A New York-based company that delivers meals made by home cooks — and calls hospitality king Danny Meyer an angel investor — is now available in Manhattan. Umi Kitchen, available as an iOS app, launched in Brooklyn earlier this year with more than two dozen home cooks serving a variety meals, from Whole 30 diet dinners to Thai food. The app offers four to seven options each night, and users can choose time slots for when they want the meals, which are delivered by Postmates. Co-founders Khalil Tawil and Hallie Meyer, who met while students at Yale, see it as a food industry take on the sharing economy — like an Etsy for dinner. "I think very big picture, we want to affect a paradigm shift in how people eat," Tawil says.
Danny Meyer’s role as an investor is personal — Hallie is his daughter. The restaurateur came on early as an angel investor for the platform, which has raised about $1.4 million so far. But Hallie Meyer says her famous father isn’t working for the company, though her parents’ influence played a major role in her interest in the industry. "They take food entrepreneurship as a serious thing to even chase after," she says.
It was actually Tawil’s parents that prompted the idea. His mother, an immigrant, used to make extra money by cooking Lebanese food from home and sell it to her neighbors. Once he got to New Haven for law school, he wanted to eat home cooking again. "Why shouldn’t I be able to eat my neighbors’ cooking?" he says. "I put an ad up on Craigslist looking for a home cooked meal. I got an overwhelming number of responses." Tawil and Meyer, who ran an underground catering company at the time, met through a mutual friend and started talking Umi Kitchen.
Umi Kitchen finds its home cooks — or "umis," as they call them — through channels like culinary job boards and culinary school networks. They also reached out to people who were posting photos of of their home cooking on Instagram, the best recruiting tool they’ve had so far, Meyer says.
Each home cook offers a minimum of five, Umi Kitchen-approved meals per night that they cook, and all meals cost less than $16, with a $3.99 added delivery fee. Home cooks receive 80 percent of what they charge for the meal, and currently, they’re reimbursed for any meals that don’t sell. Options so far have included fried chicken, chicken enchiladas, vegan soba bowls, pad Thai, and a bacon-fig quiche. Meals must be ordered before 2 p.m. the day of the dinner.
Meyer, Tawil, and their third partner, Derek Gottfrid — a former VP of product and engineering at Tumblr — are not the first people to launch a home cooking, "Etsy for food" type business. A company called Homemade allows people to order food from local home chefs, too, though the platform does not offer delivery. And just like other sharing economy companies like Uber and Airbnb, Umi Kitchen currently exists in a grey area of government regulation.
But the duo say that their umis go through an "extensive and rigorous" review process, including an application from the website, food safety training, and food safety certification from ServSafe, a National Restaurant Association program. Umi Kitchen also requires certain standards in the kitchen, rules created by a former health inspector and food safety consultant. "It’s very much a very vastly evolving sector," Tawil says. "We believe we’re doing things within regulation. It’s a brave new world. We’re excited to be doing things responsibly and safely."
Eventually, Meyer and Tawil see Umi Kitchen expanding beyond New York, too. "The art of sharing has become lost in many ways," Tawil says. "We want to offer an alternative way for people to consume food. We want to unleash all the culinary talent that’s in the city." Umi is now available in parts of Brooklyn and in Manhattan from 116th Street to Houston and from Fifth Avenue to the East River.