Undergraduates Rinita Vanjre and Inez Wihardjo spent a miserable Christmas in Paris last year after finding all the stores and restaurants closed for the day. Cold and hungry, they were left pining for a hot home-cooked meal.
That unpleasant experience, however, sparked a business idea. The two friends came up with BonAppetour (www.bonappetour.com), a start-up that lets tourists visit the homes of local hosts for a home-cooked meal. They launched the website last month.
"We were thinking how nice it would be to meet people while travelling and have a meal in their homes. It would be like couch-surfing but with less commitment," says Ms Vanjre, 22, a Singaporean final-year chemical engineering student at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Couch-surfing refers to the practice of travellers staying with a local host for free.
Ms Vanjre and Ms Wihardjo, 21, an Indonesian final-year electrical engineering student also at NUS, began working on BonAppetour in February. They were then on a year-long exchange programme at the National University of Singapore's Overseas College in Stockholm, Sweden, and entered the idea in various start-up competitions held in Europe.
The venture's concept is similar to couch-surfing networks online: Willing cooks sign up with BonAppetour, giving details such as the sort of meal they can provide and how much it would cost.
Travellers select their destination on the website and information, such as the hosts available, their menus, prices, the dates they are available and the number of slots left, will come up. A 15 per cent service fee, which goes to BonAppetour, is tacked on to the cost of the meal.
In February, the two NUS undergraduates won the first prize in a 54-hour "hackathon" called Start-Up Weekend in Milan. The competition sees aspiring entrepreneurs pitching ideas, forming teams and working on them.
One of their teammates was Mr Giovanni Casinelli, 22, who was studying computer engineering in Milan then. The Italian was so intrigued by their business concept that he moved here in September after he graduated to continue working on BonAppetour.
Buoyed by their win, the two women began roping in hosts in Italy and Sweden from February. They continued to recruit home cooks when they returned to Singapore in August. They also received a seed grant of $10,000 from NUS to get the venture going.
So far, about 200 home cooks in 30 countries, including Iceland and South Africa, have signed up to host tourists for dinner. Of these, about 20 are from Singapore.
"It was easy to find willing hosts in places such as Italy," says Ms Vanjre. "But it was surprisingly not that hard either to find hosts in Singapore."
They leave the hosts to decide on the menu and how much to charge their guests.
"Most of our hosts here have decided on $10, but it also depends on the dish they are cooking and whether the ingredients are expensive," says Ms Vanjre.
To ensure a safe experience for users of the service, Ms Wihardjo says the trio aim to meet and vet all the hosts who sign up with the website. The hosts will be assessed based on factors such as hospitality, friendliness and their understanding of local food.
The founders also plan to appoint BonAppetour ambassadors - overseas travellers and hosts they trust - who can help vet potential hosts in other countries.
Hosts, too, can give feedback about their guests on the website. This can determine if the guests will be accepted by other hosts in future.
Several unique dining experiences await travellers.
Ms Wihardjo recalls: "In Barcelona, one host held a tapas-making workshop for us. In Rome, we had dinner on the rooftop of an apartment building where the host set up a tent and a buffet spread of Italian food so we could watch the sun set as we ate."
Mr Casinelli, who grew up near Rome, says he, too, got to see a different side to the city. "One of the best parts about BonAppetour is that each experience is so different from the last. You never know what you're going to get," he says.
While the start-up is still in its infancy, response has been positive, says Ms Wihardjo.
Several American exchange students from NUS have dined in homes here, including a special meal for Hari Raya in August.
"Travellers no longer want package tours but prefer to plan their own itineraries, and more people are looking for authentic travel experiences where they can meet and interact with locals," says Ms Wihardjo.
Local food blogger Cassandra Chee, 37, is one of the Singaporeans who has signed up with BonAppetour to be a host. The housewife, who also runs a Facebook group for Singaporean home cooks called Loft 48 Recipes, says the idea appealed to her as it is something she would want to try when she travels.
"I would love to visit a local home and have dinner with the owners, so when Rinita approached me, I was quite excited," she says.
The mother of two plans to make a dish of pen cai - a traditional Chinese New Year dish - for her guests, the same dish she made for the founders of BonAppetour when they came to visit last month. She hopes to host travellers once a month.
Her husband, Peter, 40, who works in a company that distributes medical equipment, is also excited about being on the other side of the BonAppetour arrangement. "We are travelling to Penang and Bangkok soon, so I'm looking forward to getting in touch with some of the hosts there and having a home-cooked meal," he says.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.