On Shef's website, visitors can order ready-to-heat-and-eat meals prepared by local home cooks who specialize in their own cultural dishes. But don't call it a food-delivery service.

With the goal of helping immigrants and refugees make an income, founders Alvin Salehi and Joey Grassia say it's more of a home-chef outfitter. The two-year-old San Francisco-based company equips home cooks--over 80 percent of whom are women and people of color--with the platform, safety training, and an audience to sell their food. While the "Shefs" have the freedom to set their own menus and prices, the company provides pricing guidance, marketing, and professional photography.

So far, business has been brisk. In the past year, the company has added service in 10 new regions, including Washington, D.C., and Maryland, putting the grand tally at a dozen U.S. locations--and the founders have plans to expand to more. In June, Shef also raised $20 million in its Series A (including from some celebrity investors, like Padma Lakshmi). Since 2019, the company has grown from a team of eight to 80. 

While Shef declined to share the specific number of cooks on the platform, it noted that as many as 16,000 Shefs are on the waitlist. To date, the company has served nearly 1.5 million meals across the system.

That business success is heartening, says Salehi. But it's not the goal. "We're not trying to build a successful business ourselves--we're trying to help millions of other people build successful businesses," says Salehi, who along with Grassia is a second-generation immigrant.

Driven to Serve

Shefs are independent business owners who are onboarded to the platform with no fees attached. The company makes its revenue by taking 15 percent of each purchase. The company does not set expectations for how much each Shef should sell, as some people only cook part time to earn supplemental income for their families, Grassia and Salehi say. 

While its mission has been priority number one since day one, the founders grew more enthusiastic about Shef after California passed a bill in 2018 expanding the ability of home cooks to sell their food. For about a year, the company operated solely in the Bay Area with eight employees. Grassia and Salehi had grand plans for its expansion in 2020, but they weren't yet focused on bringing Shef across the country. Then Covid-19 hit, and their priorities changed. "Virtually overnight, applicants on the site grew 10-fold," Grassia says, especially as furloughed and laid-off restaurant workers looked for ways to grow their income in the early days of the pandemic.

So Grassia and Salehi shifted their focus to rolling out the platform across the country. Meanwhile, states began relaxing their home cooking regulations, making it easier for people to sell meals from their homes. Previously, most regulations allowed for non-perishable "cottage foods"--like jams, baked goods, and breads--to be made and sold by individuals, but cooked meals were a different story. 

The pandemic forced lawmakers' hands. "This year, 55 bills have been introduced in over 30 states related to home cooking," says Salehi. Shef planted its growth plot lines accordingly. By the end of January 2020, Shef launched in its third location, Seattle, and it has continued expanding at a rate of one new metro hub per month.

The founders are familiar with running fast-growth companies. For his part, Grassia had sold two mission-based brands prior to co-founding Shef, while Salehi had served as a technology adviser at the White House under President Obama and co-founded the website code.gov. 

But the food world is fractured and complicated--particularly when you're trying to have a national brand. To negotiate the differences, Shef's infrastructure may morph in each state--and even within some states, as some rules vary by county. For instance, Shef has partnerships with commercial kitchens in areas that don't yet allow cooks to sell non-cottage foods from their homes, and provides signed-on cooks to use them at no additional fee. 

The company's investors see real promise for growth. "The time is right for a marketplace to develop in this vertical," says Jeff Jordan, managing partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm that led Shef's $20 million Series A. "A combination of the business model, founder-product fit, strong early traction, and company mission all made us excited to invest."

Quality Control

As for that 16,000-person waitlist ... Grassia and Salehi are OK with the length. They're determined keep their growth in check and not hurry the onboarding process. Their end goal, they say, is not to be a competitor to restaurants or even to food-delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub: It's to incubate potential future restaurant owners and provide a "meaningful" income to home cooks. It's something Salehi wishes would have been accessible to his parents. As a child, his parents closed their Italian restaurant because it became financially untenable. "It's very clear that, in hindsight, if a platform had existed like this back then, it would have changed our lives," he says. Currently, the site is expediting applications from Afghan refugees, and is providing these approved cooks with $3,500 each to help defray the cost of cooking supplies, food safety training, and marketing.

Many Shefs make about $1,000 per week, according to the company website, but income can greatly vary per person. An Indian immigrant named Supriya based in the Bay Area became the first Shef to earn $2,000 a day. Grassia and Salehi met with her to learn more about her background, and discovered that the income she's pulling in from Shef has helped her pay for child care, visit her family back home in India, and earn just as much as--if not more than--her Silicon Valley engineer husband. "I often say that all we have to do is create a million Supriyas," Grassia says. "And then we will fulfill our mission."