Over 26,000 US restaurants have already 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.
To meet that demand, San Francisco-based Shef announced today that it raised $8.8 million 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 Leonard.
Shef was founded by Alvin Salehi and Joey Grassia after meeting 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 Kutua Health Bars and Steamm Espresso (Food & Drink). After bonding over their experiences as first-generation Americans, they began exploring how their experiences in policy and food could be used to help immigrants in 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 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.”
The Shef platform requires chefs to apply and undergo a certification process for home-cooking, which varies based on local food safety laws. Once they are onboarded, “shefs” set up a profile and menu focused on cuisines like Shanghainese, Bangladeshi, Maldivian and more. The company estimates the average shef makes $1,000 per week.
The founders were able to bootstrap the company until now, but as the pandemic ravaged the restaurant industry they realized they needed to expand faster. While they remain focused on providing opportunities to immigrant and first-generation cooks, they have expanded their mission to incorporate those that have been laid off due to shuttering restaurants. Currently, they have 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. Their 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.