A new food-delivery startup connects home cooks with hungry customers.
One day a week—Thursday—Shalini Singh transforms her home kitchen into a kind of professional staging area, turning out 16 to 18 meals that will be delivered to customers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Singh cooks for Umi Kitchen, a food startup that launched earlier this year with the goal of connecting enterprising home cooks to hungry, takeout-weary customers. The basic deal is this: consumers order dinner through the Umi app by 2 PM on a given day; the cooks receive the orders and prepare the meals; Umi coordinates delivery, provides packaging, and takes a cut of the proceeds. If you've read about it, you may have seen Umi described as "Seamless for home-cooked meals," "Etsy for food," "Airbnb for takeout," or some related such comparison for the gig-economy age.
Singh lives in a capacious condo building nestled along Brooklyn Bridge Park, and her wide windows look out over Lower Manhattan. She used to work in corporate America, including for American Express: "You know the junk mail you used to get? I was in that group," she says. But she quit after her children were born, and took up cooking again—she'd learned at her mother's side growing up in Kolkata, India. There was no good Indian food in her neighborhood, she said. One of her friends suggested Singh start delivering food to other residents of the building, and soon she was doing a brisk business: one week she cooked for 75 people. "It got very intense," she says. "I had to stop because there was no way I could do it. Cooking it, packing it, delivering it—it was insane."
Earlier this year she heard about Umi Kitchen. The process for a cook to get hooked up with Umi involves a little rigmarole—as one would hope, given the baked-in intimacy and potential for food-safety problems when transferring meals from one home to another. There is an application, an interview, menu tastings, safety certifications. Currently the startup is fielding more than 650 applications from wannabe Umi cooks representing an array of cuisines, with 70 people already integrated into the system. Where I live in Brooklyn, for instance, the daily dinner options range from soul food to Burmese to Korean to French-Caribbean.
When I visited Singh one morning in October, she had just made poha—an unfussy Indian breakfast of flattened rice with spices and vegetables, which she served with Indian pickles. This was off-menu, just a casual breakfast; for Umi, Singh alternates her menus week by week between vegetarian and nonvegetarian options: chana masala, shrimp malai curry, dal. Singh's family is from the state of Punjab, in North India, though Kolkata is in West Bengal; her cooking combines these regional influences. The week we met her plan was to make dal makhani, a "very Punjabi" dish involving black lentils stewed for 12 to 14 hours. She gets a babysitter on Thursdays to watch her kids while she prepares that night's dinner.
Though it's new to New York, the roots of Umi go back a ways, says Khalil Tawil, one of the company's co-founders. The name of the business is Arabic for "my mother," and refers specifically to Tawil's mother, who immigrated from Lebanon to Missoula, Montana, in 1976, at age 16. In Missoula, Tawil's mother took up cooking to support herself, selling Lebanese food—particularly, a Lebanese bread—at the local farmers' market. When Tawil entered the army, his mother would vacuum-seal her food to send to him—a taste of home as he served three deployments in Afghanistan. Later, at Yale Law School, he grew lonesome for home-cooked meals. "I was eating fast food every single night," he says. "Like coming home from school and seeing people cooking in their houses, or smelling my neighbor's cooking and wondering, why can't I have a home-cooked meal?"
He tried an experiment, posting an ad on Craigslist in search of a meal and receiving, he says, "like 17 nontrivial responses in 48 hours." Tawil thought he was on to something. He and Hallie Meyer, a friend from Yale, decided to do a test run of a sort of home-cooking delivery service in New Haven. "We flew my mom out," Tawil says. "She cooked 80 meals in four days in my studio apartment. We delivered the meals ourselves in my Toyota Matrix, and then grew from there." They continued to hone the model, eventually growing to include 14 New Haven kitchens that produced and sold food. Earlier this year Tawil and Meyer moved Umi to New York, where they added a third partner—Derek Gottfrid, formerly a VP at Tumblr—and raised funding (including from Meyer's father, the New York restaurant impresario Danny Meyer). Currently the Umi delivery zone comprises a swath of Brooklyn from Red Hook to Greenpoint, and more recently the app launched in parts of Manhattan too.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, a startup called Josephine (named, too, after somebody's mother) has attempted a similar venture, but has run into trouble with local health officials, who found themselves reluctant to blur the line between home and professional kitchens. The Umi founders say they've run into no such roadblocks in New York: "We think we're doing things within regulatory bounds," Tawil says.
A similarity between the two businesses, though, is in the kinds of people who have end up cooking for them. As Fast Company reported about Josephine earlier this year, its cooks tended to be "women, mothers, immigrants, and people of color." Tawil says that Umi's experience tracks with that—the barriers to entry of selling food from your own home are clearly much lower than, say, having to rent space in a shared professional kitchen, let alone geting one of your own. "I think we're disproportionately empowering traditionally underempowered communities of people," he says.
But, he adds, Umi doesn't suggest to its potential cooks that the service is "another job" that can by itself be sustaining. "It's more, hey, this can supplement what you're already doing," Tawil says.
Still, it's possible to make some money from Umi. Another cook I talked to, Ai Akarach, prepares Thai food from her tiny apartment kitchen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Akarach's parents were avid cooks in Thailand, where she grew up, and her Umi menus rely on old favorites: red curry, lemongrass chicken. "Those are two dishes that I like to make because those are from my childhood memories," she says. "I have a super-vivid memory of cooking with my parents." She doesn't have formal training as a cook but said that she's enlarged her ambitions—and her confidence—over the time she's cooked for Umi, scaling up little by little as she grew comfortable making larger batches.
Now she cooks three days a week, making 15 or so meals that she charges $16 apiece for. (Umi's set price levels are $12, $14, and $16.) After Umi's cut, Akarach takes home 80 percent of what she pulls in, which all works out to somewhere north of $500 a week before taxes. (Umi's cooks would file as independent contractors.)
Akarach took a wandering path here: she's been an au pair, worked in magazine marketing, had jobs in HR. She went to fashion school but couldn't make that work in New York. Finally, she says, "I was like, what do I do? What do I love doing? It's something I do every day: I just cook." Right now she babysits, too, but plans to trim down her babysitting work as she ramps up her cooking for Umi. "I want to focus on this path," she says. "I have to decide. Cooking is something that I like doing more."
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