Pitt students’ new app aims to create community, one meal at a time
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Modern Dinner PartyBreaking bread, making connections

Pitt students’ new app aims to create community, one meal at a time

“On Passover, we talk about inviting strangers or people who need to come and eat into our house. I think that’s what we’re trying to replicate with Potluck."

Potluck partnered with Hillel JUC for a March 25 Shabbat dinner. Pictured (left to right): Andrew Firestone, Alexa Ambrosino, Joe Slomowitz, Robert Summers-Berger, Melissa Diamint, Ilana Tseytlin, Emma Stein, Naomi Brotman, Oliver Yao, Pranav Kaliaperumal, John Blair, Abby Batkhan. Photo provided by Joe Slomowitz.
Potluck partnered with Hillel JUC for a March 25 Shabbat dinner. Pictured (left to right): Andrew Firestone, Alexa Ambrosino, Joe Slomowitz, Robert Summers-Berger, Melissa Diamint, Ilana Tseytlin, Emma Stein, Naomi Brotman, Oliver Yao, Pranav Kaliaperumal, John Blair, Abby Batkhan. Photo provided by Joe Slomowitz.

It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Oliver Yao got the idea for a new social network app while flat on his back in an unknown city sleeping on a couch not his own.

OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, but it is true that Yao, a junior economics major at the University of Pittsburgh, was inspired by Couchsurfing, a hospitality exchange service/social networking app that connects out-of-town travelers with locals. Users can request homestays or interact with other people interested in travel.

“It was kind of like a backstage pass to the world,” Yao said about Couchsurfing’s ability to connect users with meaningful experiences. As an added benefit, he said, users save money, can travel more and have the opportunity to connect with more people.

Couchsurfing inspired Yao to think of an untapped opportunity — a tool where users could connect online and share meals.

The budding CEO began to develop the app now called Potluck, but which will soon have a new name. He built his team adding Joseph Slomowitz, a junior marketing, business information systems and supply chain management major. The two met in 2019 at Pitt’s Big Idea Blitz competition, an idea-generating competition where participants pitch projects, work with entrepreneurs-in-residence and win prizes.

Slomowitz and Yao decided to work together in future competitions. In February 2021 they teamed up to create Potluck. Preparing for the 2021 Big Idea Blitz, they added a third member to their team: Avishai Moses, a sophomore sharing Slomowitz’s major, whom they found online. In a familiar pandemic story, Moses began partnering with the two in March but didn’t meet them in person until August.

Pictured (Left to right): Avi Moses (right), Oliver Yao (middle), Joe Slomowitz (right)

Both Slomowitz and Moses are Jewish and believe their experiences and traditions helped with the app’s development.

“Growing up Jewish,” Slomowitz said, “we have a lot of experience meeting new people and sitting around a dinner table and telling stories over food.”

That experience, he noted, will be on full display this holiday season.

“On Passover, we talk about inviting strangers or people who need to come and eat into our house,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to replicate with Potluck. Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat every week — we’re always meeting new people over food.”

Slomowitz grew up outside of Philadelphia. He attended Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth congregation, which he said was a Conservative/Orthodox mix, or what he calls “traditional Judaism.”

Moses grew up in Houston with a traditional Jewish upbringing as well. He said that his memories of dining at his rabbi’s house following Shabbat services helped contribute to the experience he’s trying to build on Potluck.

“I was best friends with the rabbi’s kids,” Moses said. “So many people came to the rabbi’s house afterwards — I loved it. I got to meet all these people. I had all these experiences, literally every week since I was like 4 years old until I went to college. I had my own seat at the table. It was cool to meet everyone — people flying into town, normal congregants, just all these people in their household.”

Potluck is still in development, but users eager to try it can do so by signing up on the website.

Slomowitz’s and Moses’ Jewish roots continue to play a part in the program’s development.

A Shabbat Potluck. (left to right): Naomi Brotman, Pranav Kaliaperumal, Emma Stein, Melissa Diamint, Ilana Tseytlin, Alexa Ambrosino, Abby Batkhan, John Blair, Robert Summers-Berger, Andrew Firestone, Oliver Yao. Photo provided by Joe Slomowitz.
Slomowitz hosted a Shabbat dinner in his apartment through Hillel JUC that was shared on a Discord server — Potluck’s temporary home.

“We had the opportunity to invite some of our friends and people who have known about Potluck,” he said. “We made it a Potluck event. Hillel was supportive of us, and it was a really cool experience. With Passover coming up, we’re going to do the same and host a Passover seder on the second night.”

The Potluck team created a video blog series on YouTube to explain the app. Slomowitz said that the videos show the potential of the program, noting that in one Moses shared a chocolate babka with members of the Irish Culture Club, who were invited to share a meal at Yao’s apartment.

Participants of an upcoming vlog series video. The Potluck team brought Jonathan Perlman (Jewish Graduate student at CMU) together with Adam Bey (Co-owner of 412 Brewery) for a Potluck on March 20.
Pictured (left to right): Oliver Yao, Joe Slomowitz, Jonathan Perlman, Avi Moses, Adam Bey, Erik Harker. Photo provided by Joe Slomowitz.

Yao said that Potluck is working to help people make connections when they no longer live in their home communities, pointing out that while he’s in Pittsburgh much of his family is in California or China.

“I think that what Potluck is trying to do is mitigate some of the cons that come with increased individualism,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t have that tribe, that community, especially when you’re in a new place. Our vision is to use food as a way to create this community of uplifting, kind humans that transcend national, cultural and ideological borders for everyone to feel that sense of trust and belonging no matter where they are in the world.”

Potluck placed second in last year’s Big Idea Blitz competition, won the video award in the Randall Family Big Idea competition last year and are competing again this year in the Randall competition.PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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