Matthew Pflueger discovered Kitchensurfing and Blue Apron during the same conversation with a friend. The two services that help consumers more easily serve a home-cooked meal appealed to Pflueger and his wife, who were short on time thanks to their infant child. Blue Apron has been shipping boxes of produce and corresponding recipe cards for three years and has gained a wide appeal — to the tune of a recent $2 billion valuation — while also spawning many competitors. But Kitchensurfing represents what is perhaps the next stage in the food startup scene.
Unlike cook-your-own meal kits or on-demand restaurant delivery, itself a rapidly growing industry, Kitchensurfing actually sends out chefs to cook for customers in their own private homes. The chefs bring all the ingredients and cooking equipment, and about 30 minutes after letting a Kitchensurfing chef in the door, customers sit down for a home-cooked meal. (The chefs do the dishes.) The service is currently available in most of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn.
If Uber used the on-demand economy to make "private drivers" more accessible, Kitchensurfing is bringing the private chef into homes that most likely can't afford to employ a private chef full-time. While some might feel uncomfortable with the idea, startup concepts are increasingly entering consumers' physical space to provide similar services. Startups like Handy, which has secured $110 million in funding to date, allow consumers the ability to hire a home cleaner via the company's app or online. Ten of the most popular tasks listed on outsourcing site TaskRabbit, itself a $38 million startup that essentially connects users with on-demand personal assistants, require strangers to come into a customer's home or office. (Common tasks include assembling furniture, organizing closets, and general cleaning). And to use Uber, arguably the best-known company in the new on-demand economy, customers must enter an independent driver's personal space (ie, their car). Uber and its ilk took some getting used to — deciphering surge pricing and remembering to jump out of the car without a direct payment process — but now, it's a part of life for many urbanites.
"Food tech is a very young vertical. Consumers are also learning more about what the different needs are that different services will fit."
What makes cooking different? According to Kitchensurfing CEO Jon Tien, who joined the company in late 2014, the concept isn't actually about cooking: It's about sitting down for the meal. Tien wants Kitchensurfing to build a relationship with its customers, which differs from the company's original model. Under co-founder and former CEO Chris Muscarella, the company supplied chefs for dinner parties and special events. In fact, that friend of Pflueger's who told him about Kitchensurfing was actually lamenting that the company no longer provided chefs for dinner parties as a core part of their service. The company began to focus on set weeknight meals in September.
"I think it's less of a pivot and more just an evolution of the product," says Tien, who previously worked for Zynga, the social video game company and Farmville creator, as the senior vice president of product. The switch mimics larger trends in food startups — namely, subscriptions. Before the change, "we actually got an email from a customer saying, 'Hey could you send a chef to come cook a meal for two, the recipe and ingredients are provided by Blue Apron?'" Tien says. "Things like that started to point us towards what was ultimately that bigger need — addressing the weeknight family dinner. It happens five times a week, and yet it's probably the single meal that people — particularly in urban areas — struggle with the most."
Kitchensurfing's online system only offers consumers an option for service one night a week (although Tien admits there are some customers who sign up for two or more using different email addresses). The company offers a few different models, but consumers can expect to pay between $23 and $30 per person per meal. Customers choose one of six weekly meals (like seared autumn vegetables with curried lentils and halloumi cheese, or chicken teriyaki with Japanese cucumber salad) from photographs online or on the company's app. Below each meal option are indications for dietary restrictions and the ability to read about how the meal will be prepared and what ingredients are involved. Customers can opt-out for up to three weeks online, but anything more requires an email to the company. There's a box at "check out" for special requests — "cook medium well" or "serve family style" — as well.
Like many new on-demand services, this one comes with some feelings of awkwardness or guilt: Shouldn't I be doing this myself? "It will only feel as awkward or invasive as you let it," writes Pflueger in an email to Eater about the service. "Food tech is a very young vertical," Tien says. "It's constantly evolving, and I think consumers are also learning more about what the different needs are that different services will fit." Kitchensurfing has removed some of the potential awkward moments in the transaction, namely payment: Gratuity is included and is all processed online prior to the chef's arrival.
All of Kitchensurfing's chefs are part-time employees, for not only feel-good but also practical reasons, says Tien. (Some Kitchensurfing chefs still work at New York City restaurants during the lunch shift.) "We're not just hiring cooks. In restaurant speak, it's back of the house and front of the house," Tien says. Cooking skills are necessary, but interacting with the guests, reading the room, allowing a child of the client to "help," are all part of the job description. The chefs are frequently a mix of recent culinary school graduates, former restaurant workers, long-time personal chefs, and the odd startup CEO. (Tien has gone out as Kitchensurfing chef to experience how the service works and what some pain points might be. He's also discovered that in New York City "people store books in their oven.")
"A lot of what we’re trying to do is help people create a ritual."
Hiring chefs as employees, rather than as contract workers as many startups do, gives Kitchensurfing more control over availability, allowing for predictable hours for chefs and a predictable time slot for customers. As employees, chefs are required to come into the commissary kitchen for training an hour before they leave for their shift. When they head out, chefs carry the whole evening's supply of food, pans, cooking utensils, and a kit with essentials like olive oil, salt, and pepper.
The packs aren't light. "They're getting in good shape," says Brian Young, Kitchensurfing's head chef who previously worked stints at Tavern on the Green and Le Bernardin. He was also the culinary director at Munchery, which delivers chef-prepared meals for customers to reheat. According to Young, chefs are prepared for all of the typical New York City kitchen issues. "I assume three things: That the [oven] hood doesn't work, I assume the smoke alarm is going to trip, and the oven doesn't work," Young says. Most meals are executed on the stove top; a chef might open a window when he or she is searing, and when necessary, chefs have brought their own burners. (Before a chef arrives, "I do ensure that the kitchen is not totally disgusting but also don't worry about it being restaurant A-grade clean," writes Pflueger.)
So why not take-out food instead, particularly the new delivery models that offer dining options from high-end restaurants? The health aspects appeal to customers like Pflueger. Beyond those, "this is food that you can't get from delivery or takeout," Tien says. "Temperature, texture, doneness: Those are the three tenets that are big for us. You can't get a medium-well steak delivered to you. If you tried, you would probably be disappointed," Tien says. "We really try to highlight the things that benefit from being freshly prepared for you." There's something nice about the smell of dinner cooking in your home.
Tien still gets asked if having a Kitchensurfing chef over is "going to be like Benihana, like theater?" His answer is adamant: No. "The first time often feels new and different, and you treat it as that, but a lot of what we're trying to do is help people create a ritual," Tien says. "After a few times people understand — this feels like my one night off a week."
* Eater co-founder Ben Leventhal served as Kitchensurfing's president in 2013.