Checking my smartphone map one last time, I spotted a modest sign perched on the front porch of a shady condominium along Emeryville’s Greenway. It read “Josephine.com”. I rang the door bell and Shane Willow opened the door and greeted me with a bright smile.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Shane. Come on in.”
We waded through her living room towards her kitchen upstairs, grounding ourselves in the environment by chatting about a few of the accents and art pieces Shane and her husband had picked up over the years in their travels abroad.
I found myself disarmed and at ease in a stranger’s home very quickly. Before I knew it, we were talking like we’d known each other for more than, well, just a few minutes. I even opened up about my childhood pet parakeet before she had a chance to close the door behind us.
“Would you like to sit by the kitchen while we chat?” Shane asked.
I sat at the counter by the kitchen, with sunlight coming in from across the airy living room through open sliding glass doors. Looking down at the counter there was a plate strewn with glossy and carefully detailed sugar cookies. “I’ll definitely eat one of these before I leave,” I agreed with myself.
Shane reached into her refrigerator and pulled out a quart-size jar containing the one tangible object bringing us together that Tuesday afternoon.
“Would you like some chicken soup?” she asked.
“Yes, I would.”
It’s called the sharing economy.
The term has become a catchall for various kinds of tech companies that are part of a rising economic shift towards what Oxford economics professor Rachel Botsman calls “collaborative consumption”— an arrangement between people to share access to private property and services for a fee or through bartering via the internet.
The concept of a sharing economy, not without its mighty share of controversy, has become increasingly relevant in the US, especially in the start-up-abundant San Francisco Bay Area, and has been shaped by the evolution of information technology and Web 2.0, with companies like eBay—dubbed by many the grandfather of peer-to-peer consumption—paving the road for today’s iterations, including AirBNB, Uber, Etsy, and TaskRabbit.
Today, peer-to-peer juggernauts AirBNB and Uber lead the pack in the East Bay and San Francisco in total revenue generated from start-up companies that aim to turn people’s underutilized property and skills—say, a car, couch, room, parking space, box of tools, culinary skills, or handyman knowhow—into profit.
In Shane’s case, she’s using her talents as a life-long home cook to craft and sell an artisanal product she calls BabaSoup, named after her grandmother who taught her the recipe when Shane was a kid.
After heating a pot of her acclaimed chicken soup on the stove and pouring it into a bowl, I started to chow down and Shane talked about the level of thoughtfulness that goes in to making each batch.
“There’s so much love in it,” she said. “You can just take a can of soup and pour it into a bowl, but there are so many details and tradition that goes into it when I cook it. The chicken has to come out at the right time. I make it so that the meat is moist and I use imported egg noodles that don’t soap up the broth. It has to cook for hours…”
“Stop,” I thought to myself. “You had me at imported noodles.”
It was great soup, to put it simply.
Shane opened her refrigerator door to put half a pint of soup back in, revealing several more pint and quart-sized jars.
The remaining portions had been reserved online by Josephine customers. Their website is designed so that customers can peruse a variety of dishes that are available every day of the week, along with a profile of the chef making each plate, a photo of the dish along with a description, and pricing details. Customers pay online and then are forwarded the cook’s address to pick up their order during his or her open hours, which for Shane is every Tuesday for lunch and dinner. Typically, prices range from $7 to $13, and a rating system is in place as a trust an accountability measure.
Prospective cooks for Josephine, ranging from professionally-trained chefs to skilled at-home cooks, undergo a similar trial as professional chefs in what the culinary industry calls a “stage”, or a trial interview; and in the case of Josephine, potential contractors are assessed on their food, personality, community reach, and cleanliness before moving up to real live customers. Costs incurred during the vetting process are reimbursed by Josephine, and each chef is required to have a California food handler’s card.
To date, there are 40 cooks on the Josephine platform, and each of them receives 90 percent of the revenue based on meals they’ve sold.
Josephine currently operates in Oakland, Berkeley, and Albany, with plans to launch in San Francisco later this year.
Josephine was launched in January 2015 by founders Charley Wang, 25, and Tal Safran, 30 and the idea for the app was originally conceived when the two were living in Los Angeles last year. Already transitioning out of their tech careers in southern California, Wang and Safran were inspired by the family meals created by a mutual friend’s mother, Josephine—who was hosting Tal at the time—to spend more time thinking about how to build community, particularly around food. Her home-cooked, traditional Israeli dishes planted the seed that grew into Josephine.com the following year in Oakland.
“I realized the importance of home cooking, culturally,” said Wang. “So when Tal and I moved to Oakland in the Spring, we spent eight or nine months in a rented house, cooking for friends and people we’d met in town.”
For the food-tech pair, this insight-driven incubation period gave them a better perspective on the giant food-tech landscape and how to scale their knowledge into a values-driven business model. “We weren’t just looking for a foodie culture,” Wang told Edible East Bay, “but an investment in all of the aspects of food: social, economic, health…”
“One of the biggest things we found was that the pick-up-to-go model worked very well,” said Wang. “Most people who came by were parents with kids.”
Although customers in Josephine’s primordial stages were, and continue to be, quite varied, the majority of them are young parents, who, more than other demographics, put a premium on at-home cooking. This detail is especially salient to Wang, who says that, as the Millennial generation grows up and begins to form families, we’ll start to see an accelerated shift from ‘me-centric’ consumption patterns to behavior based on access to at-home cooking, gainful relationships, and nutritional quality.
In a report titled “Millennial Munching”, published by researchers at Goldman Sachs, the authors argue that Millennials, perhaps contrary to stereotype, do report a firm desire to form families, even though we’re relatively late to start when compared to Generation X. That desire for fresh food favors an at-home model, according to the report, even in the face of overwhelming time constraints, which Wang says can make parents, especially working mothers, feel guilty.
Josephine’s entry point into the hyper competitive 7-billion dollar food industry is thus at the intersection of where “real food” meets the convenience of restaurants. “Maybe mommy can’t cook for us tonight,” said Wang, conjuring a hypothetical conversation between a busy parent and child, “But Traci, who also cares about us, can cook for you.”
Wang believes there’s a lot more to food than just its caloric and chemical make-up, but he also asserts that food consumption is becoming increasingly health-conscious, which he expects will lead towards, not away from, at-home cooking. A recent article posted on SF Gate by health writer and preventative health care speaker Tracey Roizman reports that, right now, fewer than 70 percent of Americans eat at home. “This fact, together with an obesity epidemic,” she writes, “points toward a need for fundamental change in American Food Culture.”
Roizman writes that eating home-cooked meals can help offset potentially unhealthy effects from commercially prepared foods that are notoriously high in fat, salt, and sugar. “Preparing most of your meals at home,” she writes,” helps train your palate toward healthier fare.”
Still, however, many food experts write that although apps can serve to ameliorate pressures on busy parents to cook nutritious meals for the families, there are income inequalities that may go beyond the capacity of any one start-up to fix.
A recent study that spent 18 months following 200 low-and middle-income moms complicated a well-meaning statement by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman—in which he said that “roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad, must become popular again”—and showed that, for some, these relatively simple kitchen hacks are anything but easy:
“Most people would agree that it sounds nice to slow down and enjoy a cooked meal,” said one of the researchers. “But just telling people to do a better job doesn’t really address the bigger issues that affect families’ abilities to make these meals…from food access, wages, jobs with predictable hours…We haven’t figure out [a solution] yet, but we have a few ideas, like healthy food trucks or community kitchens or to-go meals at schools…”
At Shane’s, I’ve devoured a sugar cookie and we’ve been joined by Emily Gustafson, an operations manager at Josephine who was stopping by to pick up her order of BabaSoup for a few Josephine employees back at the office, which is headquartered in a co-working space in Oakland.
“Part of our ethos is to be minimally online,” said Emily. “Only in so far as it brings people together. We’re trying to keep Josephine as simple as possible and to continue to give boldly and give first.”
One thing she says helps achieve this goal is that Josephine is already community-centered. Locals do have the option to place an order, pick it up, and take off with minimal interpersonal exchange, but an emphasis on cultivating each cook’s personal brand, which is built in to the ideological make-up of Josephine, allows relationships to build and developed naturally, and they do so more often than not. A benefit that many cooks and consumers report is that they’ve been able to make connections with people in their community they would not have met.
With reformed cottage laws and the emergence of social media, collaborative economy companies like Josephine have proliferated in the San Francisco Bay Area, conjuring the image of a sleeping giant just now waking up. With entrepreneurial visionaries harnessing the productive power of people’s private property, skills, and their personal brands, Charley Wang, who graduated from Princeton University in economics, stresses that not all start-ups are created equal, and that there is an important distinction to be made:
“There are two types of sharing economy companies,” writes the Josephine co-founder.
- Companies that will succeed by eliminating humans
- Companies that will succeed by championing humans
Wang writes that companies like Josephine, AirBNB and Etsy, fall into the second category. He says car rental companies like Uber, although wildly successful in the Bay Area, fall into the first category, as they take a greater cut of the profits, utilize cheaper contractors, and the individual brand is less of a factor.
“To grow efficiently,” Wang writes of category-one companies,”these on-demand companies are racing to the bottom in an attempt to find the cheapest workers.”
Wang instead has endeavored to model Josephine like Etsy, which he says empowers contractors to become makers and can encourage cooks like Shane to offer products and experiences that help promote her own personal brand. In the case of Etsy, says Wang, “The uniqueness of each brand stems not from Etsy itself, but from each individual seller, which is why championing the craftspeople is both ethical and strategically viable.”
While a people-first philosophy drives Josephine’s business model, Wang is the first to acknowledge that his company’s platform is scalable and that expansion is on the app’s horizon. However, he underscores that Josephine fundamentally strives to cultivate meaningful human relationships, not replace them.
“A lot of tech companies have a displacing effect,” said Wang. “One of the goals we have is to make tech suck less. We aren’t having food trucks come in from outside the community.” He says that many Josephine cooks are immigrants and that they live in the very neighborhoods that they serve.
Leaving Shane’s home, after a few more people had trickled in to pick up their orders, I saw first-hand that real connections were being made and that an organic, socially enriching experience can exist in a for-profit model when contractors are encouraged and supported financially to develop their own brands. Call it small brands with big souls.