A Recipe for Success: Blending Cuisines and Cultures, Shef.com Re-envisions Home-cooked Food Business
Indian cuisine is the most successful cuisine on Shef, an online platform that helps people, especially immigrants and refugees, start a home-based food business. San Francisco Bay Area, Calif.,-based Anu was one of the first cooks to join the company
By REENA RATHORE
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Before COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the U.S. in 2020, business was just picking up for Indian American chef Wayne, who was operating a food cart in downtown San Francisco to feed the office lunch crowd. As the pandemic wore on and officials announced shutdown measures, Wayne realized it was time to pivot in a different direction as he had exhausted all his savings and needed not only to pay off the debt accrued but also find a steady source of income.
So, he decided to try out Shef, an online platform for local, homemade food. To put it mildly, he became an instant hit with customers, earning an average of $270K a year. Wayne is now among hundreds of food-safety certified cooks on the platform – 77 percent of whom are women and 71 percent people of color – and are making and selling food from their kitchens, sharing their family recipes, and creating a culinary experience.
“Shef was a true economic lifeline for me…I was tens of thousands of dollars in debt with nowhere to turn – until I found Shef,” Wayne, who specializes in North Indian and Indian fusion cuisine, told India-West. “Shef has helped me reach more customers than I could have ever dreamed of. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me.”
Success stories are abundant on Shef.
Indian American chef Supriya, who was among the first five chefs to join the company, was making $2,000 a day at a certain point which helped her offset childcare costs. Another Indian American chef Anu saw Shef as an opportunity to rebuild and restart her business and joined early on.
Anu, who has served more than 30,000 dishes on the platform, told India-West: “My restaurant was doing very well but during the economic downturn in 2008, we lost everything and had to start from scratch. Then when the pandemic hit, my husband lost his job as well. That’s when we got introduced to Shef … I absolutely love being able to give my customers a true taste of home.”
In an interview with India-West, Alvin Salehi, Shef’s co-founder, summed up the entire experience as “fulfilling.”
“When you hear stories like that it is so incredibly meaningful that you want to do everything you can to help replicate that result for millions of people around the world one day because it truly can be life-changing for some people,” he said. “It’s not just food; it’s what food represents… we often say that food is culture you can taste and through food you really get to know somebody and there are so many cultures that people need to know about.”
Having access to global cuisine and unique regional dishes has never been easier because Shef features cooks from more than 80 countries. From Indian, Southeast Asian, and Latin American to Mediterranean, Caribbean, Japanese and Korean, food from every country is literally at your fingertips; all you need to do is type in your zip code and it shows you the creations of your neighborhood cooks. Customers need to place their orders in advance to give chefs time to source the ingredients and prepare the meals. Along with their delicacies and ingredient list, chefs also share their personal stories.
Since launching in the San Francisco Bay Area in January 2019, Shef has now expanded to ten states plus Washington, D.C, and, to date, the company has served nearly 2.5 million meals – a testimony to its popularity.
Other than being able to follow their passion and raise their income levels, the upside for these chefs is the flexibility to set their own hours/prices and craft their own menus sans the hefty investment that comes with owning an eatery. The company assists by providing pricing, marketing, and photography help. So, for a myriad of reasons, this is definitely a dream come true for many “Shefs,” but, Salehi remarked, Shef also marks the fruition of a long-cherished dream of its founders.
Co-founders, Salehi and Joey Grassia – an early Facebook employee who built and sold two consumer food companies – were both raised by immigrant parents and saw firsthand how difficult navigating a new country and culture is. So taking a people-centric approach and building an inclusive business model was something they had always envisioned for the platform.
“The main reason we started Shef was because we wanted to help people like our parents who were immigrants to the U.S. to be able to have an easier time supporting their families as they transition to this country,” said Salehi, whose parents immigrated from Iran in the ‘70s. “They came here with barely anything in their pockets, no English language skills but they had a lot of hope for the future, for their children.”
Living in a Buena Park motel which his family owned was difficult at times but it gave him an opportunity to see how his parents powered through to start afresh in a new environment, Salehi admitted. But amidst all the struggles, his mom’s “incredible” homecooked Persian stew, Basmati rice and Persian bread was the food of comfort for his family.
“It is only now that I realize that it was never about the food; it was my mom’s opportunity to express to us that we were safe, we were loved and that everything was going to be ok,” Salehi told India-West. “And that’s the power of a homemade meal. It’s what it represents; there is so much culture, heritage, love and care and hard work that goes into preparing every aspect of that meal.”
Another experience that sparked this idea for Salehi was a visit to the Syrian border while he was working as a senior technology advisor under President Obama. “It was a very heartbreaking experience. Some of the kids I met looked almost identical to my little brother at that time,” said the tech entrepreneur who also co-founded code.gov.
Upon his return, he met up with immigrants and refugees to see how he could help and the common concern, he recalled, was one spouse working two jobs to put food on the table and the other taking care of the kids because they couldn’t afford daycare.
“‘I wish there was something we could do to help,’ they said. And I heard the same stories over and over,” Salehi said.
The biggest driving force for them, he noted, is the belief that the best food in the world isn’t necessarily being made at a restaurant; it’s being made at a house right down the street from you, saying “the issue is that most of the time you are not able to share that food. If you could it would be an incredible moment.”
Salehi said that opening up a restaurant is too cost prohibitive – the average price in the U.S. is around $300,000 – and operating it is challenging which is why statistically most restaurants fail in their first year of operation.
His parents, too, had to shutter their restaurant and as kid he wished he could do something. Looking back, he now realizes that the cards were stacked against them as this industry is the hardest industry to succeed in even for the most seasoned entrepreneurs, he continued.
“Shef,” a blend of “she” and “chef,” is an homage to all mothers and parents like theirs, he said.
“If Shef had existed back then, it would’ve changed everything for our family. So our hope is that it is changing everything for families that are our trying to do the same thing like my parents decades ago,” he told India-West.
India’s Dabbawala Service was also a huge source of inspiration in the early stages of development, Salehi told India-West and added that they wanted to start with Indian food because “the Indian community expressed a desire and the need for this.”
Indian cuisine is still, to date, the most successful cuisine on Shef, spanning over a dozen sub-regional specialties, he said. Calling Indian dal a classic, Salehi shared that he is now a fan of Maharashtrian food, with Pav Bhaji being his favorite.
“I already loved Indian food before Shef but I absolutely fell in love with Indian food after starting Shef because I realized that a lot of the Indian food I was having was at restaurants and that was not the authentic Indian food that folks want,” Salehi said.
Underscoring the importance of taste, Salehi noted that a culinary degree does not necessarily guarantee flavorful food.
“Some of the best chefs in the world have been making their grandmother’s recipe passed down generations for decades and decades in their home kitchens,” he said.
Joining the platform is a very straightforward process but food safety and taste are of paramount importance. All cooks are required to pass an accredited food safety certification exam and undergo a food quality assessment.
More than 40,000 people have applied to cook on the platform on which many make around $1,000 per week, per the company. Shef takes a 15 percent transaction fee for every order plus a 10 percent fee for delivery. Shefs receive 100 percent of the tips.
Salehi said that it was a privilege to be able to offer a lifeline to people especially during the pandemic. “…we had individuals like line cooks who were making $12-$14 an hour come and start cooking on Shef and some of them were making $40-$60 an hour…they were able to be their own boss.”
Salehi defines success by the number of families impacted by Shef.
“If we are fortunate enough to continue providing this opportunity to as many people as possible, we’d love to one day see Shef globally and really be able to live in a world where Shef has redefined how food is shared across the world,’ Salehi told India-West.