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Zokos: dinner party “friend funding” site opens to public, has Philly roots

There’s a good reason why people imagine ritzy dining room spreads and sparkling chandeliers when they hear the words “dinner party” — buying and cooking food for a lot of people is expensive. But Brad Baer, Chris Kieran and Andrew Hapke thought dinner parties could be less of a burden for a host of more […]

There’s a good reason why people imagine ritzy dining room spreads and sparkling chandeliers when they hear the words “dinner party” — buying and cooking food for a lot of people is expensive.

But Brad Baer, Chris Kieran and Andrew Hapke thought dinner parties could be less of a burden for a host of more modest means if there was a way to make sure guests pitch in. So they cofounded Zokos, a web application which crowdsources — friendsources, as they might say — funding for dinner parties from invited guests. Last spring, they brought on Roger Vandervort as a fourth cofounder and CTO.

Visit the site here.

The idea, Baer told Technically Philly, is to make dinner parties as equitable as potlucks, but with fewer trips to the grocery store for everyone and more food options than the cliched chips and guacamole.

It’s been called the Kickstarter for dinner parties by Mashable.

“While it might sound surprising, what we’re actually trying to do is bring back etiquette,” Baer said. “The old school way of having dinner parties involved reciprocity, but what we’ve found is that nowadays, some people love hosting while others really have no interest and they spend a lot of time worrying about how to repay the host.”

Here’s how it works.

Say you want to host a dinner party to try out some new recipe on your friends, but the ingredients are expensive and you can’t front the money to feed 1o or 15 people. Using Zokos, you invite friends to your party, much the way you would on Facebook, but now you can set a “chip-in” price requirement in order for people to RSVP.

You also set the minimum and maximum number of guests you’d need to attend in order to fund the party. If you hit the minimum, the party is on. If not, no one gets charged and you know in advance that your friends can’t it make it to your party. The maximum number prevents people from bringing more tag-alongs than you have food to feed and creates a sense of urgency so guests don’t RSVP at the last possible second, Baer says.

“While the money is certainly helpful for the host, the other benefit is creating more incentive for guests not to flake out,” Baer said. “When people have to put a little money behind their RSVP, they make the decision seriously.”

In return for the service, Zokos takes a flat $0.30 plus 3 percent fee, which Baer says is comparable to sites like Etsy. If a party doesn’t reach it’s minimum guest count, they take no fee.

Baer says the name, Zokos, was inspired by the Basque word “txokos,” which literally means “nook” or “cozy corner” but is the name of a type of gastronomical society found in this region in Spain.

“These txokos have existed for hundreds of years and are basically gastronomical societies where a group of people would combine their money to purchase a house where they would take turns cooking for each other,” Baer said. “They are contributed with really focusing on local food and reviving regional dishes that were on the verge of extinction.”

But the actual idea for the startup, has more practical origins. The three became enamored with dinner parties through a more domestic gastronomical society called the Veggie Club, while grad students at Yale University, Baer told Technically Philly, in which club members would cook a meal for 10 people in return for entry to eat at someone else’s meal.

Baer, Kieran and Hapke saw an opportunity in late 2010 to make the vegetarian cooking co-op more efficient and built Zokos.

“Thanks to the implementation of the website, the group was able to grow to over 450 people, which means 15 or so meals every week to chose from based on who is cooking, when they are cooking, where they are cooking, what the are cooking or who else is going to be there,” Baer said.

With all those meals, who needs a dining hall?

The Veggie Clubbers weren’t the only ones to think Zokos was a good idea. Baer says he and his cofounders originally wrote the plan as part of an Yale School of Management entrepreneurship course in 2010, then went on to win the Connecticut Business Plan Competition in 2011. After graduation, they worked on the company out of the Betaspring business accelerator in Providence and Baer says they’ve been working on Zokos full time ever since.

Baer says since their public launch in mid-April, they’ve had a lot of positive feedback and international interest.

But isn’t it awkward to ask your friends for money, this reporter wondered?

Baer says that social taboo has come up in the feedback, but they think it’s just a matter of getting used to a new way of hosting dinner parties.

“The short answer is that we think some people might find it┬ápeculiar, but what we’ve found is that once people hear the whole story and see the site, they realize it is just ‘unfamiliar’ behavior and not ‘impolite’ behavior.”

While Zokos is officially headquartered in New York City, chief product officer Baer, 28, lives at 19th and Bainbridge in Graduate Hospital and splits his work time between Philly and NYC.

The other two cofounders are no stranger to Philly either. CEO Kieran, 28, is the son of Steve Kieran, founding partner of the Art Museum-based KieranTimberlake Associates architecture firm. Incidentally, Baer says, before attending Yale to pursue a Masters in Architecture, he came to Philly from Iowa join the firm as an architect.

CMO Hapke, 28, lived in the area while attending Villanova, Baer told Technically Philly.

“We’ve created a strong dialogue between the tech, food and academic scene there. We’ve used social media to market globally, but our targeted marketing has been focused more locally on the northeast,” Baer said. “Also, while it isn’t a monumental difference, we’ve learned that people respond to events differently in Philadelphia than they do in NYC.”

Baer says we’ll have to wait for more data — i.e., more users hosting dinner parties — for him to be specific about what those differences are. Still, he was willing to say that Zokos had begun to show interesting trends around difference in how New Yorkers and Philadelphians respond to RSVPs, their willingness to pay at certain price points, and their comfort with asking friends to chip in.

In the meantime, if you’re into cooking for a lot of people, but not into paying for all of that food, give Zokos a shot. It might just change the way Philly does dinner parties.

Companies: Zokos
People: Zokos / Andrew Hapke / Brad Baer / Chris Kieran / Roger Vandervort
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