Maryam Boddie, owner of a catering business in Manhattan, was at her wits’ end when COVID forced her to close her enterprise and lose the only income for her family of nine. Then she discovered Shef.com, an online platform where cooks sell homemade food to local communities. Boddie has a steady income now and is back on her feet.
Shef.com was founded by Joey Grassia and Alvin Salehi to help cooks, especially immigrants, earn money from home. The business, which began in January 2019, became a lifeline for many out of work cooks during the pandemic. Eighty-five percent of its members identify as people of color; 81 percent are women. There are currently 12,000 cooks waiting to be trained to sell on the site. On June 2, Shef announced that it had raised $20 million to hire more people to train the cooks. Investors include celebrities Orlando Bloom, Katy Perry, and Padma Lakshmi. The site operates in the Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Houston, Boston, and New York.
In places where cooks can legally sell meals prepared in their homes, chefs use their own kitchens, which are inspected by the local health departments. When it’s not possible to use home kitchens, cooks work out of commercial kitchens that Shef has partnered with across the country.
Cooks undergo online training and have to pass an accredited food safety certification exam and food quality assessment before being brought on board, all of which takes up to four weeks. Applicants also prepare dishes that are tasted and approved by “power users” — the company’s name for customers who order frequently. The cooks get help photographing their dishes, deciding on menus, writing up descriptions, listing ingredients, and pricing the food. They’re provided with label printers, gloves, hairnets, thermometers, and masks.
Most Shef cooks sell their traditional food, dishes that are not typically on restaurant menus. Sindhu Selvaraj, 29, a Boston-area chef, cooks specialties from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu where she is from. She routinely calls her mother and sister back home for recipes. A civil engineer, Selvaraj wants to open a restaurant someday and thinks Shef is good training. When she is cooking, her husband takes care of their two young sons.
Cooks drop off food at local hubs, and from there it is brought to customers by delivery companies. The food arrives in snazzy red coolers with the logo, “There’s No Taste Like Home.” Inside, two frozen water bottles that serve as ice packs keep the containers of food cold.
Grassia, 34, and Salehi, 30, are children of immigrants and, growing up, saw their parents struggle to make ends meet. Shef is a culmination of their personal experiences, and a desire to help people like their own families, in which food played a key role. The business partners met in Israel in 2018 and launched the site less than a year later.
Grassia’s parents are from Sicily; he was the first person in his family to go to college. He started his career at Facebook and has founded and sold two packaged food companies. He never learned to cook his mother’s Sicilian food. In college, he started making energy bars and lived on them. Later, he turned his energy bar hobby into a mission-driven business, partnering with the World Food Program, the United Nations, and shelters across the United States. For every bar sold, his company fed a child in need.
In extended travels, Grassia spent a year in small communities and discovered that most families were eating simple, healthy diets. “There was a community food system and connection with food,” he says.
His cousin in Sicily, for example, worked two jobs and did not have time to cook for her daughters. The neighbors prepared food for her and the girls during the week and Grassia’s cousin returned the favor during weekends.
Salehi grew up in a motel his Iranian parents invested in, in Buena Park, Calif. Because managing the place was a 24/7 job, the entire family moved in. “I would come home from school and my dad and I would pull into the parking lot and we would be hit with the smell of Persian bread and stews,” Salehi, now a lawyer, says.
Grassia and Salehi both say there was always homemade food on their childhood table and it brought the families together during hard times.
While working as a technology adviser in the White House under President Obama, Salehi visited the Syrian border to learn about the humanitarian crisis of refugees. “I spoke with the kids there who looked exactly like I did at that age,” Salehi says. He began attending the online service Meetups, to talk with recent immigrants to see how he could help. He heard versions of the same story, “My spouse has two jobs and I want to help but I can’t because I have to take care of the kids.” When he asked the women what they did all day, they told him they cooked and took care of the kids.
“If they were already doing this, but could monetize it without upfront costs and developing new skills, their lives would change overnight,” Salehi says. “The ‘she’ in Shef is homage to all those incredible women like my mom, like Joey’s mom, who worked hard every single day for their families.”
During COVID, Shef’s mission has expanded. Using customer donations, they provide free meals for frontline workers, homeless shelters, and food banks.
Boddie, 44, went from having to never worry about food to being frantic about where her next meal would come from for her husband and seven children. Her business, Maryam’s YumYum, catered school and family events, barbecues, and street fairs. To feed her family, she says, “there were always leftovers from catering.”
Her grandparents were from the Caribbean and her parents from the south. Boddie’s Shef food is a mix of those cultures with a Mediterranean twist; she tweaks traditional recipes with nuts, grains, and vegetables.
The website, Boddie says, “is giving us moms, wives, people at home, an opportunity to make money in nontraditional ways. This is the way of the future.”
Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at www.senagopal.com.