A great fake idea: The eBay of fast food

A new Web site aims to connect hungry people and home cooks. It's a fantastic idea, except for one small problem.


Farhad Manjoo
June 22, 2007 7:58PM (UTC)

I'm at the Supernova conference, the tech consultant Kevin Werbach's annual meet-up of big-think tech stars, which is taking place in San Francisco this week. Among the most anticipated events here was a showcase of tech start-ups chosen by Mike Arrington, who runs the start-up-tracking blog TechCrunch. It was a hotbed of fragile hope. The companies selected to present their ideas to the crowd on Thursday afternoon have just crawled out of the swamp of venture funding, and they're looking to change the world. But we all know that most of them won't make it; some are just too ridiculous, or offer too little that matters, or that's new, to work. To put the boom-time expectations into stark relief, Werbach and Arrington added a twist -- one of the companies touting its wonders, they told the crowd, was fake. Which one?

Most in the audience guessed easily -- the fake firm was the one with the best idea: Wayne Lambright, who in real life is the co-founder of the food-review site Tastyr, bounded to the stage hailing a company he called Zap Meals. "We're the eBay of takeout orders," he said. Then he added dramatically, "Let me say that again -- we're the eBay of takeout."

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It's a simple idea. Lots of people in the world want to cook for others, but it's expensive to start a restaurant. Meanwhile, lots of other people want to eat, but they get bored by the restaurants around them. ZapMeals bridges the two communities: home cooks post the meals they can prepare, and eaters bid on the food. When a sale clicks, the meals are delivered by a "network of independent agents" who drive around town in cars tracked in real time on Google Maps. You can see your food come to you!

ZapMeals would be huge, Lambright promised. He noted that Waiter.com, Delivery.com and a few other sites let people order food online, but only from restaurants; nobody had yet tapped the home-food market. People spend $500 billion in restaurants every year. Was it crazy to think that ZapMeals could get 25 percent of that market? Not to Lambright. The company even had a motto ready: "We don't make 'fast food' great -- we make great food fast." (Check out the ZapMeals blog, and Lambright's pitch-perfect Powerpoint.)

Sure, ZapMeals could probably never really work. In many states, home cooks aren't allowed to sell food -- health fears and such. And how many people would pay to eat a stranger's food? But then, whoever suspected that folks would buy computers, cars and furniture from strangers online?

Other firms on offer were clearly the real deal, and they were going places. CastTV is a video search engine, and adap.tv inserts ads into videos -- both lucrative ideas, if they work as well as their founders promised. The new-music recommendations site Critical Matters has been feted by entertainment mags and bloggers everywhere; it's fast becoming an indispensable resource for people who love music. Jangl, a site that lets you pass out your phone number privately on the Internet, also seems like a fantastic idea, especially for fans of online dating and social networking sites. (It works like this: people call your Jangle account, which relays their messages to your phone).

When it was all over, though, I couldn't help but think about Lambright's slogan. Doesn't "we make great food fast" sound like a billion-dollar idea, at least?

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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