Update, 2:53 p.m: Richard Lee, director of food safety programs for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, says this venture is "completely illegal." More below.
The San Francisco company that popularized the term "sharing economy" has turned yet another form of sharing -- that of the old-fashioned shared dinner -- into a massively profitable business venture.
According to Reuters, Airbnb just launched a new pilot program that allows users to host dinner parties for paying guests.
The idea isn't new -- such websites as Eat With, Supperking, and Feastly pioneered the "Airbnb for dinner" model back in 2012 -- but Airbnb has a decent shot at monopolizing it. The company is now an international home-rental kingpin, worth $10 billion.
Granted, each new hospitality foray presents its own risks, particularly at a time when Airbnb is under fire from the city attorney and various hotel industry players. The San Francisco Department of Public Health has yet to comment on how, or even whether, it will regulate Airbnb's shared dinner service, but it's expressed strong reservations about similarly themed platforms, such as the now-forgotten LeftoverSwap app.
That said, city agencies have a reputation for letting Airbnb and other startups off the hook. As we've reported, the Planning Department could cite just about Airbnb host in San Francisco for violating the city's 30-day minimum rental term -- but it doesn't. Instead, the company has become a major city figurehead, sponsoring this year's Gay Pride parade and earning commendations from Mayor Ed Lee.
That bodes well for its new dinner pilot, if not for the future of shared dinners.
Airbnb has yet to comment.
Update: Richard Lee, who directs food safety programs for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, says it's "completely illegal" for individual Airbnb hosts to act as commercial food service operators without a permit. If health department officials found out an Airbnb user was hawking dinner at a specific address, he says, they could cite that user up to $3,000 -- three times the annual permit fee for opening a restaurant.
Granted, San Francisco's health department doesn't have the resources to conduct undercover investigations, so Airbnb might get off the hook. Or, more likely, individual users will bear all the risk for operating an illegal business, while the platform itself goes unchallenged. That's what's happening with Airbnb landlords, after all.