Entrepreneurs Hook Up Home Cooks With Customers

What if you could pick up a homemade pulled-pork sandwich on a brioche bun, or Vietnamese “broken rice” with braised honey chicken, or Baja-style fish tacos made by a home cook in your neighborhood instead of a faceless corporate chef or a strip-mall restaurant?

If you live in certain pockets of Oakland, Berkeley, or San Francisco, you can.

Here’s the idea behind a website operated by a start-up called Josephine:  You place an order for a reasonably-priced home-cooked meal nearby, then a few days later, you walk into your neighbor’s house and pick up your dinner. The deal? You get home-cooked food, made by a real human with a family and a name, and that real human makes a few bucks in their kitchen.

It’s an arrangement, say Josephine’s founders, that helps cooks, often immigrants or parents looking after kids at home, to get into the food business without shelling out prohibitive piles of cash.

Lisette Silva, a Josephine cook, prepares a homemade meal for her neighbors. Photograph Courtesy of Josephine

Lisette Silva, a Josephine cook, prepares a homemade meal for her neighbors. Photograph Courtesy of Josephine

“A lot of these cooks have been disenfranchised, in a way. They’ve been told they’re not cut out for cooking,” says Charley Wang, one of Josephine’s co-founders. “They don’t have the capital. The cheapest way to get into the food industry is a food truck, and even then, it’s incredibly competitive.”

Josephine wants to be the next food truck, so to speak—the disruptor that brings people back from an increasingly de-personalized food system. But before it does that, Josephine will have to negotiate some fairly major obstacles—the law, for one.

Wang and a co-founder Tal Safran were, like so many tech-rooted entrepreneurs, casting around for a start-up idea a few years ago. They wanted to do something with food and considered a range of tech-based ideas, dismissing most of them: Food delivery (too Uber), catering (too impersonal), school-based food programs (too bureaucratic).

Jambalaya, meatballs with polenta, and a "grateful bowl," are three of the home cooked dishes available through Josephine. Photographs Courtesy of Josephine

Jambalaya, meatballs with polenta, and a “grateful bowl,” are three of the home cooked dishes available through Josephine. Photographs Courtesy of Josephine

Having found refuge years earlier in the home cooking of a mutual friend’s mother named Josephine, they decided they wanted to find a way to make home kitchens viable businesses. “We realized the entire food industry treated people making food as commoditized labor,” Wang says, “and that the interesting opportunity wasn’t to make faster, cheaper food products, but to build a place for the cook, the creator, to succeed—an extension of their personalities in their communities.”

That idea sounded just about right to Lisette Silva, a Berkeley mother of two.

Silva, recently laid off from her corporate job, was exploring ways to get into the food business, hoping to trade in her Ecuadorian and Cuban culinary roots. She learned about Josephine through a friend.

“I didn’t want the grind of a restaurant,” Silva says, noting that most people are “appropriately terrified” of opening one. “I was looking through the cooks on the [Josephine] platform, which were very few then, maybe eight or ten cooks—it was very skeletal. I was in bed, looking at it on my phone, and I said: ‘Why not give it a shot?’”

“It’s kind of a combination of popping over to a friend’s to say hello and having a private chef,” says home cook Lisette Silva. It’s also technically illegal.

Soon after, Silva had a stream of people trickling into her house to pick up Cuban-style chicken and rice, one of her signature dishes. “I was a little bit like a deer in the headlights,” she recalls. “It was just this notion that people were paying for this, it wasn’t just me entertaining my friends, I became addicted to it. I enjoyed opening up my home, being able to share dishes I grew up eating.” (So addicted, in fact, that she is now an employee of the company.)

The system works like this: Would-be Josephine cooks contact the company, which sends one of its team members to the cook’s house to sample a few recipes. They inspect the kitchen. (Josephine requires its cooks to have a cooking safety certification, called ServSafe, which is overseen by the National Restaurant Association, and also fulfills California’s state laws for food handlers.)

Once accepted, the cook posts a dish for an upcoming night on the Josephine website, and diners sign up and pay for those dishes in advance, through the Josephine system. On the given day, in a certain pre-arranged window of time, the diners go to the cook’s house to pick up their meal.

“I tell my friends it’s like when they come to a dinner party at my house, but it’s in a take-out container and they take it home, rather than hanging out with me over a glass of wine,” Silva says. “It’s kind of a combination of popping over to a friend’s to say hello and having a private chef.”

It’s also technically illegal.

“The rule in California and in most states is you can’t sell food from a home kitchen,” explains Christina Oatfield, policy director at the Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, a group that provides legal help and resources to stimulate localized, community-based economies. “It generally has to be in a commercial kitchen, inspected by an agency.”

The center backed a bill, signed into California law in 2012, that does allow home kitchens to sell some food. However, it applies only to “non-potentially hazardous foods,” or non-perishable foods, such as jams, granolas or candy.

“We got that law passed,” she says. “That was a big breakthrough.”

But so far, it’s not backing a bill Josephine is pushing to expand that law to cover a broader range of foods.

“We like the general concept of people being able to start a business from home kitchens,” Oatfield says. “But I’m concerned that Josephine is a tech start-up, and there are others like it that facilitate payment processing for homemade food. We need legislation addressing the middleman, the web platform, in addition to the home cook. The tech company could end up taking control and they’re the ones making money.”

Wang emphatically insists the company’s intention is to “disappear” and allow the platform to enable diner-to-cook commerce, rather than cash in. “The real dream is that we eliminate the need for ourselves,” he says.

But first, Josephine is attempting to expand beyond its 75 or so cooks—and to do that it needs, at least in part, a legal rejiggering.

“Right now a lot of folks are operating underground in unregulated spaces,” says Matt Jorgensen, Josephine’s COO, referring broadly to people making a living out of their home kitchens, whether part of the Josephine network or not. “What we’re trying to do with this legislation is really open it up so that cooking, which is already the most fundamental lever for economic empowerment, is reclaimed as meaningfully as possible.”

 

Georgina Gustin is a longtime food policy and farming reporter, and currently an editor at Timeline.com.  You can follow her on Twitter.

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