“I’m a little nervous,” Sam Brody admits, unconsciously swirling her Merlot while scanning Zen Bistro and Wine Bar. “I’ve tried Match.com, but I’ve never done this before.” Brody is referring to speed dating, organized matchmaking that pairs singles with thirty to one hundred potential matches for three to eight-minute “dates.” Its a few minutes before 7pm in a chic lounge on Pentagon Row in Arlington and white nametags and anxious glances denote tonight’s speed dating participants scattered throughout the bar’s patrons. All are waiting for Carissa Tessaro, tonight’s hostess and an employee of Professionals in the City, to seat them at the numbered tables in the back half of the narrow room.

Tonight’s event is geared toward professionals ranging from 24-35 year olds and Brody, an administrative assistant, just meets the minimum requirement. “I moved to DC for a job after college and haven’t been able to meet a guy I’d like to date by going to the clubs so some girl friends and I decided to try something new,” said Brody.

Brody and her friends are not alone. This method of round-robin dating was started in 1999 by Rabbi Yaacov Deyo in Los Angeles as a way for Jewish singles to meet in a chaperoned setting and encourage marriage within the faith. Since then, the concept has transitioned to secular communities across the nation and Europe as a way for busy professionals to meet other singles looking for a relationship or to expand their social circle.

Michael Karlan, the founder and president of Professionals in the City, had this concept in mind when he started his company in 2000. “I moved to D.C. from New York City where I went out all of the time and had lots of friends,” says Karlan. “I tried the same routine in DC but wasn’t making any meaningful connections. I started this company so people with similar interests could get together and network – the romantic aspect was almost an afterthought.”

Afterthought or not, Professionals in the City has seen an enormous interest in their speed dating services over the past decade. “Most of our events are sold out, even the larger venues for two hundred or more participants. “ Karlan went on to explain, “We haven’t lost customers with the recession. We charge between twenty and fifty dollars depending on the party size. Most people see that as less than the cost of one date and here they have the opportunity to go on as many as one hundred dates.”

“It’s definitely worth it,” confirms Josh Turner, a 26 year-old graduate student at George Mason University, as he rotates between four-minute dates. “I’ve done this a few times and met some nice girls. A month’s subscription to eHarmony [dating web site] costs just as much but I have had better luck with speed dating.”

With so little free time, singles are turning to alternative methods such as matchmaking and online dating to find love. In the disconnected world where webinars have replaced the office meeting and scanned contracts substitute a handshake, speed dating offers refreshingly direct contact between two human beings, if only for a few minutes.

“Four minutes is more than enough time to decide whether or not you’re interested in someone and want to see them again, if only for one date, “ said Tessaro. “Our participants take notes on everyone they meet. After the event, they turn in their score cards and if there is a potential match we alert them within 24 hours.” Participants are prohibited from exchanging contact information during speed dating, reducing the pressure to politely accept a suitor’s advances if the attraction is not mutual.

The structure of speed dating allows those who are anxious about approaching a stranger to open themselves up to opportunities they might not have at a bar on a regular Friday night. “When I go out, I don’t always feel comfortable approaching a woman who is with five of her friends,” said Ben Taxman, a 30 year-old attorney from Fairfax, Va. “Speed dating lets me cut through the red tape and ask important questions to see if we’re compatible.” Important questions such as religion, romantic expectations and future goals are often considered inappropriate to ask on a first date. “If someone attends speed dating, you assume they’re looking for a relationship and they know you are too, you can go from there instead of playing cat and mouse,” concluded Taxman.

Tessaro calls time for the final date a few hours later. Some participants leave looking relieved while others mingle with people they just met. “I was talking to Sandy and practically begged for four more minutes,” said Turner. “I think there’s a definite connection there and I hope she feels the same.” He will check his email tomorrow evening to see if Sandy also felt the connection.

Brody is at the bar enjoying a final glass of wine with the same friends she came with before heading home. “I don’t know if I would want a relationship with any of the guys I met tonight, but I had fun.” Her enthusiasm seems genuine when she says, “I would come again… the chances of meeting someone are better here than sitting at home!”

Originally published on PureStyle Magazine