IN its home country, it matches 4,000 hungry users a day with tasty meals crafted in their neighbours’ kitchens.
Now a Dutch website that allows keen cooks to sell their homemade meals to those who do not want to spend their time slaving over a hot stove has expanded into Scotland for the first time.
Shareyourmeal.co.uk, which operates in Holland as Thuisafgehaald.nl, has more than 40,000 users in its home country, where it launched just over a year ago - and 4,000 more in neighbouring Belgium. Users can buy home cooked meals from people living near them through an online system - paying only for the cost of the ingredients - or offer meals for other people to buy online.
Some users of the Dutch site have bought as many as 75 meals through the system - around one a week since its launch in March last year - while a number of the site’s most prolific home cooks have sold almost 200 dishes each.
The social network was the brainchild of couple Marieke Hart and Jan Bakker Thij, who became intrigued by the delicious-smelling food coming from their neighbour’s kitchen at their home in Utrecht.
“When we took the plunge and asked if we could taste a bite, she responded enthusiastically immediately,” said Hart, who has given up her job to man the site full time. “That weekend, we went with some money to her front door and came back with three portions of delicious pumpkin soup.”
The site has just launched in the UK, where it has attracted around 200 users so far - mainly in the south of England. Hart and her husband hope interest will grow in other UK cities, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, allowing the movement to take off.
“A lot of people who use the service are busy families, who, once they have finished work and collected children from day care, do not have time to shop and cook,” said Hart, who has two young children.
“We have thanked our neighbour a thousand times over, for her reaction to our offer to buy her food. I think nine out of ten people would have just looked at us with a confused face, but the fact she reacted so positively was what inspired us to start this whole thing.”
Hart, who buys food from users of the site around three times a week, says the website has received very few complaints about the food.
“I think the worst thing we have had is that a few people have found a meal too salty, so it’s a been a taste issue,” she said. “But nothing much worse than that. Once, someone complained because there was a hair in their food, which was awful, but it’s only happened one time out of 75,000 meals.”
The site has its own rating system where “foodies” – people who have bought meals to eat – can thank “chefs”, those who have sold their food. Food is available on an ad hoc basis if someone has just cooked a large batch of a recipe, or through an “on request” service, where chefs list dishes they will cook on demand.
“While there are no reviews as such, people can choose whether or not to thank the person who has cooked their food and you can see how many thank yous they have got,” added Hart. “That gives you an idea of whether people have enjoyed their food.”
But despite the website’s success in Holland, Stephen Jardine, founder of food and drink marketing company Taste Communications, warned that potential British users may have concerns about eating food purchased from strangers.
“It just doesn’t fit in with our food culture, especially at the moment,” said Jardine. “People are particularly concerned with where their food has come from, especially in the wake of the horse meat scandal. Food hygiene is also a huge issue, when temperature and previous use of the food is not being properly controlled. If you get ill, what redress do you have?”
He added: “I don’t believe there is a target market here for it – foodies will cook for themselves, while those tight for time or cash will eat ready meals. There have been a few home cooking things about in the form of supper clubs and so on, but none of them have really made any traction here.”
A spokeswoman for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Scotland said: “The FSA have recently been made aware of this initiative and we are considering the full practical and legal implications.
“In the meantime, we would urge consumers to be cautious when purchasing or receiving foods from food sharing groups or sites. Those who are considering participating in producing and distributing food of this type should be mindful of their statutory liabilities before proceeding.”
Case study: ‘It has just been made a few streets away, it is not packaged’
SIMONETTA Hainebach, 27, an accounts manager for an IT company in London, currently offers two meals on shareyourmeal.co.uk – a rabbit dish with creamy mustard sauce and tom yum soup – for £5 and £4.50 a portion respectively.
“My sister lives in Holland and I have heard about this site from her and her friends in The Hague for some time – they use it regularly,” she said.
“When I heard they were launching in the UK, I immediately signed up, though there are not enough people involved to make it work properly here yet.” Although she has not yet had any orders from strangers, Hainebach has cooked for friends who are also signed up to the website – and eaten their food.
“A friend recently cooked a huge lasagne with fresh pasta and I took some portions of that from her for my dinner,” said Hainebach.
“It is fantastic – I think it is such a brilliant concept and I am really looking forward to more people getting involved.
“When you live in a city, you walk past people every day without knowing anything about them and now, you can go online and get this lovely food from them – it has just been made a few streets away, it is not packaged.”
She added: “I think people who sign up to this will be people who are very much into food – buying quality ingredients and so on – and who are open to trying new things.”
But she warned that British foodies may take some convincing.
“I think it could work really well in the UK, but people here are quite into rules and regulations when it comes to food – and I think some Brits could take some convincing with the idea of having strangers cooking for them, so it might take off in the international communities first.”