Inside Shef, homemade food marketplace helping Afghan refugees

A correction to an earlier version of this article is appended to the end of the article.

Alvin Salehi lived in a motel in Buena Park from the age of three until he left college.

His parents, Iranian immigrants, invested in the Orange County Hotel and then had to move in to keep it afloat. Despite those difficulties, there was one thing Salehi and his three brothers could always count on: his mother’s homemade Persian stew and saffron. time will.

It’s those delicious memories—and the goal of helping other immigrants and refugees make real income from home—that fuels Salehi’s online marketplace in San Francisco, Chef.

Along with co-CEO Joey Gracia, a child of Italian immigrants, Salehi started the Chef program in 2019, connecting the hungry crowd with home cooks cooking everything from Armenian dolma to Indonesian beef stew. (She launched Chef in January, the same month that AB-626 made it legal for Californians to cook and sell food from the comfort of their home kitchens.)

While laws and enforcement still vary by county, the home cooking industry has grown rapidly during the pandemic. Chef has facilitated sales of more than one million meals in its eight markets, which include the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Currently, there are thousands of “chefs” selling more than a dozen types of cuisine. There are another 16,000 on the platform waiting list.

So far, the startup has raised $28.8 million in funding and is backed by a host of celebrities, including Padma Lakshmi and Katy Perry. Salehi, who served as a senior technical advisor in the White House under President Barack Obama, is currently waiving all fees associated with becoming a chef on the platform for Afghan refugees resettled in America. We talked to him about that initiative, the Washington, D.C. Days and how Schiff works.

Leila Mir, Bay Area Home Chef on Chef, with a dish of the famous Afghani lamb, kabuli palau. Mir recently donated 100 meals to the local Afghan refugee community. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Q: What made you want to start Chef?

a: My parents came to the United States from Iran in the 1970s. Like most immigrants, they have fallen on some tough times. They had to rebuild from scratch. One of the things they did was open a restaurant in Anaheim. Working there was a lot of fun. Statistically, most restaurants fail. On a good day, they barely even tied. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight that if Schiff had been around in the past, he could have made a huge difference to them. We built this for people like our parents. It is a tribute to my mum and mum Joy and all other dads like them.

Q: What does the setup process look like in Chef? How do you deal with food safety?

a: Food safety is our number one priority. All chefs undergo a 150-step qualification process, which includes a Food Safety Certification Exam and Food Quality Assessment. They are required to comply with all local laws and regulations. In areas that have not yet implemented home cooking laws, chefs are required to cook outside of commercial kitchens or other legally permitted facilities.

Q: What is a shiv cut?

a: Shef charges a 15 percent transaction fee on each order to help cover the cost of operations, marketing, and support services for our customers. Delivery fees are calculated separately based on the region. One hundred percent of all tips go directly to the chef.

Q: How has your time in Washington, DC, helped you develop Chef?

a: What I learned there is how to work on regulations and make meaningful progress in government. This experience has helped us build a great deal of goodwill with regulators in states across the country. The whole reason we launched our company in January 2019 was because we were waiting for this legislation, AB-626, the California HomeMade Food Act, to pass.

Q: How has COVID affected your business?

a: COVID has disproportionately affected black people. Eight percent of the people on the platform are people of color, and 81 percent are women. Our mission has fully expanded to help them recover from the pandemic. And honestly, a lot of it was organic. During the pandemic, we’ve seen a huge increase in people who, out of necessity, started cooking and selling food from home. All of a sudden, regulators and lawmakers started reaching out to us to do the right thing by their constituents. It was a huge inflection point in the home cooking movement.

Q: Why is this type of market particularly suitable for refugees?

a: When I was in the White House, I took a trip to the Syrian border, and it was a very heartbreaking experience. Once back in the United States, I felt very compelled to do something to help the refugees. I went to Meetups across the country and spoke with immigrant and refugee mothers. And I heard the same thing over and over again: “I have three kids, and I’m stuck at home. I have a husband who works two jobs to put food on the table.” So I asked them what they did while they were at home. They said, “We watch the kids and we cook.”

Light went out. What can we do to make this move to this country a little easier? We make $3,500 for any refugee who wants to get started in Chef. This is a time of crisis. We are speeding up the setup process. We work with local groups to provide support services and help them purchase any cooking equipment they need. Chef is also partnering with local chapters of the Afghan Alliance to donate homemade meals directly to refugee families.

Alvin Salhi

Title: Co-CEO, Chef

age: 31

education: Juris Doctor, Masters in Management, Bachelors in Journalism and Bachelors in Political Science, all from USC

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