Franke James Dinner With a Stranger

Dinner... With a Stranger

Imagine that a total stranger sends you an email inviting himself and a friend over to your place for dinner, in exchange for which he'd contribute $200 to charity. Would you say yes, prepare a meal and see what's in store? That is exactly what local artist Franke James (of un-paving paradise fame) did, and now she's trying to get the idea to spread.

Franke's latest visual essay chronicles the experience, from the initial email appearing in her inbox to almost magical conclusion. And now, in the comments, we've already heard from The Stranger's mom and the Yonge Street Mission - Franke's charity of choice - and now Franke and The Stranger are sharing ideas of how to expand upon this concept as a larger-scale fundraiser.

I had a little chat with Franke about what was on her mind hosting this dinner, and what's on her mind now (hint: she wants the idea to spread). And, of course, what was on the menu.

Were you nervous about who these strangers were, or what they'd be like, before they arrived?

Mark [Shouldice, aka The Stranger] had written in his first email that he didn't want to "ruin the surprise" by revealing too much about himself.

Fortunately, there's Google to dig for the truth!! I found enough tidbits about Mark -- including the fact that he'd spoken to groups about his involvement with the humanitarian/athlete organization Right to Play, that I felt comfortable. I also spoke to him on the phone prior to the event and he told me about his teaching job. By the time the dinner event rolled around I was very confident that we were going to have a great dinner.

Was it awkward upon arrival? How long did it take for everybody to be comfortable or at ease?

One look at Hilary and Mark confirmed to me that they are solid people. They were very relaxed right away. I think that comes from the fact that both of them are in careers that involve meeting people from all walks of life (nursing and teaching). And [my husband] Bill and I are not shy either. As designers and artists, we are very comfortable meeting new people.

Why do you think this dinner worked out so well?

The starting point was really the idea. Fun, novel, slightly out of the box -- and generous. It really captured my imagination.

Did it help that Mark knew a bit about you through your art/website?

Yes. I think Mark and Hilary had an advantage because they knew so much about me through my website and visual essays.

Bill and I were both curious about who they were (from the Googling I'd done). We wanted to know about [Mark's] time in Africa, his role in Right to Play, his teaching in Toronto, his streetcar art school project, his documentary film nights, etc. We had enough things to ask them about that I was pretty sure we wouldn't run out of topics. But most of all I thought it was a super cool fundraising idea -- and I saw lots of potential to push it farther (e.g. book, video).

Do you think you would have reacted differently if the dinner would have been at the Mark's house?

At first I thought he was inviting me to dinner at his house! And I was ready to accept -- but then I reread his email! "Oh, he's inviting himself over to our house!!?" I laughed. It was so preposterous but fun -- and it's like I said in the visual essay -- I thought about 77 homeless people having Christmas dinner and thought that was just so wonderful. Wow!

What do you think it would take for this idea to really take off?

I think it's a cool idea because any organization or any individual could use it. It has no maximum for the dollars that could be raised per dinner. The pool of potential hosts is huge. Every community has interesting people who might -- if they were asked -- be willing to host a dinner for their favorite charity or cause. It doesn't take any seed money to get it going. It's also got an educational and inspirational angle to it that could be transformative.

But brainstorming just a bit I'm sure it could be run in cities all over the world, too. Can you imagine if there was a "Dinner with a Stranger" chapter in each big city?

For example:
If you were visiting New York wouldn't it be fun to be able to bid on a dinner with an interesting host (author, artist, musician, expert etc.) -- and know that you'd have the fun of meeting that person, plus it would benefit a charity? Very cool idea.

Of course, there would have to be a vetting process and preregistration so that hosts would feel safe and secure. (The venue could be a restaurant too, it doesn't have to be a home.)

What was on the menu for complete strangers?

We knew they were vegetarian, so I mentioned to Mark in an email that we'd be serving Eggplant Parmigiana, and did he have any aversion to that or allergies... No objections were raised so we went ahead with that as the main course.

Eggplant Parmigiana, pasta, arugula and spinach "Greek" salad, snow peas, carrots.
Dessert was an apple pie with ice cream. (I was going to serve strawberries but not eco-friendly enough.) Mark and Hilary brought Ontario wine (red and white).

Is there anything else you want to share about this experience?

It's wonderful to see that other people think it's a cool idea too. It's simple, entertaining and has great power to raise money for good causes. I hope an organization picks up on it and has some fun with it. I also wonder what other ideas Mark will come up with... He's a gifted guy.

Well, Mark wasn't quite done with his idea yet, and Franke can stop wondering, since he added this suggestion for how to expand on Dinner With a Stranger: "I totally think... it could work large scale now. I'm thinking like the OCAD "whodunit." You buy a meal ticket and get matched up with someone - just like the OCAD fundraiser where you could get a work of art by someone famous, with the "stranger meal" you could get somebody famous."

All this leaves me wondering how much I'd pay - contribute to charity - to have dinner with a stranger, and also, which stranger would I want to have dinner with?

Images by Franke James.

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