Home chefs (and startups) are betting on takeaway

Several days a week, Jullet Achan navigates the kitchen of her Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment, stirring up dishes from her Surinamese background: fragrant combos of goat curry, root vegetable soup, and chow mein chicken.

You pack the meals, and they are picked up for delivery to customers who order through an app called WoodSpoon.

“Joining WoodSpoon has made a huge difference during the pandemic, giving me the flexibility to work safely from home and increase income,” Ms. Ashan said in a company press release in February.

However, in New York State, there are no permits or licenses that allow individuals to sell hot meals cooked in the kitchens of their homes. It knows WoodSpoon, a three-year-old startup that says it has about 300 chefs preparing foods on its platform and has raised millions of dollars from investors, including Burger King’s parent company.

“This is not legally allowed,” said Oren Sarr, founder and CEO of WoodSpoon, which facilitated interviews with Ms Achan and other chefs. “If someone is on our platform and they are selling food they have cooked in their kitchen, it is against our platform policy. But, quite frankly, we think these rules are outdated.”

Ms. Akhan said she had learned through her own research that chefs are not allowed to sell home-cooked foods, but said she has continued to do so. “Food must be prepared in a clean kitchen, and it must be done properly,” she said. “I’ve been cooking for my family for years, and this is how I prepare meals for my clients.”

WoodSpoon is part of a transformation happening in the food industry. Driven by the pandemic, companies and investors are placing tens of billions of dollars in bets on what, where and how consumers will eat in the coming years.

In a bet that people will eat less meat, huge investments are being made in plant-based food startups. The fast food giants are spending tens of millions of dollars adding driving lanes to serve an increasingly mobile nation. More than 1,500 ghost kitchens have appeared across the country, and Wendy’s has jumped the cart with plans to open 700 delivery-only restaurants. Millions of dollars are poured into snack, chip, and beverage companies in the belief that consumers want additional nutrients or health benefits from their afternoon gratification. And startups like WoodSpoon and Shef have sprung up, pushing what used to be a secretive industry of selling food to friends and family into the mainstream through apps. They’re aiming to reach those who have grown tired of a meal during the pandemic, and who are tired of trying to find a new, creative way to cook a chicken or reconnect with their favorite fast food joint. Most of these apps say they expect chefs to follow all state and local laws or remove risks from the platform.

Melanie Barthelemy, a global food analyst at Mintel, a market research firm that found last spring that a third of consumers said they were “tired of cooking” for themselves or families. Ms Barthelemy said that with routines and activities back up and running again, families will be looking for easy and effortless meals.

Companies are painting themselves as part of the new temporary jobs economy, a way for people who make food to earn little or a lot of money, working whatever days and hours fit their schedules best.

Alvin Salehi, a senior technology adviser during the Obama administration and one of Schiff’s co-founders, said selling meals online presents an opportunity for women who have struggled to work outside the home due to limited childcare options or for refugees and new immigrants. Mr. Salehi is the son of immigrants who arrived in the United States from Iran in the 1970s and had trouble running their own restaurant, which eventually failed.

From her kitchen on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Maria Bedo uses WoodSpoon to sell Puerto Rican classics like mofongo, bacalaitos, and sancocho, using recipes she learned from her grandmother.

“All my life people have said to me, ‘You have to do something with your food,’ said Mrs. Bidow, ‘but I always shut myself off without trying.’” How are you going to do that? How will that happen? How will it work?

“Now I have a weekly income. I can see my earnings. I am getting reviews.”

She believes this will help her next goal of moving into a commercial kitchen and offering her specialties across the country. When asked what she knows about the restrictions on selling the meals she cooks in her kitchen, Ms. Bidow said she was unaware of them. But she said she believed WoodSpoon made it clear to consumers that the meals were prepared in home kitchens. She added that the company inspected her kitchen as part of the audit process for joining the platform.

WoodSpoon and Shef are expanding rapidly even as rules and regulations around the industry play a role in catching up.

In recent months, states have relaxed restrictions to make it easier for home chefs to sell produce online, but the result is a patchwork of local and state rules and regulations and permit requirements. Some states allow home cooks to sell only baked goods such as bread, cookies, or jellies. Others put ceilings on how much money home cooks can make. Other states require the use of licensed facilities, such as commercial kitchens.

In New York, individuals can apply to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets for a Home Processing License, which allows them to cook and sell bread, cakes, biscuits, and some types of fruit jam. But a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson said in an email that home “restaurants” are prohibited, whether food is served at home or delivered through an online service.

Legislation was introduced last year that would allow individuals to sell hot meals from their private kitchens, but it is still pending.

Mr. Sarr said WoodSpoon, which started in 2019, can’t wait for laws to catch up with the pandemic. “With Covid and all the people who were reaching out to us to work on the platform, all the people we thought we could work with, it just wasn’t appropriate for us to wait for launch,” he said.

It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the chefs on the platform use licensed commercial kitchens, which means that the bulk is not. He said WoodSpoon has helped in-house chefs obtain the appropriate permits and licenses, has offered safety training and inspected kitchens, but ultimately the onus is on the individuals selling on the platform to follow the proper rules. A spokesperson later added in an email that the company was working to provide commercial kitchens for chefs.

“We are way ahead of the regulators, but as long as I keep my clients safe and everything is fine, there are no problems,” said Mr. Sarr. “We believe our home kitchens are safer than any restaurants.”

When asked if WoodSpoon would remove any cooks they knew were cooking from the kitchens in their homes, Mr. Sarr demurred, “It was a good question.” He noted that many WoodSpoon chefs have prepared and sold foods on social media and competing food platforms, such as Shef.

For example, when Chunyen Huang isn’t working as a cook at upscale Eleven Madison Park, he prepares and sells Taiwanese-style dumplings, roast pork buns, and sticky rice from his home kitchen through WoodSpoon and Shef. He said he did so largely to introduce customers to traditional Taiwanese foods in the hope that they would want to learn more about the country’s history and culture.

When asked about the Schiff sale, a spokeswoman for Mr. Huang said that anyone found to be not complying with local laws and regulations would be suspended. The next day, Mr. Huang’s offerings to Shiv vanished.

Mr. Huang said it was not clear to him why he had been removed from the Schiff stand.

He still sells dishes on WoodSpoon. He added that he hopes to cook in a commercial kitchen in the next two weeks.

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