“A different view on how platforms and inspection services might strengthen one another”

The AirDnD platform, a Dutch platform where amateur cooks can offer dinners at their own homes, is under siege. Traditional catering wants the same rules, as apply to them, to be imposed on amateur cooks. I’m of the opinion that we’re having the wrong conversation.

More and more conventional industries are being ruffled by ‘disruptive’ online platforms. Platforms which presume to hand the power back to consumers. Think of Airbnb, a website on which individuals can rent their houses to tourists. Over a few years, this website has grown to be the world’s largest accommodation provider, without ever furnishing a single room.

This new business model has provided the Netherlands with a number of interesting start-ups. A couple of months ago, after Peerby (borrowing things from your neighbors) and SnappCar (car sharing), home restaurant platform AirDnD (Air Drink ‘n Dine) was born. The platform offers amateur cooks the possibility to open their house and host a dinner for interested people in their own living rooms, lowering the threshold of opening their own home restaurant. As of this moment, already 1,502 amateur cooks have signed up, and it seems the organization focuses mainly on the supply side of the industry, expecting the demand to follow in time. Interestingly, ‘Koninklijke Horeca Nederland’ (Royal Catering Netherland) concluded fairly quickly that strict catering regulations should apply to home restaurants as well. Rob Lagendijk, founder of AirDnD, doesn’t agree, “Amateur cooks aren’t entrepreneurs, though they might ask compensation for the expenses of the dinner they serve in their own home. Most of them have full-time jobs and only want to open their home restaurants for guests a few times a month. Student dorms, societies, and neighborhood barbecues, where expenses are being shared, aren’t enterprises either, and they also don’t have to comply with professional catering regulations.”

Upscaling transparency

To discover what is going on, we need to look at the developments in a broader perspective. In the first place, the activities on the AirDnD-platform aren’t new. Since the beginning of time, individuals have been organizing themselves in groups to eat and drink together, whether with monetary compensation or not. Sometimes someone profits, though most often not. What an online platform like AirDnD does, is making the supply at once transparent. Every visitor is able to quickly see where the food will be cooked, what is on the menu, and how other visitors rate the cooks. Customer service reviews of other users provide additional security to enter the house of an unknown host, and the platform supplies the supplier with a greater audience. Every home restaurant gets its own profile on which the amateur chefs may market themselves, and gather reviews. The platform benefits from both supply and demand, by allowing them to present themselves at their best. The better the presentation, the bigger the business, and more commission is payed to the platform accordingly. Compare it to the rise of Marktplaats.nl (a typical Dutch eBay-like website). While the threshold to sell or buy second hand products used to be quite high, now your products are displayed online within a few clicks, and can be seen by millions of people. On top of that, the buyer gets a complete overview of the current supply.

Unrest among the status quo

In the home restaurant market, it is interesting to notice that AirDnD isn’t the first platform of its kind on the Dutch market; however, it is the first one creating serious uproar. I’m of the opinion this is due to the fact that AirDnD is the first platform focusing primarily on the Dutch market. The founders are actively looking to speak with the media. Even though the press has expressed more criticism regarding the sharing economy in recent months. How big is this problem really? Although the ambitions of AirDnD may be huge, the outside world isn’t aware of what really happens on the platform –transparency is limited even on platforms– nor does it know what the future will hold. From my point of view, the unrest among the status quo is mainly caused by the potential scale (in their eyes) of unfair competition. Competition which has always existed, and for which opinions have been existent for a while, but wasn’t taken seriously because of the small scale at which it previously operated. The fact that the market of living room restaurants might potentially grow very fast by means of platforms like AirDnD, has caused the urgency to begin the discussion needed to clarify the boundaries. The challenge the status quo has to face, is how to turn this looming threat into an advantage.

Platform as tax inspector

AirDnD doesn’t only make supply and demand easily comprehensible for users. In the past, people also used to cook for one another, wether or not being compensated. The non-transparent fragmented market might have been substantially interesting for inspectors to control, though the cost would never have outweighed the benefits. Now, there is a platform: a place where all the fragmented supply and demand gathers. A platform that has insight into all transactions, users, and so on. Where Facebook used to be the secret service’s wet dream –as people will fill out what they do and where they are themselves– a platform like AirDnD may become the nutrition and tax inspector’s wet dream. I am of the opinion that the most important question isn’t if the sharing platforms should comply with the same regulations, but rather “What consequences and chances do platforms offer for regulation and privacy?”.

The idea that a platform makes a direct link with the tax offices database and the inspectors of Koninklijke Horeca Nederland is the most obvious, as well as the most disputed, scenario. No worries about tax forms, all data will automatically be handled. Convenient for everyone. The major downside of such a system is its privacy: even though you might have nothing to hide, you still might not want everyone to know what you are doing. This could partially be solved by clarifying to the user who might see their data, and letting them control access to the data by other parties. An option would be offer the extra service of automatically filled out tax forms, from which the user benefits. This service is an additional plus for users of the platform. For a simpler solution, the municipality Amsterdam has chosen, in cooperation with Airbnb, to automatically charge tourist tax for Airbnb rentals in Amsterdam, which Airbnb pays to the municipality as one general non-personalised tax amount. You may say what you want, but In this case the municipality has to trust Airbnb blindly, and in Amsterdam they have been clear with their opinions.

Delegate inspection to platforms

Opportunities presented to the nutrition inspectors of the ‘Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit’ (Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety authority) are most interesting, I think. Even though the platform would provide data to the inspectors regarding customers, the execution of the inspection still is a huge challenge. My question is: why doesn’t the inspection delegate these tasks to the platform? The platform maintains good contact with suppliers. The quality label of the inspection might even provide more business opportunities for the platform: a quality inspection mark is another additional reason for guests to trust a hobby chef. Besides this, the execution of inspection tasks might legitimize the revenue model of a platform even more. The risk is that the industry becomes self-regulated, so in this case a combination of inspection, user reviews, and more would be required.

Wrapping up

Developments regarding platforms like AirDnD are expected to surface in different industries in the years ahead. The primary concern is to focus on what is really new, where boundaries have to be drawn, and how these new developments may lead to new opportunities. I see them everywhere, though all parties involved do have to start looking past the tip of their own noses.