As an undergraduate at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Camille Baker noticed three things that would  inspire her to start a business. The first: Using social media, her fellow students would sell home-cooked soul food out of their apartments on weekends--barbecue dinners with greens, baked beans, and mac and cheese, plus drinks. The second: Stadium food vendors raked in cash during football games, only to disappear when the season ended. And, finally, when Baker returned to her parents' home in the Orlando suburbs after graduation, she found the dining options disappointing--dull chains and expensive steakhouses. She missed the variety of cuisines she'd enjoyed at college. "I was like, 'I wish there was something--an app, another app--where it's more affordable, more convenient, and it's the food that I actually like," she says.

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The result is Pull Up a Seat, an app and website that bills itself as the "Etsy for home cooking." The Orlando-based company aims to connect foodies with nearby home chefs, caterers, and small businesses. So far, Baker says the platform logs about 1,000 transactions a month at roughly 2,000 paying vendors (mostly in the Central Florida area). She expects to book $800,000 in 2018 revenue, as the company expands its geographic reach and takes on more vendors. 

Digging In

Pull Up a Seat's marketplace, which resembles that of Postmates or GrubHub, lets customers search for vendors in the neighborhood or up to 200 miles away. Categories include vegan, soul food, and desserts, and users can eat in, pick up, or get delivery. Even if they don't have traditional storefronts, businesses can create personalized web shops and take orders through the platform.

The app is free to use, but businesses must sign up for annual memberships: It's $25 to create a basic web presence, $50 to sell their goods, and $75 to offer delivery. (The company currently outsources delivery, but Baker hopes that future funding will let her hire a delivery staff.) Pull Up a Seat collects a 3.5 percent commission on each order, and customers are charged a $4 service fee.

To be sure, the platform is still in its early stages (the site can be glitchy, and there aren't yet many sellers outside the Florida area), but the possibilities are endless, says three-time tech entrepreneur Andrew Dillon, who advises startups including Pull Up a Seat. Among other things, he suggests that preordering on the app could streamline transactions at a farmers' market--an organic-produce version of Amazon's new cashierless store. Or maybe the app could integrate with other up-and-coming technologies, like using self-driving cars to transport cakes.

Rocky Road

Baker says she started developing the idea for Pull Up a Seat in late 2016. In search of hands-on guidance as well as funding, she applied to startup accelerators around the country. In February 2017, she entered the eFactory accelerator at Missouri State University in Springfield. After 12 weeks of training and forging new connections, and landing $40,000 in funding, she started approaching investors. 

It wasn't easy. As an African American female tech entrepreneur in the South, Baker, 25, doesn't see a lot of role models in her field. "Where I want to go, there's no one that I've really seen do it," she says. Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S., according to a 2015 report commissioned by American Express Open, but they lag well behind their white counterparts in raising venture capital. (American women in general raise 2.2 percent of total venture spending annually, and black women just 0.2 percent.)

Still, after Baker's app launched in the summer of 2017 and pulled in $50,000 in revenue that year, investors started paying attention. Pull Up a Seat's seed round is still open, but investors like Orlando's Blue Mahoe Partners and Atlanta Tech Angels have shown interest. The company also plans to host an equity crowdfunding offering on Wefunder. 

Nice Niche

The graveyard of failed food-sharing startups is a crowded one. Josephine, based in Oakland, California, encouraged people to sell meals to neighbors. It raised $3.1 million before running afoul of state health regulations. The company fought for legislation that would legalize its home cooks, known as "cottage food operations," but it ran out of money and shut down last month. Baker quickly learned that it made more sense to recruit vendors who were already licensed. Pull Up a Seat is open to home chefs and will coach them on local health codes, but they're not the biggest source of revenue. "We're not trying to turn the average Joe into a food business," Baker says.

Instead, she wants to provide easy-to-use technology for existing commercial operations, such as professional bakers, that might not have the resources or know-how to build a website and haven't been able to attract customers using Facebook and Instagram.

Dillon urges caution, however. A model like this "requires a fresh perspective, tenacity, and patience," he says, "but more than anything, understanding the customer."

And that's what Baker aims to do. She now employs three people and plans to expand through the Southeast this year, reaching out to farmers' markets, food trucks, college sports programs, and music festivals. Baker points out that apps like Uber Eats tend to target city dwellers, leaving hungry customers elsewhere without many options. She wants to fill that gap. "These people down here are very loyal," she says. "If you have a reliable service, they're down, and they're ready to go with you no matter what."

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