by Tim Jahn on October 1, 2010
When Eddy Lu and his business partner moved to Chicago to open a restaurant, they realized they didn’t know anybody in town.
Rather than hit the loud, crowded bars and networking events every week, Eddy and his buddy decided to do what any good creative entrepreneur would do: make a business out of meeting new people. They launched Grubwith.us a few months ago and their social dining experience has been gaining traction ever since.
Watch my video interview with Eddy to learn how he turned an all too common situation around into a successful business!
Grubwithus is basically a social dining concept. You meet new friends over good food. You basically, instead of, think of like OpenTable.
Instead of reserving a table for yourself, you’re reserving a seat at a table of like let’s say a dozen people, people you’ve never met and you just go there and eat, and you meet new people at Chicago’s best restaurants while eating good food.
Such a simple concept. Where did the idea come from?
Basically just a quick background about us. Me and my partner Daishin, we quit our corporate jobs. I was working at Lehman Brothers at the time, Daishin was working at Edmonds.com, it’s a car comparison website.
We lived together in Santa Monica and we just basically really didn’t like corporate life, the structure, the just bureaucracy, all that stuff. And every night we would think of different ideas, and things, websites or whatnot that we could do to break out of the corporate mold.
So basically I was in San Francisco visiting my girlfriend and we, I came upon Beard Papa’s which is actually a cream puff franchise that we’re siting in right now. But basically, we really liked the concept. It was a single product concept; it’s just cream puffs. They make cream puffs really well and so there was a huge line. And I was like, “Daishin, what is this thing?” And he said, “Oh, I’ve heard of it before.”
And we just kind of talked about the franchise and the concept and we just were like, you know what, let’s try to — since we have some money saved up, why don’t we try to open up a franchise? It will be easier passive income and we can work on other stuff while we run these stores. So that’s what we did.
We basically talked to the franchiser, we pitched them an idea, we were definitely the youngest applicants they’ve ever had. But I mean, we just were really persistent and we said, “Oh we wanted to do this” and we used our corporate skills. Like we did PowerPoint presentations and whatnot to actually convince them that we were suitable candidates to open this franchise.
So we opened our first one probably like three, four years ago in LA. We opened another one in LA a couple of years ago. And by then, we had two stores, we kind of just wanted to expand elsewhere. I mean, we’ve lived in California our whole lives. We actually met at Berkley and we both live in LA. So we said, “Why don’t we go somewhere else? Let’s be nomadic and try out a whole different city and just have fun while we’re young.”
So then we decided to open up a Beard Papa’s in Chicago. And that’s what brought us here. So we came here, we opened up the store, but little did we know that we didn’t know too many people here. We —
It’s a big city.
Yeah, it’s a big city. But I didn’t want to go to the bars every night to meet people. It’s kind of hard in those kind of social settings when I see him all day long but it’s hard to just meet new people. So we were thinking, what’s a good way to meet people that’s not going to the bar every night or doing these networking events that kind of are slightly awkward and what not?
So funny thing is, we started Grubwithus as a home dining concept. So you would cook a bunch of food and just say, “Oh, I’m having pasta, and dessert, and Mac and cheese and what not” and you put up a price on the site and people would come over. They’d pay on the site, and people would come over to your house to eat. That didn’t work out so well because people either don’t have enough space in their home, or there’s just — you’d have to get a lot of ingredients together, you have to cook.
So you have to know how to host, you have to be able to cook, you have to have the capacity to host all these people. And its, people thought it was a little creepy to invite strangers to their home. I mean, we kind of got inspiration from like Airbnb, and places like that. But it just wasn’t a model that was super scaleable at the moment. So we said, we still like the fact that you can meet people over food because a lot of times when you go out with friends and there’s people that you don’t know that you eat with, it’s a lot easier to meet people when you’re eating over food because you’re all sitting there and you just converse.
So we said, “Let’s do it at restaurants. They have big tables, they have empty capacity on the weekdays and let’s see if the restaurants are willing to do it.” So we just went out to a bunch of restaurants and just pounded the pavement and just said, “This is our idea, this is our idea”
So when you came to Chicago and you realized that you kind of had need to meet more people, how did you actually go about turning that into a business?
I mean, we’re, I guess we’re just entrepreneurs at heart. We try to turn everything into a business. It’s — if there’s a way to make money, and have fun, and improve our lives and other people’s lives, then why not. So instead of just us holding our own dinners, just talking to people and meeting people that way, like I said, why not make a business out of it too?
What was the biggest challenge in doing that, in making a business out of that?
I want to say the biggest challenge is the marketing and getting the word out. I was a computer science major, so I did a lot of the programming, so that wasn’t a challenge. Its not a super technically, sophisticated site or anything. Just getting the word out, making people know that we exist.
What’s one piece of advice you give someone that was sitting in your shoes where an idea for a business and actually exciting, and making that idea a reality?
I, for us, its persistence and definitely just when things are bad, I mean, they’re probably going to get worse before they get better. We’ve — I mean, even with our Beard Papa stores, we went through that recession in ’08-’09, whatnot. I mean, and especially with our sites.
We launched the site with a concept but the eating in your own home. But it just didn’t work out so well. Its not like we abandoned the concept, we just thought how to pivot and how to make it a better concept. And it’s just reiterating over time because you have customers that just give you feedback.
Even if you have just one customer, at least they can give you feedback about how to make just your site a success. So I think being crafty and being persistent is definitely the key to making it.
Check out all our interviews with entrepreneurs!