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

Several days a week, Juliet Achan wanders the kitchen of her apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, stirring dishes from her Suriname background: fragrant batches of goat curry, original vegetable soup, and chicken chow mein.

He packages the food, and they are picked up for delivery to customers who order through an app called WoodSpoon.

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

In New York State, however, there are no permits or licenses that allow individuals to sell hot food cooked in their home kitchen. And Woodspun, a three-year-old start-up that knows about 300 chefs are making meals on its platform and has raised millions of dollars from investors, including Burger King’s parent company.

“It’s not legal,” said Oren Sarr, a founder and chief executive of Woodspun, which facilitated interviews with Mrs. Achan and other chefs. “If anyone is on our platform and they sell food cooked in their own kitchen, it is against our platform policy. But, to be completely honest, we think these rules are outdated. “

Ms Achan said she was aware from her own research that chefs were not allowed to sell their home-cooked food, but she said she continued to do so. “Meals need to be prepared in a clean kitchen, and it needs to be done properly,” he said. “I’ve been cooking for my family for years, and that’s how I prepare food for my customers.”

Woodspun is part of the changes taking place in the food industry. Driven by the epidemic, companies and investors are throwing billions of dollars into betting on what consumers will eat, where and how in the coming years.

There is a lot of investment in plant-based food start-ups in bets that people will eat less meat. Fast-food giants are spending millions of dollars to add drive-through lanes to serve the growing grab-and-go nation. More than 1,500 haunted kitchens have been built across the country and Wendy’s has jumped on the bandwagon with plans to open 700 delivery-only restaurants. Millions of dollars are being pumped into snack bars, chips and beverage companies in the belief that consumers want extra nutrition or health benefits from their afternoon grazing. And start-ups like Woodspun and Chef have emerged, pushing an underground industry to sell food to friends and family through the app. They aim to reach those who have developed food fatigue during the epidemic, tired of trying to find a new, innovative way to cook a chicken, or trying to hit the radial for their favorite takeout joint. Most of these apps say they expect chefs to follow all state and local laws or remove the risk from the platform.

“What we’re seeing is the loss of cooking,” said Melanie Bartelme, a global food analyst at Mintel, a market research firm. At the same time, Miss Bartelme said, families will find food easy and effortless.

Companies are positioning themselves as part of the new gig economy, a way for people to make a little or a lot of money by making meals, working the most appropriate days and hours with their schedule.

Alvin Salehi, a senior technology adviser during the Obama administration and one of the founders of Chef, says selling food online presents an opportunity for women who have struggled to work outside the home because of limited child care options or for refugees and recent immigrants. 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 Bido uses Woodspun to sell classic Puerto Rican dishes like mofango, bacalitos and sancocho, using recipes she learned from her grandmother.

“Throughout my life, people have told me, ‘You have to do something with your food,’ but I always try to shut myself down,” said Mrs. Bido. “How are you going to do that? How is it going to happen? How is it going to work?”

“Now I have a weekly income. I can see my earnings. And I’m getting reviews. “

He believes that this will help him in his next goal of moving to a commercial kitchen and offering its specialties across the country. When asked what she knew about the restrictions on selling food cooked in her kitchen, Mrs. Bido said she was not aware of them. But he said he believes Woodspun has made it clear to consumers that the dishes were prepared in the home kitchen. He added that the company has visited his home kitchen as part of the verification process for joining his platform.

WoodSpoon and Shef are expanding rapidly, even playing catch-up with the rules and regulations around the industry.

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

In New York, individuals can apply for a Home Processing License at the State Department of Agriculture and Market, which allows them to cook and sell bread, cakes, cookies and certain fruit jams. But whether home-based “restaurants” are banned, whether the food is served at home or provided through an online service, a New York City Department of Health and Mental Health spokesman said in an email.

The law was introduced last year that would allow individuals to sell hot food from their own kitchens, but it is still pending.

Mr Sour said Woodspun, which began in 2019, could not wait to catch the law when the epidemic hit. “It was not right for us to wait for the launch, with Covid and all those who were contacting us to work on the platform, with whom we thought we could work,” he said.

He estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the platform’s chefs are using licensed commercial kitchens, which doesn’t mean much. He said Woodspun helped home chefs get proper permits and licenses, provided safety training and inspected kitchens, but ultimately the people sold on the platform have a responsibility to follow proper rules. A spokesman later added in an email that the company was working to provide commercial kitchens for its chefs.

“We are ahead of the regulators, but as long as I keep my customers safe and everything is healthy, there is no problem,” Mr Sarr said. “We believe our home kitchen is safer than any restaurant.”

Asked if Woodspun would remove a chef who was cooking from their home kitchen, Mr Sar muttered, “That was a good question.” He noted that many of Woodspun’s chefs, like chefs, create and sell food on social media and competing food platforms.

For example, when Chunyen Huang is not working as a line cook at the high-end restaurant Eleven Madison Park, he sells Taiwanese-style dumplings, pan-grilled pork buns and sticky rice from his home kitchen through both Woodspun and Chef. He said he did it mainly to introduce customers to traditional Taiwanese food in the hope that they would learn more about the country’s history and culture.

When Mr Huang was asked about the sale to the chef, a spokesman said anyone who did not comply with local laws and regulations would be suspended. The next day, Mr. Huang’s offers on the chef disappeared.

Mr Huang said it was not clear to him why he had been removed from the chef’s platform.

He is still selling food at Woodspun. He added that he hopes to be cooking in a commercial kitchen in the next few weeks.

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