Traveling Spoon is a new peer to peer company offering in-home meals and cooking classes in countries throughout Asia. Unlike some peer to peer platforms, Traveling Spoon vets all home cooks in person to ensure the quality of the experience. These authentic meal experiences are earning rave reviews from travelers, and Traveling Spoon is hoping to leverage their Angel round of funding to propel the company to success. I interviewed the founders of Traveling Spoon, Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence, and learned about their business school meeting and the evolution of a company that boasts hosts throughout Asia and some very satisfied customers.
It Started as a School Project
ShareTraveler: After meeting at business school, how did you two decide to launch a business together?
Steph: Aashi and I met the first week of business school at an orientation welcome barbecue and quickly connected on what was, for each of us, a deeply held passion: traveling the world and experiencing new cultures through food. We wanted to make it easy for travelers to be able to have the kinds of experiences we sought, learning to make dumplings from a Chinese grandmother, or enjoying the home-cooking of a mother-daughter team in Vietnam. We quickly teamed up and used every spare dollar, moment, and class project that we could to work on Traveling Spoon.
ST: Was there a tipping point where you moved from using this as a business school project to realizing you might actually make money?
Aashi: For me it was our first minimum viable product. We tested it out with a bunch of students going to India. It was sold out within the first few hours of sending an email. The reviews we got back were just something that we didn’t expect. People told us “It was the highlight of my experience,” “The best thing I did in India,” “The best meal in India.” It was eye opening.
[The] summer I went to India to pursue this instead of doing an internship I was able to bring on 40 hosts in 4 weeks and they were so delighted to do it. 50% of our hosts came from host referrals. It was so wonderful to see that we could make a change in both travelers lives and our hosts lives.
Turning a Passion for Travel and Food into a Business
ST: Did you travel together before starting this company?
S: We did. We spent several weeks traveling together in Vietnam on an early host acquisition trip while we were in business school. It is one of our best memories together. We also love the side adventures we get to have when we aren’t meeting new hosts. Both of us vividly remember visiting a local market in Hoi An and scouring the stands for the freshest mangosteens, one of our shared favorite fruits that are so difficult to find in the US. Our travels together allow us to get back to why we love doing what we do, and sharing those experiences with our travelers.
ST: How much time do you spend traveling?
A: By the end of the year I will have been to 16 countries this year. Typically we like to do a few countries on a trip. We go for 3 to 4 weeks at a time to understand the culture and cuisine and bring on new hosts.
S: We each do 3 or 4 international trips a year. As the company grows so does what we are doing on the trips. Some of our next trips to India will be to train and bring on regional managers.
ST: Why did you decide to start in Asia?
S: Aashi grew up in India and I have traveled and lived all over China and other parts of Asia; we recognized the booming tourism that is happening in Asia right now, and wanted to pair our knowledge of the region with the growing market of travelers seeking authentic culinary experiences. We also make a point of seeking out new destinations that have incredibly rich culinary traditions, and while you can find these throughout the world we are especially passionate about the diversity and abundance of culinary traditions in Asia and southeast Asia, and sharing those with travelers from around the world.
ST: How many hosts in how many cities do you currently have?
S: We have 130 hosts now and we currently operate in 14 countries and 35 cities and continue to receive new host applications each week.
ST: Do you have a list of countries you are targeting for expansion?
S: Our focus is currently in Asia and we are exciting about expanding our coverage there before moving to new regions – you can expect to see us in Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Myanmar and more very soon.
ST: Do you require your hosts to speak English?
A: Initially all of our hosts spoke English but when we went to Japan we realized that we might need to find a different model; many of our hosts spoke English but weren’t that confident with it. There we have some hosts with their kids or a friend who speaks English. There is always an English speaker at the meals. Right now English is our main focus. In the future we hope to have multiple languages on the platform.
Impacting the World through Food
ST: Have you thought about a model to bring in non-middle class hosts?
S: My background is in the nonprofit sector working in international development. I have spent many months traveling and living abroad working with organizations using microenterprise as a means to creating change in rural and poor communities around the globe. Our vision for Traveling Spoon is creating meaningful travel experiences by connecting travelers with local, authentic and immersive food experiences. We also see enormous opportunity for impact by providing income to our hosts. We are excited about finding ways to make this impact even more meaningful by working with hosts across the economic spectrum. Of course this changes our operational model somewhat. Because of this we have looked at partnering with local NGOs who have a presence in the communities we are serving to help find hosts and be a logistical partner for those hosts who don’t speak English or have regular access to the Internet. We are already talking with a couple prospective partners to pilot these experiences soon.
A: Travelers are asking to have a meal with different strata in India to see how people in the village live their lives. Not to have a slum tour that is just voyeuristic but to make it a meaningful experience. It’s always rewarding to travel and be in peoples homes, sharing a meal together and hearing their stories. The human element, their generosity and hospitality. For hosts it’s a community they want to be a part of, they aren’t just doing it for the money. People are so passionate about sharing their culinary history.