Sunday, July 27, 2003

Web site's goal: Friendship first

Recently divorced woman sets up Internet service

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Pam Black has a familiar complaint: "I have a lot of friends, but they're all married and I'm not. It's almost impossible to meet other singles, male or female, even though I know they're out there."

She's on a mission to find them. It's a mission so serious she has already sunk $35,000 into it. Not to mention months of work in the office of her Anderson Township home.

Black, a newly divorced 42-year-old mother of two, founded SingletoMingle, an Internet service launched last week that will pair up parties of six to 10 - half of them single men, half single women - for dinner and maybe a nightcap.

But it's not a dating service. "Oh no, not in any way. This is about meeting new people, making new friends. It's about taking the pressure off, relaxing and just having fun with no expectations to be met. If a date happens because of it, cool. But that's not what it's about."

Or, as one of her comment cards from a preview dinner says, "Truly a fun evening ... This is a great way to meet people without hassles, pressure, or disappointments." - Mark, age 45.

Or this one: "I really enjoyed meeting new people and I think there was a great dynamic at the table. I would recommend to a friend!" - Judy, age 33.

You click, let computer pick

Prospective members - all 30 to 55 years old - visit and fill out a member profile and a profile of what they like in a dinner partner.

The next SingletoMingle dinners are:
• Aug. 5: Bella, downtown
• Aug. 14: Tink's, Clifton
• Aug. 20: Iron Horse Inn, Glendale
From there they go to a sign-up page and pick a dinner. A custom-designed computer program then selects the dinner group based on the profiles. Last step is to enter a credit card number to cover the $45-per-dinner set-up fee.

For now, there's only one dinner a week at one of nine restaurants, but Black figures that will grow to two or three a week pretty quickly.

Participating restaurants are Bella, Boca, Brio, Chateau Pomije, Chokolate Morel, Iron Horse, Pane e Vino, Promontory and Tink's.

"I'm confident that this is going to work for a couple of reasons. We did two preview dinners in June, and both were successful. One was at Bella and went until 11:30, then we all went to Nicholson's for nightcaps. Another was at Chateau Pomije and it also went on late.

"What I liked so much was that so many people exchanged contact information and promised to get together again. And I said we're not a dating service, but a couple dates did come out of it."

Yeah, but how about meeting new people the old-fashioned way? Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to go hang out at a bar? Or join a church or arts group?

"You have no idea how difficult that can be. When I lived in Manhattan, I had no problem going into bars alone. Here, people look at you like you're a lush or an easy mark. And cracking into already established groups, usually people who have known each other for years, is even more difficult.

"Especially when you're new to town or newly single."

Black grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., went to college in Waltham, Mass., then moved to Manhattan, where she worked at a bank, then Christie's auction house, then an ad agency before a job at the Children's Aid Society.

"We moved here in 1990 to raise a family. My ex's family is from Columbus, and his brother was here."

Now she's single again. "I'm not ready to date yet. That's why I keep insisting this isn't a dating service. But I am ready to make new friends," she says. "In the age we live in, I'm convinced the Internet is the best route."

Black's site protects members' privacy. "We sell no names and share no e-mail addresses, even among members. If somebody wants to contact somebody from a previous dinner, I do the contacting ... but based on the two preview dinners, everyone seems to be exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses by the end of the evening."

Hoping for money and a match

Besides being a way to meet people, this is also Black's livelihood. "I'm an entrepreneur, and I know I'm not going to make much money at first. The $45 set-up fee barely covers expenses, given the initial cash outlay and upcoming advertising. But at some point, I want to franchise this idea, probably in Michigan and Florida."

So how about Black? Does she have an e-mail address for Mr. Right yet? "No, but when I do, he'll be 6-foot - I'm 5-9 - playful, honest, loves to travel, loves to work out, a role model for my kids. Most of all, whoever he is, he'll be comfortable in his own skin. That's important.

"He can even have some baggage, but not a carousel full."


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