The world has become so flat that it is impossible to have a truly local experience, because “local” no longer exists. At least not in major world destinations, if a wave of recent think pieces is to be believed.
“London is now New York, with better scones,” The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle laments, noting that from the hotels, to the trendy bars, to the restaurants, to the supermarkets and fast food joints, a sameness is pervading the world’s best-known destinations. While it makes it possible for travelers “to feel at home anywhere,” it comes at the cost of not being able to experience truly local flavor, unless one is willing to travel off the beaten path to “remoter, poorer places.”
However, before one seeks to book a flight to the remotest possible slum they can find in hopes of having a more authentic travel experience, it might first be worth investigating a sharing economy solution that might be a bit less harrowing. Traveling Spoon, occasionally described as “the Airbnb of home-cooked meals,” helps world travelers find a local experience by connecting them with actual locals.
As the tagline – “travel off the eaten path” – implies, the firm helps users live a particular lifestyle by allowing them to, in essence, reserve a meal in a local’s home.
“People love going into locals’ homes; it’s a wonderful way to look at the world,” Co-founder Aashi Vel told the Chicago Tribune. Created along with Co-founder Steph Lawrence, Traveling Spoon launched six years ago when both were MBA students at Berkeley. The service was inspired by their trips to Mexico and China, when both grew distinctly tired of eating tourist-centric food.
As of 2019, the company offers dining options in 150 destinations spanning 50 countries. Meals can range widely in price – from $15 in Bali to $285 in Italy. All of the cooks are talented home chefs, but are not, generally speaking, professionals. According to Traveling Spoon, 90 percent of the platform’s hosts are women, and a large portion are retired.
“These are women who weren’t necessarily bringing in additional income to the family. But now, they can do something they love and really re-engage with a broader community while earning a supplementary income," Lawrence told a news outlet.
All hosts either speak English or have an English-speaking family member to serve as a translator. They all must pass a vetting process that includes a home visit and a taste of the food they are planning to serve.
The meals are also capped at one group per host, so customers don’t feel like they are eating in a dining hall and hosts don’t feel like they’ve signed on to feed an army. According to Vel, the goal is not just to facilitate a chance to eat locally, but also to enable users to learn about and experience local life.
“Our mission is to make meaningful connections over food,” Vel said. “It’s hard to do that with a group of eight to 10 people.”
Traveling Spoon also aims to vary the types of experiences guests can have when dining with their hosts. The service initially offered three types of experiences – meals, cooking lessons and market tours (so consumers could learn how to shop and chose ingredients locally). This year, that is expanding to include farm tours, production locations (vineyards, for example) and street food tours, so visitors can choose a variety of ways to dine and eat locally. The company is also looking to expand their geographic reach – though building into new markets does come with logistical challenges, mainly because expansion means recruitment.
As it expands, Traveling Spoon increasingly relies on regional community leads in select locations to serve as on-the-ground point people. They are also responsible for recruiting and vetting new hosts.
It is a big job – but, as the firm has gotten more attention and scale, the founders say it is an increasingly interesting one. Because consumers don’t just want to see the world when they travel, Vel noted, they want to experience it. And eating off the beaten path is clearly a way to do that.