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Is this Oakland startup an Etsy for home-cooked food?

on March 22, 2016

At a sunny kitchen in North Berkeley, Uli Elser has spent the afternoon cooking his family’s German pretzel recipes. His front door is open. For two hours that evening, neighbors will come to his house to pick up their orders: pretzel brats, salted caramel pretzels, pretzels with Asiago cheese. A sign outside reads, “Uli’s Pretzel Palooza, via Josephine.”

Josephine is an Oakland-based food startup that launched in late 2014. It works as a platform for home cooks to make money selling their edible products to their communities. Josephine connects hungry patrons to these cooks through its website, listing the people offering home-cooked meals for pickup almost nightly in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Emeryville and—very recently—San Francisco. Cooks like Elser participate by listing on Josephine’s website a menu of what they plan to make, and when people can stop by their homes to pick up the food.

“I see some people in their 50s and 60s just wanting to try something different; I see younger people coming home from work; some people have their kids pick up,” said Elser, describing who typically comes to pick up his food. “Sometimes it’s couples that work full-time. So it kind of varies.”

While Josephine is a tech startup new to the East Bay, co-founder Charley Wang said that its missions—labor justice, food justice and tech equity—are contrary to those often found in the startup scene. Its purpose is to serve as a marketplace for community members to make money from cooking, something they’re doing already to feed their families.

“The proposition that you can cook on your own terms, have creative license over what you cook, have direct one-to-one relationships with who buys your food and make money off what you’re cooking, is overwhelming,” said Wang—and he means this in a good way.

Anyone can become a Josephine cook, but you must pass a taste test and kitchen inspection performed by Josephine’s staff, to ensure the product is sellable and the area in which it’s created is safe and clean.

Wang cringes when people say his food startup is like “an Uber for food.” Uber is a taxi service that hires drivers that use their own cars to pick up customers who request rides via a mobile app. The multi-billion dollar company has gotten flack for not providing its employees full benefits, advertising that its employees earn more than is realistic after paying for their cars and insurances, and disregarding local taxi-service guidelines in the cities in which it operates. (In 2015, East Bay taxi drivers filed a class action suit against the company alleging unfair competition in violation of the state’s business codes.) Uber’s announcement that it’s soon opening up shop in downtown Oakland was not entirely well-received by longtime Oakland residents.

“I get it,” Wang said, referring to the comparison with Uber. But he said there’s a difference between Josephine and big tech companies like Uber, Lyft and Postmates, a courier delivery service, which he said are labor marketplaces. “The biggest difference between those companies and ours are who we see our customers as,” he said. “If you see the person taking the ride, or getting the delivery, as your customer, you’re going to serve that customer first and foremost,” meaning employees come second.

Wang said the desire to offer the cheapest ride or cheapest delivery to customers will come at employees’ expense. “The end goal isn’t to have the driver make as much money as possible. Eventually you’ll make less and less overtime, and eventually be replaced by the best option, ultimately driverless cars,” he said.

Wang credited this week’s closure of SpoonRocket, a Berkeley-based food delivery service offering discounted food items from restaurants, on an eagerness to cut costs. (On its website, SpoonRocket company representatives wrote that the closure was due to “intense competition from competitors like Sprig and an ever tightening funding environment.”)

Wang said the way Josephine works is more like Etsy and Kickstarter, companies that view art creators or entrepreneurs as their customers. Etsy is a site helping independent artists and makers sell their products worldwide; Kickstarter similarly helps independent entrepreneurs raise money for their projects. Through Josephine, local cooks are connected to a market to sell what they make. They are treated as freelancers: Josephine takes care of the sales online as people place orders on their site, the company takes a small percentage of the sales price, said Elser, and pays the rest to the cook. Cooks list how many servings they’ll make each night to regulate purchasing; then people place their orders and show up to the cook’s home to pick up their meal.

Josephine is named after the mother of one of Wang’s friends. After he and co-founder Tal Safran moved to Los Angeles for their day jobs at the time, she cooked for them and nurtured them. “She mothered us; she fed us and she scolded us. She gave us footing for finding a way in a new city,” Wang said. It was under Josephine’s roof that Wang and Safran met and began a conversation about leaving their jobs to create a company based on the value of home-cooked meals as a means of comfort and connection among people.

After eight months of research that included cooking with local chefs they met off Craigslist and with well-respected local chefs like Alice Waters and Mark Bittman, knocking on neighbors’ doors to inquire about beliefs in home cooking, delivering food, and hosting supper clubs, the two felt like they had a clear purpose for their company, Wang said. They had been on the hunt for answers about the future of home cooking: “Is home cooking going to be edged out or erased by ultra-commoditized, ultra-convenient food options?” he asked.

But Wang and Safran knew the answer they wanted. “It wasn’t about ‘How do we feed people better or healthier?’ or whatever superlative it is,” he continued. “The more interesting question was, ‘How do we create a place for humans who enjoy cooking and want to cook to make money doing so?’”

Their goal coalesced into creating a platform to help people not typically involved in the food industry run micro-businesses out of their homes. “There are so many people in our country who, because they aren’t super wealthy, have to cook, and they’re practiced cooks. They have created a culture around cooking and yet are unable to use those skills as a lever of economic development,” said Wang. Josephine’s mission is rooted in how to help those people “reclaim cooking as a way to make money and as a way to raise their families,” said Wang.

According to Wang, 40 percent of Josephine’s cooks are immigrants, 95 percent are women and 30 percent are people of color. He and his staff have unconventional ways of finding cooks, he said: They go to PTA, community, neighborhood watch and church group meetings for recruitment. They set their sights on families in suburban areas who have good social networks. The people who are most successful with Josephine have been residents in their respective areas for a long time, Wang said.

“If we go into a community and we find people who are already pillars of that community and we empower them to have a broader reach and have broader impact, then the people within those communities will intrinsically understand the value of home cooking and human relationships,” Wang said.

He also said that he doesn’t want the service’s technological aspect to be a barrier or to perpetuate inequality. “We have a woman we actually taught how to cut-and-paste, and who could not open her email before she met us, but who knows everyone in her four-block radius,” Wang said. A person’s reputation as a neighborhood cook and baker is more important than how tech savvy they are, Wang said—even when that woman puts up a totally misspelled pickup event on Josephine’s site, everyone still shows up to buy her food.

Elser became a Josephine cook because he’s been seeking ways to turn his love for cooking and his culture into more than a hobby, while keeping his music production job. Elser has held an Oktoberfest party on his street for many years, so he’s used to cooking in bulk. He has thought about opening up a beer garden and has taught pretzel-making classes out of his home. “Cooking was a hobby I’ve had; now I find myself doing it more. Doing this, I can try out new ideas,” Elser said.

A woman walks from the house next door into Elser’s home and carries out a tray full of salted caramel pretzels. She comes back a few minutes later to deliver the tray, emptied. Elser said he’s met many new neighbors through Josephine. “There are a lot of people who cook their families’ recipes. They came from different countries and there’s always a story behind it,” Elser said.

It was a slower night for Elser’s pretzel sales. Nine patrons brought his earnings to somewhere between $200 and $250. Elser said the most servings he’s sold in one night is 40.

Wang said that Josephine’s most active cook has been cooking four times a week, making $1,500 each week.

Josephine currently has hundreds of applications for cooks, which Wang thinks is due to strong word of mouth. That’s more than Josephine’s small behind-the-scenes staff can get to at the moment, but their team and their cook-force are expanding. Wang said he’d like to see Josephine grow worldwide eventually. But he and his team want to make sure business is solid here before expanding to other U.S. cities.

Josephine also offers partnerships with schools and non-profits. After Willard Middle School, a public school in Berkeley with mostly lower-income students, lost government subsidized funding for a gardening and cooking elective called Growing Leaders, Josephine took over the subsidy. “We’re teaching them with our tools,” Wang said. In an agriculture class, the kids learn to grow food. In a cooking class, they make food from what they grow, and in a business class they learn to sell it—and they actually do. “A big chunk of the program’s operating budget comes from that,” said Wang.

“We’ve done something similar with a community garden in West Oakland,” said Wang. Josephine helped turn what Wang calls their “unprofessionally-run” café into an establishment that now hosts dinners and can turn a profit and be more present in the community because of that.

Even with his eyes on expansion, Wang said he intends to keep the goal of his company on promoting and connecting cooks within their communities. “If we do our jobs right, Josephine is invisible,” Wang said. “No one talks about Josephine having good food—they talk about Uli or Renee or Wanda having good food.”


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