Camille Rumani of VizEat. (Credit: Stéphanie Régnier)

Food has always been an important part of Camille Rumani’s life.

She fondly recalls cooking and sharing meals with her family while growing up in Paris. Their meals, she says, were about more than food — they were also about bonding, unity and being together.

Today, Rumani is the co-founder of VizEat, the creator of a popular global social-eating platform that’s a kind of AirBnB for dinner. Since its launch in July 2014, VizEat has grown from only 50 hosts — mostly her friends and family — to more than 20,000 hosts in 130 different countries. It began with one office in Paris, but today the company has offices all over the world, from Barcelona to San Francisco to Tel Aviv. And, there are currently more than 150,000 “VizEaters,” or users of the company’s mobile app.

The VizEat app allows travelers to enjoy home-cooked meals with locals by connecting them to pre-approved “hosts” who advertise a menu, time, place and price. The table at a VizEat meal will typically include the hosts and a variety of guests hailing from all different places.

Like the meals of Rumani’s childhood, she says, “the strength and the power of the experience is definitely because it’s a social one.”

Setting the Table for a New App

Rumani graduated from Reims Management School in 2013 and then lived and interned in China for a year, moving from Shanghai to Beijing during that time. It was a formative experience, she says, happily remembering meals big and small shared with friends made along the way.

When she returned to Paris, she reconnected with a distant cousin, Jean-Michel Petit, who had also explored exotic cuisines while traveling. During their conversation, she realized that “we visit countries all the time and don’t meet the actual people living there.” That was the spark that would lead to VizEat. Rumani and Petit co-founded the company soon after, when she was just 23 years old.

One of their early challenges was to get the app up and running. To build it, Rumani and Petit worked with external tech suppliers. But Rumani found herself unable to communicate effectively with them, since she had no experience with coding, and often felt she was dismissed because she was a young woman at the start of her professional career. “People don’t expect women to know anything about code,” she says, “They don’t think you will understand.”

To prove them wrong, Rumani enrolled in a 6-month night course at Starther, a Parisian coding program for women. She says learning to code has been a “game-changer” for her. People who don’t expect her to be able to sustain a technical conversation, especially as a woman, are visibly impressed when they learn she can, she says. Rumani is now very involved in the technological side of the VizEat app — much more so than her male co-founder.

Paella is served at a meal coordinated through VizEat. (Credit: VizEat)
Paella is served at a meal coordinated through VizEat. (Credit: VizEat)

That app is not the only social-eating platform available. However, after acquiring its closest competitor, EatWith, in late August, it is now the only one geared toward travelers that employs a transnational approach, while its competition  focuses on one city or country. Through the purchase of EatWith, VizEat gained many more hosts, as well as its offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco. The acquisition also increased the diversity of the company’s already diverse staff — the now 25-person team boasts eight different nationalities.

VizEat makes money by taking a cut of the price guests pay for each VizEat meal, as well as a portion of the cost of insurance that hosts and guests buy to cover potential accidents like broken dishes or food poisoning. Rumani declined to disclose VizEat’s annual revenue, however the company announced recently that it received 3.8 million euros from various investors, including renowned European venture capital firm Eurovestech.

To spread the word, VizEat uses in-house social media outreach and engages with the press. It also creates a team in each new city it enters, so that the company has an “on the ground” understanding of the “vibes” of a particular city and can figure out how to fit in so it’s able to recruit new hosts there.

Rumani believes VizEat has grown at the rapid rate it has because it makes a special effort to maintain a close, trusting relationship with its hosts. The staff is in close contact with the hosts, she says, and knows them personally. Indeed, Rumani herself says she could name 300 hosts off the top of her head.

That close host-company relationship underlies the sense of community that is integral to the very concept of VizEat, she adds. Though the app has evolved over the past 3 years, that sense of community has been a constant thread throughout the journey.

Modern Social Eating

VizEat has been able to capitalize on the age-old communal joy of dining in groups by leveraging modern technology. Rumani said she pushed for VizEat to be an app, rather than a website, because mobile devices are what travelers rely on.

Apple CEO Tim Cook dines at VizEat meal with hosts Odille and Pierre Gallon. (Credit: VizEat)
Apple CEO Tim Cook dines at a VizEat meal with hosts Odille and Pierre Gallon. (Credit: VizEat)

Perhaps the greatest testament to VizEat’s viability in the modern tech marketplace is the stamp of approval it earned from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who personally tried VizEat in February of this year. At first, Rumani was only told that Apple wanted to send an unnamed executive to a “test run” meal, learning that executive would be Cook himself only about 3 days in advance. Rumani confesses she was so nervous and excited that she “almost fainted” when he arrived. Despite her nerves, the meal, which took place in Paris’ 16th Arrondissement and included filet of salmon, leeks, potimarron squash and chocolate mousse, was a success.

In addition to providing an ego boost and a great story, Cook’s visit boosted the company’s growth. After his meal, Cook praised the app in press interviews — a huge win, Rumani says, that elevated the company to new levels of prominence. Apple also selected VizEat as one of the “best apps of 2016.

Rumani believes the success that VizEat is currently enjoying is just the beginning, and that the company will become much larger and more influential. Eventually, she hopes to change the way people eat while they travel — and how even how they choose to travel.

But while she’s “dreaming of something even bigger,” Rumani is also focused on achieving short-term goals like expanding the app’s presence in the United States and Southeast Asia.

As the company grows, she is determined to maintain a friendly, mutually beneficial relationship with the people who work for her and alongside her, both hosts and guests. At the end of the day, Rumani says VizEat is about the power of people coming together — something she learned at her family’s dinner table years ago — “a marketplace with the soul of a community.”