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Grubwithus looks to take social networking from the Web to the dinner table

GrubwithusLA

Grubwithus is a start-up looking to bring social networking from the Web to the dinner table.

Already active in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., the social dining website launched in Los Angeles on Thursday night with a meal at Shin Hollywood, a Korean BBQ restaurant.

The site offers users a chance to eat meals at trendy restaurants in groups of about six to 12 people, depending on the size of the restaurant. To sign up for a meal, a user has to set up an account with Grubwithus or sign in using Facebook or Twitter.

Next meal up for Grubwithus in Los Angeles is Lala's Argentine on Monday.

Usually those attending a dinner don't know one another, and that's the point, said Daishin Sugano, who founded Grubwithus with his college buddy, Eddy Lu.

The reason Sugano and Lu started the site, which first launched last August in Chicago at the URL www.grubwith.us, was precisely to meet people they didn't know.

"We were living in Chicago and we didn't really know anyone there, and we went to bars and lounges and did the normal thing to make friends, and it was really hard to meet people," Sugano said. "And one of the social settings where we, and we think most people, feel comfortable in is over dinner -- it's one of the oldest traditions out there. But we really sort of started Grubwithus for ourselves first."

And so far the idea seems to be catching on, he said.

After launching in Chicago, where Sugano and Lu own a Beard Papa's cream puff store, Grubwithus was taken in by Y Combinator, a San Francisco firm that funds start-ups at their earliest "seed" stage.

The duo, who met at UC Berkeley, launched their social dining site in the Bay Area in January and followed with New York in March and D.C. in April.

Now up and running in Los Angeles, the young site may be in for its biggest challenge yet, Sugano said.

"Los Angeles to me is the most exciting because we're coming home; both Eddy and I grew up in the L.A. area," he said. "At the same time, L.A. is really different type of city. Everyone has a car here, for one thing. In the other cities we've launched in, it's a lot easier to rely on public transportation to get around because things are a lot less spread out. But we're L.A. guys, we know the city and we think we'll catch on here too."

Sugano grew up in Downey and Lu was raised in Pasadena. After graduating in 2003, the two were roommates in West Los Angeles while working corporate jobs neither was particularly passionate about.

"We came home every day from work and we'd just talk about and outline ideas for how we could get out of the corporate life. And we eventually came up with cream puffs in Chicago, and that eventually led us to start Grubwithus," Sugano said. "And now we're back in L.A."

The plan going forward is to move back to Los Angeles and maybe even get an actual office.

"Or we may get a house and work out of that; we're not sure yet," Sugano said. "We've been working out of apartments and Starbucks, but it's hard to work without your own space and it might soon be time to change that."

Funding from Y Combinator and a few early investors has allowed Grubwithus to grow to a team of seven, with two other engineers, two "city developers" who scout out restaurants and establish relationships with eateries, and one person to oversee finances, he said.

The company takes in revenue by way of a fee for each person who purchases a meal to a dinner organized by the site, which is averaging about one meal in each city on weekdays, Sugano said.

"We find the restaurants and set everything up with them," he said. "We take care of bill splitting, what you're going to order, all that. So the food just comes out and you can focus on socializing and meeting people."

Grubwithus is looking to launch in Boston next month and then sometime shortly thereafter in Seattle, he said.

More funding is being raised to help bankroll expansion plans, but Sugano said he wasn't ready yet to talk about that end.

"I kept saying I haven't made money in like six years, and everyone laughs, but it's a serious thing," Sugano said. "That's what it takes sometimes. We saved money from our corporate jobs to open up our cream puff store in Chicago, and we started Grubwithus the same way. And it seems to be really sticking, and that's what it takes. We're just getting started."

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Photo: A screenshot of a Grubwithus dinner in Los Angeles. Credit: Grubwithus

 
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