A growing number of singles dating services in Tampa use some form of "speed dating," a quick way to see if you click.
By BABITA PERSAUD
Published November 28, 2003
[Times photos: Jennifer Sens]
With the clock ticking, Igor Alvarez, left, and Shireen SaroeaSaroe have just three minutes to see if they make a connection with each other. "This is an awesome idea,'' said Saroea. "I would definitely do it again.''
Jilna Patel, far right, smiles during her three-minute "speed date'' with Igor Alvarez during a singles service event at Whiskey Park. They were among about 30 singles who attended.
SOHO - It's only 8:30 p.m. and Kristi Russell, 33, a smart-looking professional with trendy glasses and a demin jacket, is on her ninth date of the night.
With a name tag that reads only "Sam-3," a dark-haired gentleman takes a chair next to her.
A votive candle lights up Russell's face. Heart-shaped confetti sparkles on the white tablecloth.
She smiles. He shuffles slightly in his seat.
They say hello and exchange introductions.
Pause. Then, "So what do you like to do?" he asks.
"Well, I have a dog," says Russell, launching into a discussion about Gabby, her yellow Labrador retriever, who just turned 3.
To celebrate, Russell made a birthday cake out of a mound of dog food.
"Was there a candle on it, too?" asks Sam-3, who seemed interested.
"No, a Milk-Bone," she says.
After three minutes, their conversation is up and he moves to the next table. She's on to guy Number 10.
Welcome to Tampa Speed Date, one of several new ways to find love or friendship.
Tampa singles aren't complaining. Finding the perfect match is tough. "A variety of options is good," said Chris Williams, 31.
Singles have long argued the area is lacking in the dating department. Besides Ybor City, there aren't a lot of options for meeting people - especially if you don't like noisy, crowded bars.
Then, came the help of organized singles services.
Single Gourmet launched the concept in the Tampa Bay area about five years ago by offering catered events and restaurant outings for eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
Today, singles have a variety of choices for any age and dating style. There's Party of Eight, It's Just Lunch, Fastdater, Hurry Date, Speed Mingle, 4-Minute Date and Tampa Speed Date, which held an event last week at Whiskey Park on Howard Avenue.
Most of the services draw heavily on the quickie date concept, where couples play a kind of musical chairs. They have three to five minutes to get to know each other before time runs out and they move on to the next person.
The idea was born in 1999, when a rabbi in Los Angeles, concerned about the rising number of Jewish people marrying outside their faith, brought together equal numbers of men and women for eight-minute dates.
Hurry Date picked up on the idea. Ken Deckinger and Adele Testani, friends from the University of Florida, founded the company in 2001 after ending up in New York City living one block apart. Their company organizes dating events in more than 22 cities around the world and landed in Tampa last year.
For the singles who can't be hurried, Andrea McGinty started It's Just Lunch in 1991 in Chicago. Her engagement had gone sour, and she suddenly found herself single again.
Her employees interview each client for an hour, then set them up with someone for lunch or brunch who they believe would be a suitable match.
South Tampa, with its abundance of young, educated singles, is a playground for many of these events. Popular gathering spots: Ciccio & Tony's, Mangroves and Samurai Blue. In fact, Whiskey Park hosts so many dating events that owners recently banned the bells and whistles during hurry dating events because the regular customers complained.
At the Tampa Speed Date party last week, organizer Monica Bassi spoke calmly into a microphone.
"Okay everybody it's that time again," she said. "Gentlemen move to your left."
Bassi, 25, started the Tampa Speed Date with her friends Melissa Lorenzo, 29, Shireen Saroea, 22, and London Bounmananh, 23.
All are young, attractive and hip - not unlike Carrie Bradshaw and her friends on Sex and the City.
Clearwater resident Julie Levesque, a 42-year-old art teacher, created Party of Eight earlier this year as a way to help a single co-worker find a match.
She got the idea from the Oprah show, which was featuring Eight at Eight, an Atlanta dining dating service.
With the help of her husband, a Web designer, she formed Party of Eight in March. The first event was held at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant.
Here's how it works: Levesque interviews people who sign up on her Web site to "make sure they can carry on a conversation," she said.
Then, she organizes dinner dates for eight people who are similar in age. She seats guests, girl-boy-girl-boy, and starts the conversation.
Most dating events cost $25 to $40. Most provide a free drink or appetizer. Meals cost extra.
Participants aren't always looking for romance. Some just want to meet new people.
The services are "buyer beware."
Most don't do background checks. Levesque has people sign waivers saying she can't be held responsible for what happens. It is no different than if someone goes to a bar, she added.
With so many companies, competition is fierce.
Bassi and her friends handed out Tampa Speed Date cards at a recent Maxim party at the Florida Aquarium to drum up business. On the cards: "Not all matches are made in heaven. Some are made in Tampa!"
The most common problem these companies face: "We need more men to join," Levesque said.
But at the Tampa Speed Date event at Whiskey Park, more men showed up than women.
Organizers put small cards on the tables "Cocktail Yak" - if participants came up dry for conversation.
- What are you thoughts on body piercing?
- What is one of your biggest pet peeves?
- Did you go to your prom?
Not many people used the prompts.
Most had enough to say on their own.
Some talked about going to Bucs games. Others talked about cooking. Nearly everyone chatted about their jobs and hometowns.
"In three minutes, you'll know yes or no," said Marie Acluche, a 26-year-old speech pathologist for an elementary school.
Chris Williams, who looks like Chandler Bing on Friends, said it was entertaining, even if he didn't meet his soul mate.
"I haven't knocked over any girl's drink so it's been good so far," he said.