Tom Stern isn’t a fan of dating apps like Tinder, where a potential face-to-face date is determined by a swipe of a finger on a phone.
“It’s very impersonal,” Stern says. “I like the idea of seeing someone or hearing someone, speaking to them, you get a million questions out of the way right off the bat, and that wasn’t something I wasn’t finding on Tinder.”
So on a Wednesday night in July, Stern is at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham for a different kind of dating experience: “Love at First Pint.” As for questions for his future date, he’ll get to ask plenty of them in person. But there’s a catch. Like a dating site, the matchmaking is sort of a blind date encounter.
“Love at First Pint” takes place with four people on a stage divided by a large screen — one on the left, with the three others on the right. The solo contestant asks questions of the people on the other side of the screen. And at the end, he or she will choose one to go on a date with, sight unseen.
The format should ring a bell to anyone familiar with the TV game shows of the 1960s and ‘70s. It mirrors ABC’s “The Dating Game” presented by Jim Lange.
“Love at First Pint,” which launched in February, is the brainchild of Brandon Holmes and Sarah Riddle of the group called Mettlesome, a collective of Triangle creatives who provide support and production for performance art projects, including a podcast, but mostly improv comedy.
Over the course of the night, there will be laughs from Holmes and Riddle and the contestants on stage. The free beer for the contestants might help with that.
At the end of the night, a match will be made. Though, Holmes said, matchmaking isn’t really the point.
“I think it’s really interesting to see people meeting each other, live and in the flesh,” he said. “Online, it seems very objective: ‘You are not good enough for me on paper.’ When it’s real people talking, it’s much more mystical and interesting. You realize that there aren’t winners and losers in meeting people and seeing if there’s a connection.”
An inclusive game
Holmes and Riddle first met in an improv class. Holmes was fresh out of his college improv team, and Riddle was a self-described “old pro.” They hit it off, and have been friends ever since.
“We kind of had a ‘meet cute,’” said Holmes.
They’ve done six “Love at First Pint” shows so far, and one is scheduled for Sept. 5. Mettlesome had a regular slot booked at Fullsteam, and when a show happened to fall on Valentine’s Day, Holmes hosted the first games. It was a hit, and Holmes recruited Riddle to co-host when it became a regular program.
They’ve put an emphasis on inclusivity. While the original “Dating Game” TV show typically included a bachelorette picking from among three eligible bachelors, “Love at First Pint” doesn’t always set up a the guy up to choose.
Each “Love at First Pint” show traditionally includes includes two rounds: one with a man and three women, the other in reverse.
On this night, Stern’s round is the only one scheduled. Holmes and Riddle are disappointed. They had a second one planned for women interested in dating women. But logistics prompted the round to be cancelled.
“We’d like it to not be so straight,” Riddle said. “It’s really important to us that we make this a safe and inclusive space.”
Stern, who learned about the opportunity from a friend, is beginning to figure out what’s in store for him as he waits for the show to begin.
“I was feeling ambitious when I signed up,’ he said. “I thought it would be a cool new approach. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I think I like it. The odds seem pretty good?”
After some shuffling around and the participants closing their eyes as they approach the stage, Riddle and Holmes kick off the show with introductions.
From this point forward, the women are referred to as contestants No. 1, 2 and 3.
Stern is a maintenance man who works on various apartment complexes across the state. Earlier that day he had fixed a water shutoff valve in Wilmington.
Contestant No. 1 is from Raleigh and has a dog, which becomes public knowledge when her dog-sitter calls in the middle of her introduction.
Contestant No. 2 is from Wilmington and enjoys hanging out with her friends.
Contestant No. 3 is from Richmond, Va., by way of Durham, and works as a creative director.
With the introductions out of the way, it’s time to get down to business.
Holmes and Riddle guide the show, offering color commentary, as Stern’s questions cover a gamut of topics.
They discuss the following:
▪ Their favorite year in hip-hop: Contestant No. 2 likes “2007, when Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ and 50 Cent’s album came out the same day, and there was controversy about it.”
▪ Which Fullsteam beer they’d be, putting in a plug for the show’s location: Contestant No. 1 would be “Humidity because I’m hot.”
▪ Which contestant would win in a fight. Contestant No. 3 is unanimously declared the victor.
“We send an email prior to the show asking participants to not be too crass,” Holmes said. “Sarah and I are the comedians, so we’ll do that, you don’t have to.”
Eventually, it comes time for Stern to choose a winner. He hesitates for a moment.
Contestant No. 1 — the woman with the dog — is declared the winner.
“I chose her not because of the questions at all, but because she cared for her dog,” Stern says later in the night.
When she surfaces from behind the screen, Contestant No. 1 is revealed to be a woman named Kate Lundy, who was signed up by a friend as a joke.
But as Lundy considered the idea, it became a refreshing change from the dating app scene, which she describes as “shallow.”
“Everybody does Bumble and Hinge and Match,” she said in an interview. “This isn’t that far-fetched.”
Lundy and Stern greet each other, and then sit down at a table in front of the stage for their date.
Contestant No. 2 is Bridger Davenport and Contestant No. 3 is Debbie Kennedy. Neither seems disappointed by the evening’s results. They said they were just there to have fun.
Davenport, who is friends with Lundy, was signed up for the show by the same friend who signed up Lundy. A group of 15 of their friends sat in the audience to see which woman might snag a date by the end of the night.
Turns out Kennedy is already happily in a relationship with a man she met on Bumble. She’s regular Fullsteam patron, and the brewery invited her because, as she put it, “They know I’m funny.”
Stern and Lundy keep the conversation going for the rest of the evening, joining the Lundy and Davenport supporters at their table.
As last call rolls around and the brewery starts to clear, however, it seems that the two haven’t made too deep of a connection.
Stern said he thought the evening had gone OK, although he said he and Lundy come from very different worlds. He was hopeful for a second date, though he didn’t know how well it would go.
Lundy was a bit more blunt.
“He was very nice,” she said. “Nothing will come from it.”
A love connection?
Apparently, that’s pretty typical of the matches made by “Love at First Pint.” As far as the hosts know, none of the couples matched by the show are still together.
But the show does accomplish what it sets out to do: find a unique way to introduce people to one another In Real Life.
The show has connected people in a more organic fashion. Contestants who didn’t get picked for the date in their dating show round have ended up clicking with the eliminated contestants in the second round, even as just friends.
While Stern and Lundy had their date at the brewery, Davenport and Kennedy chatted. Davenport said she wasn’t familiar with the Triangle’s comedy scene, and Kennedy immediately invited her to an upcoming show she was going to attend. Davenport planned to join her.
Holmes and Riddle are also the beneficiaries of the bonds produced by the show. The two have great comedic chemistry on stage, and Riddle, who is married, said the show is as much about their friendship as it is about other people dating.
“I think Brandon is the only person in my life where (if I make a joke) I legitimately don’t care if anyone else in the room is laughing,” Riddle. said. “We’ve had people go on good dates and bad dates, but success for us is just getting on stage and doing the show every month and having a good time.”
“Love at First Pint” is the first Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. at Fullsteam Brewery, 726 Rigsbee Ave., Durham. The next show is Sept. 5. To register, go to thisismettlesome.com/love-at-first-pint. Participants are compensated with Fullsteam beer. There is no cost for admission.