Why One Startup Is Offering Meals Made By Home Cooks And Middle-Schoolers | KUOW News and Information

Why One Startup Is Offering Meals Made By Home Cooks And Middle-Schoolers

May 19, 2016
Originally published on June 13, 2016 2:50 pm

We're facing a kind of food revolution, and my generation is driving it.

Not so long ago, when fast-food giants reigned supreme, takeout meant cheap, quick, greasy meals. But a recent Goldman Sachs report found that people under 35 are now demanding food that's fresh and healthful — as well as fast.

That's good news for food entrepreneurs like Charley Wang. "We don't want something that everyone and anyone can have," Wang says. "We want something that has soul, that has personalization to it."

Wang is co-founder of Josephine, an Oakland. Calif.-based startup that connects home chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area looking to break into the food marketplace with folks in their neighborhood who are hungry for a good meal.

Customers can go to Josephine's website, choose from an array of home-cooked options, pay online and pick up dinner within minutes of placing their order.

"So it's convenient, says Renee McGhee, 60, who has sold her homemade comfort food on Josephine. "It's like, here's a business in your hand, run with it!"

The company takes 10 percent of cooks' revenue in exchange for access to the online ordering platform, community forum and marketing materials. McGhee's pantry is piled high with paper containers, plastic lids and to-go bags — all provided by Josephine.

Most of the cooks on Josephine, like McGhee, operate out of their home kitchens. But the company's most popular meals come from an unexpected place: a middle-school campus.

Willard Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., is in its second year of partnering with Josephine to make and sell hundreds of meals every month — with some adult supervision. The student-run operation sells about 200 meals on one designated day each month; in the week leading up to that day, you'll see teachers preparing giant piles of vegetables from the school garden to be chopped by 12- and 13-year-olds.

The partnership is a win-win. Josephine gets the kind of community credibility consumers want, while the school gets a cool learning opportunity and a much-needed source of ongoing funding. The scheme has also taught Willard students a lot about the food business.

The first massive meal the students made for Josephine customers definitely didn't go as planned, recalls 13-year-old Willard student Fae Rauber. "We had rice we were making, and it all didn't work," she says. The students weren't used to making rice on that scale and discovered shortly before mealtime that the batch didn't cook properly and was inedible. "So we had to go and buy rice, like half an hour before people started coming."

But despite mishaps, last school year Josephine's partnership brought the school more than $30,000 in revenue and accounted for 25 percent of Josephine's new customers.

Like other companies that are part of the so-called sharing economy, Josephine's business model has put it at odds with industry regulators. Last month, the city of Berkeley's Environmental Health Division sent several Josephine cooks — including McGhee — cease and desist orders for selling meals from their homes without a permit.

"The issue really is about food safety and being able to inspect how food is prepared," said Matthai Chakko, a spokesman for the city of Berkeley. He says it's not safe to buy food made in home kitchens because they aren't inspected and usually don't have the equipment you need to make food safely in mass quantities.

Luckily, the kids at Willard Middle School have access to commercial-grade kitchens that have the necessary permits — so they're still in business. And the company says it is pushing to change California's law regarding who can make and sell food.

"People were happy and pleased to come here and get their meals, and I think that's their right," McGhee says.

But actually delivering on what makes consumers happy is something the on-demand food industry is still figuring out. With pioneers like SpoonRocket, a startup that made and delivered inexpensive meals in about 10 minutes, going out of business, and other companies trying to stir up more regular use of their services by discounting meals and charging monthly membership fees, it seems that entrepreneurs are still working on getting the recipe right.


This story was produced by Youth Radio as part of its series Fast Food Scramble with NPR's Sonari Glinton. Don't forget to check out the map of $5 meals sent in by listeners at YouthRadio.org.

Copyright 2017 Youth Radio. To see more, visit Youth Radio.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Not so long ago when fast food giants reigned supreme, takeout meant cheap, quick and probably greasy meals. Today, a lot of younger consumers say they want a different kind of fast food - fresh, healthy and, if possible, locally sourced. Youth Radio's Natalie Bettendorf takes us to Berkeley, Calif. - where else? - where one startup is betting it can succeed by encouraging aspiring chefs to use their own kitchens to cook for others.

NATALIE BETTENDORF, BYLINE: We're facing a kind of food revolution. And my generation is driving it. A recent Goldman Sachs report says that people under 35 want meals that are fresh, healthy and adventurous, as well as fast. Bad news for your typical burger joint. Good news for food entrepreneur Charley Wang.

CHARLEY WANG: We don't want something that, like, everyone and anyone can have. We want something that has soul, that has, like, personalization to it.

BETTENDORF: Wang is co-founder of a startup called Josephine. You can use the company's website to buy home-cooked meals from your neighbors. No drive-through required. And from the perspective of Josephine's contractors, the chefs, it's a quick entry into what's becoming known as the on-demand meal marketplace. All you need is Internet access and a kitchen. One of those home cooks is Renee McGhee.

On this particular day, in Berkeley, Calif., McGhee is stirring a giant pot of bean soup and scooping thick globs of cornbread batter into oversized muffin tins.

RENEE MCGHEE: You don't want to mix it too much. The lumps will bake out, and it'll be just fine.

BETTENDORF: Cooks for josephine.com hand over 10 percent of their revenue to the company in exchange for the use of their online ordering platform and marketing materials.

MCGHEE: It's like, here's a business in your hand. Run with it.

BETTENDORF: It's kind of like Uber, McGhee says, but with kitchens instead of cars. And like Uber, josephine.com is bringing some surprising players into the market.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This week is meal week. We're going to cook for close to 200.

BETTENDORF: A few miles away at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, you'll see teachers prepping giant piles of vegetables from the school garden to be chopped by 12 and 13-year-olds. The school is in its second year of partnering with josephine.com to make and sell hundreds of meals every month, with some adult supervision.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Maybe you should cut this in half again because these are really gigantic.

BETTENDORF: The partnership's a win-win. Josephine gets the kind of community credibility consumers wants. The school gets a cool learning opportunity and a much-needed source of ongoing funding. There are plenty of hurdles. Thirteen-year-old Willard student Fae Rauber remembers their first massive meal attempt for josephine.com.

FAE RAUBER: We had rice that we were making, and it all didn't work. And so we had to go buy rice, like a half an hour before people started coming.

BETTENDORF: Despite mishaps like the rice incident, last school year, Josephine's partnership brought the school more than $30,000 in revenue and accounted for 25 percent of Josephine's new customers. But like other companies that are a part of the so-called sharing economy, Josephine's business model has put it at odds with industry regulators.

MATTHAI CHAKKO: The issue, really, is about food safety and being able to inspect how food is prepared.

BETTENDORF: That's Matthai Chakko, a spokesperson for the city of Berkeley. He says it's not safe to buy food made in home kitchens because they aren't inspected and usually don't have the equipment you need to make food safely in mass quantities. Last month, the city's health department sent several Josephine cooks cease and desist orders for selling meals from their homes without a permit. The orders have halted business for many of the company's sellers, including Renee McGhee.

MCGHEE: You realize right away I'd, you know, broken the law. While you're doing it, it didn't feel like that. It feels like I'm doing what I love. And people were happy and pleased to come here and get their meals. And I think that's their right.

BETTENDORF: But actually delivering on what makes consumers happy, well, it's something the whole on-demand food industry is still figuring out. With pioneers like SpoonRocket closing and other companies turning to monthly membership fees, it seems that businesses are still working on getting the recipe right. For now, Josephine is still up and running. Some of their chefs, like the kids at Willard Middle School, have access to commercial-grade kitchens that have the necessary permits.

And, the company says, it's pushing to change California's law around who can make and sell food. For NPR News, I'm Natalie Bettendorf.

SHAPIRO: That story was produced by Youth Radio and is part of our series on the future of fast food. Don't forget to take a look at our map of great meals for $5 sent in by listeners. It's at youthradio.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.