Over 26,000 US restaurants have permanently closed their doors since pandemic lockdowns began in March. Yet delivery apps like DoorDash and Grubhub continue to see record demand for restaurant-quality food.
Shef, an Airbnb-like platform for home cooked meals, is ramping up to meet that demand while providing opportunities for immigrants to earn money by sharing the home cooking of their cultures. On Thursday, the San Francisco-based startup announced a $8.8 million funding round to expand its network of chefs delivering home-cooked meals. Y Combinator and Craft Ventures participated in the round, as well as angel investors like TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot and Instacart cofounders Max Mullen and Brandon Leonardo.
Shef co-CEOs Alvin Salehi and Joey Grassia first met at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in 2018. The list alums were previously recognized for Salehi’s work in the Obama White House founding Code.gov (Law & Policy) and Grassia’s ventures Kutoa Health Bars and Steamm Espresso (Food & Drink). With Salehi’s parents immigrating from Iran and Grassia’s from Italy, they bonded over their experience as first-generation Americans and explored how their experiences in policy and food could help newcomers to the United States.
“My parents escaped from Iran around the time of the Iranian revolution. They came here with nothing in their pockets, no language skills and fell on some pretty hard times,” explains the company’s co-CEO Salehi, who spent much of his childhood living in a motel. “Things changed when my parents finally were able to save up enough money to create a business, and that business was a restaurant.”
Chefs who apply to the Shef platform must have their home kitchens certified, the requirements for which vary based on city and state food safety laws. Onboarded “shefs” set up a profile and menu, with each dish featuring a detailed list of ingredients. Those hankering for home cooking will find a wide variety of cuisines to choose from, including Shanghainese, Bangladeshi, Maldivian and more. The company estimates some shefs make an average of $1,000 per week.
The founders hadn’t planned to raise such significant funding, but as the pandemic ravaged the restaurant industry, Shef’s potential for growth grew. Salehi and Grassia remain focused on providing opportunities to immigrant and first-generation cooks, while also welcoming newly laid-off restaurant workers. Currently, the company has more than 4,000 pending applications to become certified shefs.
“Once Covid hit, it was very clear that we had an acute obligation to help because we had a platform that really, in this moment in time, is very useful for the community,” says Salehi. “We are trying our best to put people back to work to get through this crisis.”
For now, the company operates in just a few areas of California and New York. Its growth is partially constrained by laws that limit individuals’ ability to create and sell perishable foods from home. Last year, California became the first state to fully legalize it and recognize them as “microenterprise home kitchens.” Each microenterprise must be permitted and follow strict guidelines, selling no more than 60 meals per week. As a former government official, Salehi continues to advocate for the legalization of home kitchens nationwide.