations. Le Cesarine subscribers are also available to cook in the homes of clients.
- So Lunch is a platform intended for lunch breaks spent nearby. It wants to put a decisive end to the big-city ways of lunch box meals prepared the night before, shoved into a plastic box and, often, eaten in front of the computer. But it also says no to the daily pilgrimage to the café round the corner from the office, the one whose menus you already know inside out. So Lunch gives users the chance to have a homemade lunch, even when far from home. It’s also a chance to meet new people. The startup is open for business in Milan and was founded by Elena Seccia, Luisa Galbiati and Roberto Marmo.
- People Cooks instead incorporates a system of mutual support into the virtual component. The platform is aimed specifically at students and professionals on trips and at tourists and people on a budget. There’s a limit on the cost of a meal: never more than six euros. And the driving spirit behind the initiative is to become a solid base for support and solidarity.
- VizEat is an app that allows you to choose a destination, browse the events taking place and book a gastronomic tour, dinner or cookery course. The app also allows you to meet new people from your destination, exchange recipes and share your culinary experience. Users pay a fixed fee to the owner of the house through the site, which takes 15% commission from the hosts before sending the remainder to them via PayPal the day after the event. VizEat offers culinary experiences in over 100 countries.
Social eating is a market sector within the sharing economy. It differs from the home restaurant sector in that those offering meals do so on a casual or occasional basis.
A real working opportunity
The Florence Centre for the Study of Tourism (CST) carried out some research on this recent phenomenon, on behalf of Confesercenti (an association representing Italian businesses). In summary, in 2014 the sector’s estimated turnover was 7.2 million euros and 37,000 organised events took place involving 7000 chefs all over Italy. And the trend grew in 2015.
“The ‘Social Chef’ has an average age of 41. More often than not, it is women running social eating activities (56.6%) but there’s a reasonable selection of men getting involved too (29.4%),” said Ms. Ilaria Nuccio, the researcher at CST Florence in charge of the study. “In many cases, however, home restaurants are managed by couples or by others who have decided to form a group. 53.8% of cooks have an account on at least one of the main social networks and 14.9% run additional activities linked to the food sector.” The phenomenon appears to have developed right across the Italian territory, but it’s particularly prominent in Lombardy (22.4%), Lazio (16.9%) and Piedmont (13.5%). Milan is the city with the largest share of social chefs, with 8.4% of the total. And it’s here that Ma’ Hidden Kitchen Supper Club - one of the most famous home restaurants in Italy - is based. Rome, instead, hosts 8.2% of the total offering. The largest service there is Ceneromane.com. Torino - with 5.6% - is the third largest social eating city in Italy, home to the Gnammo platform, which had a hand in the phenomenon spreading to the rest of Italy. The analysis has shown that Lombardy - which has turned over a total of around 1.9 million euros - is the top region, raking in around a quarter of the total turnover. Lazio has also recorded revenue of over a million euros (1.4 million), as has Piedmont (1.1 million). In Italy’s Southern regions, Puglia consistently obtains the best results, hitting an annual turnover of 649,000 euros. “Over 37,000 social eating events took place in 2014, involving around 300,000 people”, said Nuccio. She added that, “The estimated average cost was 23.70 euros a head, making the total takings for each event about 194 euros. The values that emerged from the study suggest the entire home restaurant market in Italy generates 7.2 million euros in revenue.”
From social eating to home restaurant
“Social eating is a market sector within the sharing economy in which meals - lunches and dinners - are prepared for a fee in the homes of strangers or those you’ve met through an online platform,” explained Gaetano Campolo, professional chef and creator of Home Restaurant Hotel. “Social eating differs from the sector that gave birth to it - the home restaurant - in that those offering meals do so on a casual or occasional basis. The home restaurant is, instead, a veritable business undertaking.” And this is one of the leaps that social eating has taken in its path to professionalization. In effect, the difference is defined by an earnings threshold: social eating does not bring in an income but a contribution towards the costs. It becomes a home restaurant when the business surpasses earnings of 5,000 euros a year. “Home Restaurant Hotel is an advantage for those who are perhaps struggling to find work, allowing them to reinvent themselves as a hotel- or restaurant-owner by making their home or experience available to others”, explained Campolo. “The first Home Restaurant in Florence opened in June 2015. It took the suite in an apartment in the heart of Tuscany’s capital city and made it available to guests. The numbers of tourists from within Italy and across the world visiting our sites in Reggio Calabria attest to their popularity: these guests come to visit such sites to immerse themselves in our culinary culture - famous for being the most rich and unique cuisine in the world.” In 2018, the business model predicts an income of two million euros and, since January, has already seen 50,000 more individual visitors than in 2017.
But is this really a solution to employment?
As far as Home Restaurant Hotel is concerned, partners can earn a monthly turnover of up to 8,000 euros, hosting up to 60 paying guests per week. The cost per head is generally 40 euros and the hosts pocket an average of 194 euros per event. And the costs of running events? Each platform has different rules. There are those who take commission, such as Gnammo - taking 10% - and those like Home Restaurant Hotel who charge a subscription fee - in this case 1,500 euros.
How can you become a chef and turn your house into a restaurant?
Marco Giarratana is a home chef and blogger at Il Fatto Quotidiano, under pseudonym L’uomo senza Tonno (The Tuna-less Man). He clarified the matter instantly: “There are certain professional requirements for you to do this. You need to have completed your secondary education at an institute for hotel services, have worked in restaurants for at least two consecutive years of the last five or you need to take and pass the exams for a ‘SAB’ course.” SAB (somministrazione di alimenti e bevande) courses enable participants to provide food and beverages services and operate commercially within that sector.
There are three requirements to obtain a place on such a course:
- A diploma in secondary education;
- To be over the age of 18 upon the date of your enrolment on the course;
- Ample skills in speaking, writing and understanding Italian, to a level that permits you to participate in an educational course.
But it’s not just about bureaucracy. “My experience has allowed me to establish certain rules for home chefs,” said Giarratana. “The most important is not to cut back on raw materials, as a guarantee for your customers’ safety as much as anything else. Then, it may be difficult but it’s vital you take care of marketing and, finally, you need a survival kit of plasters, bandages, disinfectants and creams for burns and cuts. In the cooking business, sooner or later you'll get hurt.” From a financial point of view, there is no specific legislation so it’s very simple: you can earn up to a maximum of 5,000 euros a year from occasional or casual work without the need for a VAT number and without any tax obligations. If you earn over that amount, you just need to register for VAT. If your earnings do not exceed 30,000 euros a year, you are subject to Italy’s facilitated tax regime for those on a low income.
A law for home restaurants
There was an attempt to regulate private restaurant services (carried out at the homes of the ‘restaurant owners’) with the final version of draft bill AC-3258. The government approved it after a very brief procedure on 18 January 2017 and it was passed by the Production Activities Commission. The regulation hinged on the mandatory use of digital platforms, required for clients to make bookings and payments. The law would have made it impossible to make direct telephone contact or pay in cash. The law also set a limit of 500 guests a year and a maximum revenue of 5,000 euros annually. However, it was shut down by the Italian Competition Authority before it could reach the Senate for final approval.