The Downtown dating game

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September 27, 2004 // UPDATED 4:09 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Britt Johnsen
Britt Johnsen

From matchmakers to speed-dating, you can find it all here

Forty-two-year-old single Anne Nicolai says she's "tried it all."

She's responded to a newspaper ad, only to find out the man she was dating thought he was a vampire.

She's tried online dating, which yielded 15,000 hits on her advertisement, correspondence with 500 men and 20 dates -- including one with her son's classmate's father.

"That's about .01 percent return of actually meeting someone," Nicolai said.

Like many other singles tired of the bar and/or Internet dating scenes, Nicolai has turned to professional dating agencies to better her chances of finding a partner. There's no shortage of such services Downtown, which vary greatly in terms of time and financial commitment, from one-on-one matchmaking to six-minute predating or speed-dating.

'Not the Man Store'

Sure, a single person can get lots of hits on a personal ad, be it in print or online, but quantity doesn't equate quality, said Amy Rolando, president of Downtown dating service Table for Two, whose service is based around the idea of finding a quality match.

"This is not the Man Store," she said.

At Table for Two, 119 N. 4th St. Ste. 306, professional matchmakers weed out prospects through both intensive interviews and background checks, Rolando said. Before a client is accepted, Rolando said, they discuss their family history and talk about what people want to find in a mate.

"There's so much criteria that goes into this," she said. "We don't really match people on interest. If two people like to run . . . it doesn't necessarily mean they're a good match [overall]"

Lynn Poferl, franchise owner of Downtown dating service It's Just Lunch, Inc., 120 S. 6th St., takes a similar approach. It's Just Lunch staff sit their clients down for an hour and talk about what they're looking for and what has and hasn't worked in previous relationships. They also talk about values, interests, hobbies and how they spend their weekends. Based on the answers, they set up people with a less-intense date either for a meal or after-work drinks.

"We tell people it's just a matter of time (before they find a match)," Poferl said.

Predating

For many, time is an issue, said Dora Harris, predating coordinator. As a service designed for "busy professionals" who don't like to wait to get what they want, the speed-dating or predating service sets you up to meet many people in one night.

"The more pieces of spaghetti you throw against the wall, the more chances one will stick," said Harris, who has a degree in social service with minors in women's studies and family and marriage counseling.

Speed-dating events usually happen five or six times a month, Harris said. Each event is arranged by different groups of singles, including tall singles, athletic singles, Christian singles, African-American women with Caucasian men and younger singles with older singles.

"The people that come to these are just a regular mix of people," she said. "We deal with doctors, lawyers, attorneys, engineers, business-owners . . . (who are) average-looking to stunning."

At one event in September, eight tables at a Minneapolis restaurant were full of single men and women. Each man came around to each table and asked the woman sitting there ice-breaker questions from cue cards laid on the table, such as "Do you think people are really honest?"

During this event, one client didn't show, so Harris sat in her chair. She chatted with different men, jotting notes about their looks or characteristics like sense of humor. When six minutes was up, the timer she held beeped. Harris then got up and rang her bell; it was time to move on to the next date.

After the bell rang, daters circled a section of a piece of paper everyone received. The section allows people to either reject a date or show interest. Another piece of paper allows daters to jot notes about that person.

After the session was over, daters turned in their papers. If a match was made, an e-mail was sent to the daters. Daters don't know if they've made a match until they get their e-mail.

However, the looks on the faces of daters were sometimes telltale; one potential couple shared genuine smiles on one end of the room, while eyes darted nervously on the other. This created an atmosphere some would thrive in but others might despise.

Julie Swenson, a 36-year-old St. Thomas student, said she hated speed-dating. She only used this particular service once, and ended up writing about the disastrous results in her monthly Skyway News column.

"It was like I got dumped eight or nine times in one night," Swenson said.

Nicolai also didn't like speed-dating; she said it felt fake to her.

"It was sort of like a theater clinic, where you're acting as hard as you can for three hours," she said.

Harris knows predating isn't for everyone, but she said she suggests being open and easy-going about the idea.

"Come with the idea of having fun," she said. "Don't feel like it's a waste if you don't get a perfect match."

Pay to play

However, when it comes to money, speed-dating is an attractive option. When it comes to dating services, Swenson said, "The cost thing is awful . . . Apparently, it's a pretty healthy business."

A two-year membership to Table for Two is $2,695, while a 12-month membership (or 14 dates, whichever comes last) at It's Just Lunch is $1,500. Predating costs $32 per event, not including food and drinks.

"It costs me less to be a member of Table for Two than it costs to have manicures, have my car fixed," she said. "People think they don't want to spend the money, but good God, what's more important?

"When you're shopping for a dating service, you have to be as diligent as [you are when seeking] legal help or cleaning services."

She compared online dating services to Home Depot: it takes a lot more work on your part, but it's cheaper, she said. Meanwhile, other services are like Nordstrom's or Gabbert's.

"The furniture's already built," she said. "It's already done for you, and you don't have to sew it yourself or build it yourself." Nicolai does have a limit, though. She said there's a dating service in Las Vegas that costs $150,000, which gets into "the realm of the ridiculous."