It’s time to add yet another startup to the growing pile of companies getting into the food delivery game. Umi Kitchen, which launched earlier this year in New York City, is an app that, like so many others, wants to deliver you food. The catch is that the food is homemade, likely by a perfect stranger, and one who isn’t necessarily a professional cook. A slew of heavy-hitting venture capitalists are betting it’ll be a success. But in a sea of startups looking to bank on home cooking, is Umi Kitchen built to float?
Chiefly, co-founder Hallie Meyer grew up in the food business: Her father, Danny Meyer, is the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and the creator of Shake Shack. And he’s an investor in his daughter’s company. Hallie Meyer’s co-founders are Khalil Tawil, an Army veteran and Yale Law School grad, and Derek Gottfrid, a former VP at Tumblr.
Tawil initially conceived of the idea while living in New Haven, Conn. He says he was inspired by his mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon and would send him vacuum-packed home-cooked meals while he was stationed overseas (“umi” is the Arabic word for mother). A mutual friend introduced him to Hallie, at the time an undergrad at Yale, and the two got to work on a business plan.
“We actually flew my mom out and she cooked 80 meals in four days out of my studio apartment,” says Tawil. Eventually, he and Meyer moved the company from New Haven to New York.
After an initial funding round, they met Gottfrid, who turned out to be a good fit because of his background in tech. He joined in February of 2016, and the company launched in Brooklyn this past April. Earlier this week, it expanded its services to Manhattan.
Investors already seem to love Umi. In addition to Danny Meyer, salad chain Sweetgreen’s founders have also invested. So has Elizabeth Cutler, of cult-like spinning phenomenon SoulCycle, and Hayley Barna, the co-founder of beauty subscription service BirchBox. So far, Umi has raised more than $1.4 million in seed funding.
Despite the interest from Silicon Valley, companies specializing in home-cooked meals are sure to hit a few road blocks. Many similar companies require users to not just eat food cooked by a stranger, but to do so at a stranger’s house. But Umi isn’t interested in facilitating dinner parties. Instead, users order a meal via Umi’s app, and it’s then delivered via Postmates.
Mytable is an app that essentially allows users to do the same thing: order food from home cooks and have it delivered through a third-party.
But Tawil insists Umi stands alone. “First off, I don't think there are many other home cooking apps out there,” he says. “We discover and showcase incredible home cooks or culinary entrepreneurs who are doing things in a totally different way. And then we connect them with folks who are looking for a signature dish.”
The founders say every Umi cook goes through a rigorous vetting and training process, though the team has found some culinary talent in unlikely places. “The very first place we started looking was Instagram,” says Meyer. “Then we’ve done more traditional things like posting on culinary job boards, or utilizing word of mouth.”
Those who want to be an Umi cook first fill out an application on the company’s website. If the application seems promising to Umi’s hiring team, the cook then sends a meal to Umi’s headquarters.
If the food is good, the cook must undergo a series of food safety training sessions and certifications. Food safety is, of course, a major issue for restaurants (case in point: Chipotle). But apps that monetize home cooking have to pay special attention to food safety, because home cooks usually don’t have training in basic food handling and aren’t supervised while preparing meals.
Some companies attempt to skirt this issue by ridding themselves of any liability. Sacramento-based ExtraPlate, for instance, does not check licensing for its sellers, which include restaurants, caterers, farmers, and home sellers. Instead, the company asks that its sellers “know and comply with their local requirements, based on their type of business, the geographic location and the type of food that they are selling.” If anyone were to get sick from eating something ordered via the app, the responsibility would fall on the seller, rather than on ExtraPlate.
Tawil says that because many Umi cooks already have a food background they tend to be familiar with food safety. Some are already certified in food safety but, if not, it’s a requirement. The training is conducted via a third-party website, and cooks must provide documentation that they are certified before they can work with Umi. If someone were to get sick eating an Umi meal, the responsibility would fall to the cook.
“Every meal has to be food-safe certified and every meal is rated and reviewed,” says Tawil. “Before you order, one of the neat parts of the app is that you see the face of the person cooking your meal. And the cooks all know that their face is being displayed to the world. The incentives [for food to be well-prepared and safe] are really well aligned here.”
In other words, the founders are betting that Umi cooks will stake their reputations on the quality of their food. Because the cooks are vetted, and often have a culinary background, Tawil believes Umi is competing against food delivery services like UberEATs and Seamless, rather than against other home cooking services.
“When you open the app, you’ll be able to see the full week of menu offerings,” says Meyer. “On any given day, you’ll see $12, $14, or $16 category. All are full meals, with two to four dishes.” She adds that Umi takes a 20 percent cut of the profit, and Postmates charges a $3.99 delivery fee, which comparable to other food delivery apps.
The partners know that having Danny Meyer on their side helps open doors. “I think what gives us a leg up is that we have this group of really trusted investors who know how to take companies centered on their communities,” says Meyer. “My dad is definitely one of them and having him in our corner, and being able to knock on his door and ask him for advice, and have him rooting for us — that’s great.”
Umi’s dependence on tech, rather than just on food, is clearly part of what makes the company attractive to investors today. But every tech company has a story that downplays the cold machine that powers the brand and plays up softer, more human elements. Hotel competitor Airbnb actually calls itself a hospitality company. Gottfrid explains Umi’s position: “The tech is the enabler. But we don’t think of ourselves as a tech company. We’re more of a hospitality company.” So is Umi the next Airbnb but for food? “No,” says Gottfrid, sticking to the script, “We’re really just trying to be the Umi for food.” And that sounds mom-approved.
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