On a chilly Sunday night, young singles pour into a noisy Lower East Side bar, looking for love, or at least dates. But they aren’t there to meet each other – they are there to meet their matchmakers. The entire back of the bar seems to be filled with members of The Dating Ring, a matchmaking start-up that launched last summer.
Brittany Bradford, 24, is one of two matchmakers interviewing potential daters that night. Her curly hair is pulled back in a headband and ponytail, and she looks at home in her cozy t-shirt and cardigan. She sits with two men and two women, quickly scribbling notes in a yellow legal pad as she peers through her glasses on the end of her nose.
One young blond man in a striped, long-sleeved t-shirt sits forward in his seat and mentions that he lives in New Jersey, and quickly justifies it by explaining that he lives closer to the Lower East Side than most Manhattanites and he rides a Citi Bike, just like any other New Yorker and –
Bradford, who is also an actress, puts up two hands and motions “stop.”
“This is a no-judgment zone,” she says firmly. “You can live in Jersey. Chill out.”
The man’s tense shoulders fall and he slumps back in his seat and smiles.
As the group wraps up – the two women know each other, but the rest are strangers – Bradford asks if they have anything else to say. One woman with straight blond hair and a conservative pink sweater says of her leopard print-attired, ringlet-haired friend, “Wait – I want to brag for her.” She widens her eyes: “She is the most caring person I know.”
The four singles leave and three more file in. It’s Bradford’s last group of the night – she generally meets groups every half-hour on interview nights with no breaks in between.
Danita, 29, and Jeannelle, 30, who declined to disclose their last names, are friends and nurses at the same hospital. Danita has short, red-tinted hair and is wearing a body-hugging red v-neck sweater; she is clearly the gentler of the two friends. Jeannelle has long, pin-straight, jet black hair that hits her rib cage, and wears glasses, a pink blouse and leopard heels. Suzy Lieberman, 29, a consultant at a Big Four audit firm, has wavy brown and hoop earrings. All of the women look a bit uncertain as they cram in together at a table to meet Bradford.
Bradford gives them the rundown on how The Dating Ring works: After the interview, the start-up sends them different options for group dates where they will ideally meet at least three potential matches hand-selected by Dating Ring matchmakers. Then she launches into only a handful of questions, like "Who is your celebrity crush?" "What do you like to do in your free time?” and “Do you have a religious preference?”
The women warm up as they talk and bond over their shared love for “Scandal.” Bradford explains that this is no “Millionaire Matchmaker”: “This is not a cattle call.”
When Bradford asks Jeannelle what qualities she is looking for in a relationship, she doesn’t bat an eyelash before saying, “Someone who’s not playing games.” The other two women nod in agreement. Danita’s answer? “Someone serious who’s not just after sex.” When it’s Lieberman’s turn, she says, “A person that’s going to respect my time and me.” There is a very clear theme here.
Noticeably missing from these questions is “Who is your ideal mate?”
Bradford explains, “Sometimes people get so specific and they have this idea of a perfect individual – they say they need someone who’s 6 feet tall, has brown hair and blue eyes, and but in reality, they’re much more open.”
All three women in this group have tried online dating. “It’s not working,” Jeannelle says. “I hate dealing with fake profiles – I’m done with that nonsense.” She adds that she hopes human matchmakers will weed out the riffraff.
Bradford has been a matchmaker for three months and spends six days a week interviewing singles and working with other Dating Ring matchmakers to set up groups. After the interview process, she turns in her notes, and she and other matchmakers bounce ideas off each other for potential matches.
The process for planning group dates combines human and algorithmic matchmaking. Emma Tessler, co-founder of The Dating Ring, is the head matchmaker and the only person who actually sets up the groups.
“Matchmakers input their observations and we have a standardized way of categorizing,” she says. “I go through and I make dates based on these standardized observations – so I might look for one particular observation and invite a whole group of people the matchmakers made an observation or compatible observations about.”
Sometimes it’s uncanny how the matches work out: Tessler says all six members of one group last week, strangers to each other, fenced in high school. “We had no idea,” she says.
But Tessler also chats with the other matchmakers and asks for personal recommendations. “We give suggestions,” she says. “It’s helpful to have our matchmakers say, ‘I think they’d be great with this person.’”
Picking between over 5,000 members, Tessler says she works between 11 and 16 hours a day creating matches. This week, she’s planning about 60 group dates.
Though Tessler and Bradford find themselves working day and night to make love connections, they both say they’re having the time of their lives. “I love hearing people talk about what they love,” says Bradord. “I enjoy this so much.”
For Tessler, it’s a dream come true. She says after getting burned out working in sex education in schools, she wanted to find a job where she could still talk to people about sexuality and relationship. “Matchmaker was the only thing left on the list,” she says. “I didn’t even know if it was a real job, and then this happened.”
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark