The scene would not have seemed unusual to the average passerby: the three of us, 20-something-year-old women, had just stepped into Madrone Art Bar for drinks after work. We sipped pale ales and chatted up three male strangers in a booth. But this was no chance meeting. Tonight the air tingles with curiosity and expectations because the meeting is predestined – not by fate, but by the new group dating website Grouper.
Grouper is a mixture of online matchmaking, blind dating, and networking au natural. It pairs up two friend groups based primarily on their Facebook profiles, as well as their answers to a three-to-five-question survey focused on details like height, religious qualifications, and other specific needs. But, unlike many of today’s dating websites, the Grouper participants (Groupies?) never exchange emails, chat with cyber avatars, or interact virtually whatsoever.
After all three friends pay a $20 per-person registry fee online, check the appropriate boxes, and respond to any necessary Grouper emails, the encounter takes place entirely in the flesh. You gather at the assigned date, time, and bar for a round of complimentary beverages. These, it turns out, are only complimentary as long as you stick to well drinks and beers. Don’t try to cheat the system by ordering a $15 cocktail like my friend Chela and I did.
Prior to my Grouper rendezvous, I called up Grouper CEO and founder Michael Waxman for some background information. He tells me he has been a web coder and designer for some time. The inspiration for Grouper came to him when he was in “idea mode” last June. But his girlfriend at the time shot it down.
“I thought one of two things: either it’s a bad idea, or she just didn’t like the notion of me starting kind of a dating site.”
Waxman and aforementioned girlfriend soon broke up. He moved to New York City in the first week of July 2011 with the idea for the group dating experiment “staring him in the face.”
So, he coded up the Grouper website on a whim. A week later he launched the venture in NYC and spent the next 10 months working out the program's kinks.
“The whole thing began as a social experiment,” explains Waxman. “We thought 'this seems like it would be way better than a dating site.'”
In treading between the digital and analog dating worlds, Waxman and his Grouper crew had no idea what to expect. Would people actually be willing to meet each other in real life, without ever having exchanged emails, phone calls, Skype calls, texts, chats, tweets, Facebook messages, or bleeps of any kind? Would anyone actually be up for that?
But Waxman says Grouper caught on almost immediately, and there have been thousands of Grouper meet-ups since the first Grouper in which he set up two of his own friends on a blind date.
As testament to what Grouper can do, Waxman shares the tale of how he met his current girlfriend on a Grouper.
“True story,” he says, “Although I wish I was making that up.”
He adds that the sixth-ever Grouper, which happened last June, formed a couple that is still dating. Grouper got them a gift for their one-year anniversary. Waxman will sometimes attend Grouper dates undercover to find out the unvarnished dating experience.
Grouper CEO Michael Waxman
“We want to make a dent in the universe: our end goal is to end loneliness, and along the way, improve peoples' social lives,” he says in an email. “And we believe that having a sustainable business is the best way to be able to accomplish such big plans.”
Waxman says Grouper’s business plan works because it involves an unusual marketing format. Grouper recruits members by promising a fun, easy way to meet new people alongside friends. Venues that partner with Grouper provide a round of free drinks in exchange for new customers Grouper brings through the door.
“Our members are looking for social utility, not discounts, so they make for great customers the night of their Grouper, and when they come back,” Waxman says. “It's far more effective and less expensive than other forms of marketing like daily deals or old fashioned ads.”
When Grouper began to prove itself this spring as something people were willing to spend their money on, Waxman decided to branch out.
“We wanted to spread the gospel to other cities,” he says.
Thus, San Francisco became the second Grouper location and held its first-ever Grouper in the last week of May.
Consequently, I listen as the three men across from me in the booth half-shout to discuss the travails of online dating over the sounds of a live band. We are 30 minutes into the second-ever San Francisco Grouper at the Madrone Art Bar on May 31.
“I’m sick of sending notes back and forth, back and forth online,” says Evan, the Facebook employee in the expensive leather jacket (who requested that we leave out his full name for privacy purposes).
“Poor me, I’m Evan and too many girls want me on Match.com and OkCupid,” mocks his friend Scott, who sits to the left wearing silver-rimmed glasses and a grimace. (He also requested to remain anonymous.)
“I’ve never had a girl respond to me on OkCupid. Ever,” sighs Scott.
My friends Renee and Chela (who kindly agreed at the last minute to sample Grouper with me in the name of journalism and free booze), blush and chuckle for Scott’s sake. We announce in turn that none of us have ever actually attempted online dating. That is until tonight, if this qualifies as such.
According to Waxman, it is common for Grouper to pair people who are new to online dating with seasoned virtual daters because their format spans both of these social realms.
But he adds that Grouper doesn’t like to label itself a dating site. “We’re not fond of labels, and we think that a lot of people nowadays want to meet more casually, more organically. We find that by not throwing it in a bucket of ‘this is networking,’ ‘this is dating,’ ‘this is whatever,’ people just show up more open-minded and have a better time.”
In order to avoid the extremely awkward love triangles that arose during some of the fist Grouper trials, in which three strangers met three more strangers, Grouper now matches only existing friend groups.
“The number of crazy stories we hear is just astounding,” says Waxman. “We’re getting people together in the real world, so we’ve heard the whole gamut. In general when it comes to love triangles … what we’ve found is having it be two groups of friends makes most of that stuff just work itself out. Existing social groups have ways of dealing with that.”
An unexpected twist interrupts the conversation midway through my `Grouper when Chela leans in towards two of the guys who are sipping what looks like Coca Cola’s.
“Are those rum and cokes?” she asks.
“They are Pepsis,” one responds.
“Just Pepsi?” she asks.
“Yeah, it’s a long story,” says Kyle.
“We don’t drink,” Kyle and Evan respond in unison.
An awkward stillness falls over the booth as this concept resonates with the three women. Then, a rapid-fire round of questions erupts from the female side of the table. The three of us met as freshmen in the UC Santa Cruz dorms, and have been avid drinkers ever since.
The incompatibility of our groups seems to dissolve a bit as the alcohol issue segues into a lively conversation about morals and social customs. When the conversation switches to reality TV, and the three men voice their overt shock at the fact that ABC’s The Bachelor excites none of the women present, Chela whispers in my ear.
“I’ve got an exit strategy.”
A second later she announces to the table that her roommate, Martin, lost his key again and is locked out of the house. Since we carpooled, we will have to leave soon.
Then she whispers again: “Martin never loses anything.”
Waxman concedes that not every Grouper ends in friendship or romance. “We can’t predict you guys are definitely going to hit it off, but we’ve found that pretty much everyone [has] a good time and makes contacts,” he says.
As Grouper begins its national roll out in San Francisco, Waxman says he intends to map the regional differences between his daters in SF and New York.
“We’re pretty confident that the core ingredients of Grouper are universal: meeting people over drinks with your friends,” he says. “But in the margins, were really excited to see what really interesting real world data we get. It will be cool to see how patterns differ between cites.”