Home cooks (and start-ups) rely on prepared meals

A few days a week, Juliet Achan walks around the kitchen of her apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, preparing dishes of Surinamese origin: fragrant batches of goat curry, root vegetable soup and her own attitude to chicken chow maine.

She packs the dishes and they are taken for delivery to customers who order through an app called WoodSpoon.

“Joining WoodSpoon made a huge difference during the pandemic, giving me the flexibility to work safely from home and supplement my income,” Ms. Achan said in a news release from the company in February.

However, there are no permits or licenses in New York State that allow people to sell hot meals prepared in home kitchens. And WoodSpoon, a three-year startup that says it has about 300 chefs cooking on its platform and has raised millions of dollars from investors, including Burger King’s parent company, knows that.

“This is not allowed by law,” said Oren Saar, founder and CEO of WoodSpoon, who facilitated interviews with Ms. Achan and other chefs. “If someone is on our platform and selling food they have prepared in their own kitchens, it is against our policy on the platform. But to be completely honest, we think these rules are outdated. “

Ms. Achan said she realized from her own research that chefs are not allowed to sell food prepared in their homes, but said she continues to do so. “Food must be prepared in a clean kitchen and must be done properly,” she said. “I’ve been cooking for my family for years and so I prepare meals for my clients.”

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

By betting that people will eat less meat, huge investments are being made in plant-based start-ups. Fast food giants are spending tens of millions of dollars adding drive lanes to serve a nation that is increasingly catching on and off. More than 1,500 ghost kitchens have sprung up across the country, and Wendy’s has stepped in with plans to open 700 restaurants with delivery alone. Millions of dollars are pumped into snack, chips and beverage companies in the belief that consumers want extra nutrients or health benefits from their afternoon grazing. Start-ups like WoodSpoon and Shef have also emerged, pushing what was an underground food-and-family food industry into the mass flow through apps. They seek to reach those who developed food fatigue during the pandemic, tired of trying to find a new, inventive way to cook chicken, or re-dial for their favorite restaurant. Most of these apps say they expect chefs to comply with all state and local laws or risk being removed from the platform.

“What we’re seeing is a burnout,” said Melanie Barthelme, 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. yourself or your families. As routines and activities re-emerge, Ms Barthelme said, families will look for dishes that are easy and effortless.

Companies are portrayed as part of the new concert economy, a way for people who produce food to make more or less money by working the days and hours that best fit their schedules.

Selling food online provides an opportunity for women who have struggled to work outside the home due to limited care for children or for refugees and recent immigrants, said Alvin Salehi, a senior technology adviser during the Obama administration and one of the founders of Shef . Mr Salehi is the son of immigrants who came to the United States from Iran in the 1970s and struggled to run their own restaurant, which ultimately failed.

From her kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Maria Bidot uses WoodSpoon to sell classic Puerto Rican dishes such as mofongo, bakalaitos and sancocho, using recipes she learned from her grandmother.

“All my life people have been telling me, ‘You have to do something with your food,’ but I’ve always shut up without even trying,” Ms. Bido said. “How do you plan to do that?” How will it happen? How will it work?

“I now have a weekly income. I see my profits. And I’m getting feedback. “

She believes that this will help her next goal to move to a commercial kitchen and offer her specialties throughout the country. Asked what she knew about the restrictions on selling dishes she cooks in her kitchen, Ms Bido said she did not know about them. But she said she believes WoodSpoon makes it clear to consumers that the dishes are prepared in home kitchens. She added that the company had inspected her home kitchen as part of the verification process for joining the platform.

WoodSpoon and Shef are expanding rapidly, even when industry rules and regulations are catching up.

In recent months, states have eased restrictions to make it easier for home cooks to sell products online, but the result is a mix of state and local rules, regulations and licensing requirements. Some states allow home cooks to sell only baked goods such as bread, cookies or jellies. Others put a ceiling on the amount of money that home cooks can make. Other countries also require the use of licensed facilities, such as commercial kitchens.

In New York, people can apply to the State Department of Agriculture and Markets for a home-made license that allows them to cook and sell bread, pastries, cookies and certain fruit jams. But home “restaurants” are banned, whether the food is served at home or delivered through an online service, a spokesman for New York’s Department of Health and Mental Health said in an email.

Legislation was introduced last year that will allow individuals to sell hot meals from their own kitchens, but it remains to be seen.

Mr Saar said WoodSpoon, which launched in 2019, can’t wait for the laws to catch up when the pandemic hits. “With Covid and all the people who approached us to work on the platform, all the people we thought we could work with, it wasn’t right to wait to get started,” he said.

He estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the platform’s chefs use licensed commercial kitchens, which means most are not. He said WoodSpoon helped home cooks obtain the necessary permits and licenses, provide safety training and inspect kitchens, but ultimately it is up to the people selling the platform to follow the right rules. A spokesman later added in an email that the company was working to make commercial kitchens accessible to its chefs.

“We are ahead of the regulators, but as long as I keep my customers safe and everything is healthy, there are no problems,” Mr Saar said. “We believe that our home kitchens are safer than all restaurants.”

Asked if WoodSpoon would remove all the chefs he knew were cooking from the kitchens in his homes, Mr Saar said, “That was a good question.” He noted that many WoodSpoon chefs prepare and sell food on social media and competing food platforms, such as Shef.

For example, when Chunyen Huang doesn’t work as an on-line chef at the luxury Eleven Madison Park restaurant, he prepares and sells Taiwanese-style dumplings, pan-fried pork muffins and sticky rice from the kitchen at home through WoodSpoon and Shef. He said he did it largely to introduce customers to traditional Taiwanese food in the hope that they would want to learn more about the country’s history and culture.

When asked about Mr Huang, who sells to Shef, a spokeswoman said any person found not to comply with local laws and regulations would be stopped. The next day, Mr. Huang’s proposals for Chief disappeared.

Mr Huang said he did not understand why he had been removed from the Chief’s platform.

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

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