Houstonians cater to niche tastes and new fans on just-landed platform Shef

Before the pandemic, native Houstonian Tracy Doak ran her own catering company.

But when COVID-19 hit, everything fell apart. Events were canceled and in-person gathering was essentially shut down.

“I lost quite a bit of business and it was a struggle for a while,” she said. “I was just trying to pick up odd jobs here and there.”

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When Doak saw advertisements on social media for Shef, an online platform that connects local cooks with hungry customers through delivered meals, she saw an opportunity to rebuild and restart her business. She decided to focus on Italian cuisine, something she loved to cook with her family, and cook traditional dishes like chicken piccata and spaghetti bolognese.

Native Houstonian Tracy Doak makes Italian food for Shef and ran a catering business that suffered during the pandemic.

Native Houstonian Tracy Doak makes Italian food for Shef and ran a catering business that suffered during the pandemic.

Courtesy of Tracy Doak

Doak, 44, jumped on the trend early. Shef landed in Houston in March, and co-founder Alvin Salehi said the company’s standard is to wait a few months after a launch to fully market the product. The current focus is working with and helping out chefs, some of whom will be selling their food for the first time.

But chefs like Doak are already getting orders. She chooses how many delivery dates she wants a week and sets her menu accordingly. She might get five or six orders for each delivery date, but each one could include as many as 10 different dishes. She suspects that families might be ordering enough to have dinner for the week, and each of her dishes comes with reheating instructions.

Shef's explore page gives users the opportunity to find food based on type of cuisine and their zip code.

Shef’s explore page gives users the opportunity to find food based on type of cuisine and their zip code.

Courtesy of Shef

Shef was started in 2019 by co-founders Alvin Salehi and Joey Grassia as a way to empower immigrant and refugee communities, particularly those interested in starting a food business.

The homemade food platform started in San Francisco’s Bay Area and New York City. It’s since grown to six cities, including Seattle, Chicago, Boston and Houston. The company won’t say how many total chefs there are in Houston or on the entire platform, but a spokesperson indicated that there are more than 8,000 applicants on the waitlist. The number of applicants grew by 10 times during the pandemic.

Misal pav by Shef Aditi.

Misal pav by Shef Aditi.

Courtesy of Shef

Chefs have to undergo a rigorous safety and taste-testing process before being selected, according to Salehi. Each chef has to pass an accredited food safety and food quality assessment before joining, making sure they use items like masks, hair nets, gloves and thermometers while in the kitchen. The company’s chef onboarding process also offers advice and resources to help members build a business.

“Ultimately, it’s a two-sided marketplace,” Salehi said. “They’re building their own business, their own pricing and their own menu design, but they can always rely on us to help provide them with direction.”

The company collects 15 percent from each transaction to cover business expenses like customer support, marketing and onboarding. Delivery fees are counted separately and vary by region, as do regulations as to what constitutes a kitchen under cottage food laws. Some local and state laws require chefs to cook in a commercial kitchen, something the company’s employees help chefs find through partnerships with other kitchens.

Fattoush salad by Shef Shereen.

Fattoush salad by Shef Shereen.

Courtesy of Shef

Look on Shef’s website, and the platform features a variety of different cooks from different cultural backgrounds. In one Houston zip code, that includes chefs cooking Indian, Pakistani, Southern, Creole, Cajun and Moroccan food. That diversity is key to Shef’s mission — in fact, 92 percent of chefs are people of color, according to Salehi.


Part of Shef’s appeal is both in connecting customers with new cultures and in reuniting customers with their hometown foods. Indian food in particular has a strong following.

“We get tons of customers writing to let us know that the dishes they’ve ordered on the platform are dishes they haven’t had access to for decades since growing up in India,” Salehi said. “They’re the same dishes that mom used to make for them when they were a kid.”

That’s part of the reason why Houston chef Vivian Akpovwa, 45, decided to try out Shef. She was already running a small food and catering business in Katy, Savory Small Chops and Grills, serving appetizers and sides inspired by her British and Nigerian roots.

Houston's Vivian Akpovwa offers both Nigerian and British classics on her Shef menu.

Houston’s Vivian Akpovwa offers both Nigerian and British classics on her Shef menu.

Courtesy of Vivian Akpovwa

Akpovwa was born in London but spent much of her youth going back and forth between the United Kingdom and Nigeria. Now, her food incorporates the classics from Nigerian cuisine, like jollof rice and melon soup with pounded yam, and the traditional British steak and kidney pie and English breakfast, though not all of these dishes are served on Shef.

Her experience on Shef is just beginning, but she knows that Houston is home to British expatriates and she hopes that her food will fill a craving hole for them.

“We just need to get the word out that we have people who can provide British dishes,” she said. “Because coming from Europe, I know that people here, as much as they want American food, they still once in a while want to have a taste of fish and chips or English breakfast.”

For some Houstonian cooks, Shef is a long time coming.

In fact, 33-year-old Sadia Ahsan, who was born in Bangladesh and moved to the United States in 2013, first reached out to Shef two years ago, when the company started. She saw an ad on Facebook and wanted to get involved. After all, her neighbor told her that her cooking was delicious and suggested she try it. Why not?

Sadia Ahsan's menu on Shef is focused on Bangladeshi food, from the staples like daal to delicacies like beef vuri bhuna.

Sadia Ahsan’s menu on Shef is focused on Bangladeshi food, from the staples like daal to delicacies like beef vuri bhuna.

Courtesy of Sadia Ahsan

Ahsan’s love for cooking is personal. Growing up, she watched her father work his day job as a police officer and come home and cook with her mother. It was a representation of their love — and the delicious food was a plus.

“His cooking was one of the best in the whole world,” Ahsan said. “I grew up around all these types of spices and all the smells of food. So food is my passion, and sometimes food can be a stress relief and relax you.”

Before starting on Shef, Ahsan opened her own catering business in November 2020. She caters mostly to Bangladeshi people, but so far, her customers on Shef have been from all over. She serves Bangladeshi favorites like pui shaak daal, beef vuri bhuna and beef shami kebab. Sharing her culture and her food with people who may know Pakistani or Indian food — but not Bangladeshi cuisine — has so much meaning.

Shef has become a feel-good outlet for Ahsan. She watches for reviews and ratings after a dish is delivered. When she’s catering, she’s behind the curtain. But on Shef, it’s about her. To Ahsan, that makes all the difference.

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