When the pandemic broke out, Newark’s single mom Shereen Aly needed a Plan B.
She started cooking food from her native Egypt – chicken doner kebab, masri koshari, fattoush salad – and selling it through Shef.com, an online marketplace for home cooks.
“I’ve been blessed to be here ever since,” she said. “I am able to be with my daughter and do something that I enjoy.”
Aly is one of the many people who sell her culinary creations on Shef.com. Many come from overseas; Their profiles discuss their love for cooking and connections with their roots.
The San Francisco-based company, whose merchandise is available in parts of the Bay Area, New York and, more recently, Seattle, said it served more than 400,000 meals in two years of operation.
The co-founders of Shef, both sons of immigrants who witnessed their own parents’ struggles to forge a new life, see the company’s mission as a social one, helped by the widespread pandemic unemployment among restaurant workers and others who Need income opportunities becomes even more urgent.
“When we started the company, our focus was on helping immigrants and refugees access significant economic opportunities from home,” said Co-CEO Alvin Salehi, a former technology advisor in the Obama administration. “We’ve heard the same stories over and over again: ‘My spouse works two jobs, I wish I could contribute to the household income, but I can’t afford to pay for daycare.'”
Shef’s name, a mashup of “she” and “cook,” pays homage to the co-founder’s mothers and the company’s demographics. It is said that 83% of cooks are women, 77% women in color and 92% people in color.
But Shef is facing a major roadblock.
“We found this to be illegal in most places in the US, which is why it hasn’t,” said co-CEO Joey Grassia, whose first food company, Kutoa, was inspired by the energy bars he made for himself in college had made.
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California was the first state to legalize the sale of homemade meals with the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations or MEHKO laws passed in 2018 and 2019. However, each county must develop its own program, including annual inspections. In the face of pandemic issues, most health departments lack the bandwidth. So far, only Riverside County has fully implemented this – although some counties in the Bay Area are now preparing for it.
The co-founders spend a lot of time lobbying to legalize their startup.
“We want to work with lawmakers across the country to come up with well-formed legislation to accelerate and accelerate the adoption of home-style meals with a view to post-pandemic recovery,” Salehi said.
Meanwhile, they say they are following the rules by requiring their Bay Area chefs to use commercial kitchens in place of their homes.
Now, Alameda County and the city of Berkeley, which has its own health department, are well on their way to getting home cook permits by spring.
“We think this is a good idea,” said Alameda supervisor Wilma Chan, who sponsored the legislation. “People do it informally; It would be much better to legalize it and have rules. “The county has closed some informal grocery vendors in the past few months.
Chan said she hopes some home cooks will eventually start their own pop-up restaurants to boost the local food economy.
San Mateo County passed a resolution to support household kitchens in 2019 but was held up by the implementation of the inspection process.
“If we had the resources, I would do it now,” said David Canepa, president of the board of directors who jointly sponsored it with regulator Don Horsley. “It’s more important than ever because of the economy.”
Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle
After hearing that Alameda and Berkeley are considering video inspections, he said he was encouraged by the idea of a cheaper way to conduct inspections.
Solano County also voted to legalize home cooks in 2019, but has not implemented its system.
Some shef cooks said they couldn’t wait to get permission to use their own kitchens.
California passed AB626 and AB377 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, so people can apply for permission to sell homemade meals. However, Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MEHKO) permits are not available nationwide.
How does it work? Each county must set up an approval process that includes annual inspections. So far, only Riverside County has a full program. Alameda County and Berkeley (which have their own health department) are expected to have approval processes in place in the spring. Solano and San Mateo counties had started legalizing household kitchens but the pandemic stopped them.
How much can be sold? Home restaurants have gross sales of $ 50,000 per year, 30 meals per day, and 60 meals per week.
Is there any training? Home cooks and their assistants must complete an 8-hour course in food protection and pass an exam.
Any other logistics? The home cook can hire a staff member and get help from household members. Helpers must be certified as a grocer. Third-party delivery services are not permitted. The food can be eaten at the chef’s home, picked up to take away or delivered by chefs and their helpers.
Are there any foods that are not covered by the MEHKO regulations? A separate California law governs the operation of Cottage Food and allows 34 types of homemade foods to be sold, including baked goods, candy, dried fruit, dry noodles, vegetable and potato chips, vegetable soup mix, and other items.
Source: Cook Alliance
“It sucks that Alameda County doesn’t allow home cooking,” said Beena Hasan, who commutes from her home in Pleasanton to commercial kitchens in San Jose or San Francisco to prepare food from her home in Pakistan. “That dampened a lot of things.”
Even so, she loves to make the recipes that she has collected from relatives over the years.
“What I would cook for my family at home is the type of food I cook for my customers,” she said. “I use organic as much as possible, mill my own spices, don’t use anything in boxes.”
Matt Jorgenson co-founded Josephine, a home cook marketplace similar to Shef. It was closed in early 2018 after about two years for legal reasons. He and his co-founders now work on the Cook Alliance, a nonprofit that has guidelines for legalizing home cooking.
He sees Shef “as part of the energy to make this widely known and accepted” but has some concerns that it is a venture-backed startup. Shef raised $ 8.8 million last summer.
“Any company that tries to do this with the best of intentions but raises millions of venture capital puts it in a ‘unicorn or broke’ mentality,” he said. “The pressure to get it working at the risk of chefs with direct liability will always be there.”
Shef’s co-founders said they had decided to raise funds to bring the company to as many people as possible in order to alleviate the financial troubles of the pandemic.
“We will not compromise the safety of chefs or customers as we grow,” said Salehi. “Our investors are focused on a mission.”
The company is cutting chefs’ income by 15%, but for now also charging them the cost of DoorDash deliveries. When counties legalize home kitchens, external delivery services are not allowed. As a result, chefs need to offer pickup, make their own deliveries, or allow food on-site.
Chef Mark Seiden, a longtime computer security consultant and self-described “old chowhound,” said he appreciated the opportunity to eat local Indian specialties that are not normally served in restaurants. For example, a shef cook from the Indian state of Kerala uses matta rice, a native variety grown there, he said.
Shef Food “is like what you would cook for your families at home,” he said. “The taste is authentic.”
He also found it to be good value for money, especially when taking advantage of the companies’ promotional offers.
“It’s like $ 20 for a combination of dishes that will give me dinner and a couple of lunches,” he said.
The downside: “It’s not an impulse buy,” he said. “You have to order two days in advance.”
After a decade as a home mom, Hasan said she found it “liberating and empowering” to put her culinary legacy into practice.
“There are people out there who can really benefit from the extra income,” she said. “Thank goodness my husband still has his job, but if we were in a different situation it would be a lifesaver.”
Carolyn Said is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @csaid