Alvin Salehi’s family immigrated to the United States shortly before the Iranian Revolution. Living out of a motel in southern California, they struggled to rebuild their lives from scratch. Eventually, Salehi’s parents saved up enough money to open a restaurant. The delicious food was a hit, but even with a steady stream of customers, the bills began piling up. “The commercial overhead costs were so high, unfortunately, it ended up crushing my parents and they had to close the doors,” Salehi says. “This was a very painful experience for my family.”
Salehi believes that, had his parents been able to bypass the economic shackles of a brick and mortar location and deliver food directly to their customers, their business could have survived. In 2019, he decided to give that opportunity to other immigrants and home chefs through Shef, a San Francisco-based company he co-founded with Joey Grassia, a two-time food entrepreneur and fellow son of first-generation immigrants. Like Seamless but for home-cooked food, Shef, which currently operates in the Bay Area and New York City, features meals made by chefs specializing in dozens of cuisines and hundreds of dishes, from Ethiopian shiro (chickpea stew) and Armenian dolma (stuffed grape leaves) to Indonesian rawon (beef soup) and Bangladeshi egg curry.
The idea for Shef came to Salehi after he spent time with refugees on the Syrian border and returned to the U.S. determined to find a way to help. He attended immigrant and refugee meet-ups in California and asked people there what he could do to contribute. “The same thing came up over and over again, this notion that ‘I have three kids at home, a spouse working two jobs, but I can’t leave the house to work myself because I can’t afford daycare,’” he says. Salehi realized that stay-at-home parents could be empowered through a simple platform that allows them to make money based on something they are already doing and are already very good at: cooking.
“I was like, ‘This is a no brainer, we all know your food is ten times better than restaurants!’” Salehi says. He named the company Shef to emphasize the “she” in chef, in homage to all the women on the platform and to his own mom.
Shef is neither the first nor the only company to explore the idea of selling home-cooked food. Some smaller groups specialize in specific geographies and cuisines, such as Native Pantry, which doles out Philippine food in Louisville. The largest company after Shef, though, is WoodSpoon, a New York City-based venture that launched in March. WoodSpoon offers home-cooked food delivery from 120 different chefs who dish out Italian chicken parmesan, Israeli babka (sweet braided cake), Ecuadorian fish tacos and more to hungry customers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Hoboken and Jersey City. Between WoodSpoon and Shef, “it doesn’t matter which platform people are using, the food is going to be good,” says Oren Saar, WoodSpoon’s co-founder, who is originally from Israel. “The main difference is the service.”
Whereas Shef requires placing orders a couple days in advance and heating the food up at home, WoodSpoon can provide hot meals on demand that arrive within 40-minutes of ordering. Saar’s company also offers nationwide shipping for items that travel well, such as boozy Caribbean black cake and hot pickled peppers and mango.
In the age of Airbnb, Etsy and other marketplaces that connect buyers directly with sellers, a platform that sells home-cooked food seems like an obvious win. But several previous ventures that attempted similar concepts have failed, primarily because of regulatory challenges. In 2016, Josephine, a popular app for home cooks in Oakland, California, was served a cease and desist order by regulators because they were breaking a law prohibiting selling hot food out of home kitchens. Josephine ultimately shuttered in 2018, but the company did successfully help expand California’s Homemade Food Act to include hot food that can legally be sold from a home, as opposed to just home-cooked baked goods and other foods that do not require refrigeration. The new regulations went into effect in January 2019, paving the way for Shef’s California operations. (In the rest of the country, including New York City, home chefs must still use commercial kitchens, which Shef and WoodSpoon facilitate. Salehi says Shef will be working with regulators in other states to try to convince them to follow California’s lead.)
The legislative changes set homemade food delivery up for success, but in terms of sheer growth, the Covid-19 pandemic was the true catalyst. As restaurants on the East and West Coasts closed their doors, Shef and WoodSpoon saw orders explode virtually overnight. WoodSpoon experienced more than 50 percent growth month over month during the first few months, with thousands of people downloading its app just by word of mouth. Shef customers have donated thousands of meals to frontline health care workers, homeless shelters and families in need—an option the company made available at checkout. At the same time, applications from chefs eager to join came pouring in. The number of cooks who applied to Shef grew 10 times during the pandemic, and the company’s current waitlist tallies over 7,000, while WoodSpoon’s is several hundred. “We were right there at the right time to help people laid off from the restaurant industry find a home to sell their food,” Saar says.
For Molly Maynard, Shef provided a critical lifeline. An actor by trade who hails from Kentucky, Maynard was teaching art and working as a bartender on Broadway when New York City abruptly shut down in March. “My entire world disappeared,” she says. As months passed, Maynard and her wife—whose work in film had also been impacted—became increasingly desperate and cash-strapped. When a Shef ad popped up on Facebook, Maynard, who had always loved cooking the Appalachian staples of her youth for friends, decided to apply. With a mix of surprise and relief, in October, she passed her interview and taste test and was invited to join. “I remember getting my first order and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can go get a haircut!’” she recalls.
Maynard now completes about eight orders a week of rib-sticking comfort dishes such as her mom’s sausage pie, cat-head (as in the size of a cat’s head) biscuits and flavor-loaded soup beans, an Appalachian staple traditionally scarfed down by hungry workers. In addition to relieving some financial pressure, Maynard says that Shef has ushered in a new set of friends—fellow chefs—and also brought cooking and her cultural roots back to the forefront of her life. “I’d love to make this more than just a passion project,” she says.
Shef and WoodSpoon’s ultimate success will depend on a number of factors, including whether the market is truly ready to embrace such services and whether the companies prioritize the well-being of their chefs, not just the convenience of their customers, says Deepti Sharma, CEO and founder of FoodtoEat, a community-minded catering service that helps grow immigrant-, women- and minority-owned food vendors in New York City.
“In the pandemic, people have started to realize that third-party services actually harm restaurants by charging ridiculous fees,” Sharma says. While Shef and Woodspoon need to make a profit, she says, “the hope is that the food makers are actually making money, too.”
Shef and WoodSpoon do not share their financial details, but both companies say that their chefs are fairly compensated. “Our model is to help them make as much money as we can, and everything is very transparent,” Saar says. The two chefs interviewed for this story say that the experience has been a good one so far. Maynard’s highest sales day at Shef, for example, was $1,200, and other, more intangible benefits come from the job, she says. “I’ve never worked with a company that’s been so intentional with how they hire and work,” she says. “You think it’s a tech startup, but more than that, they try to create a community and have a safe haven for people to come together.”
Assuming the model does pan out, at their best, Shef, WoodSpoon and other homemade food delivery services could not only provide a revenue stream for their chefs, Sharma says, but also change the way we conceptualize who can enjoy the label “chef.” The platforms could additionally help to reframe “ethnic food” for what it really is: American food. “American food is immigrant food, because that’s what America is comprised of, people from all over the world,” Sharma says.
Jullet Achan, a Brooklyn-based chef who sells her food on WoodSpoon, embodies this ideal. Born in Suriname to Guyanese parents, Achan, who has a day job as an account executive, is renowned among family, friends and co-workers for her food. “Cooking and sharing my cooking has always been my passion,” she says. On WoodSpoon, she offers a taste of her culture through traditional, thick-gravied garam masala chicken curry based on her mother’s recipe. But she’s just as adept at whipping up whole roast turkeys with all the typical North American holiday fixings. Whatever her customers choose to order, Achan guarantees, “the end result is phenomenal.”
“To me, it’s important for my customers to enjoy the meal and feel that someone made it with love, that someone’s taking care of them,” Achan says. “My food is a reflection on me.”