In a world where you can seamlessly (pun intended) press a single button and have an entire suckling pig delivered to your apartment in under an hour, it's harder than ever before to truly understand just how many unseen hands go into the food we eat on a daily basis. Hell, David Chang is backing not one, but two food-delivery services in Manhattan alone. There have been some amazing strides, but the food industry is still struggling to incorporate intimacy and transparency in the digital age in a truly meaningful way.
Josephine is an Oakland-based food startup with some radical ideas about bringing community outreach to the food world. The online and app-based service connects people looking for a good meal with neighbors and local chefs who have signed on to provide them. Josephine's mission is to empower people to create micro-businesses, while allowing community members to order online and pick up food from someone who lives nearby. Instead of putting all of the emphasis on convenience, Josephine is a food service that favors community connection and transparency.
We wanted to learn more, so we spoke with Simone Stolzoff, who oversees marketing and PR at Josephine.MUNCHIES: Can you tell me a bit about what Josephine is and what you hope to achieve with it? Simone Stolzoff: So the company was started by two guys, Charley Wang and Tal Safran. They both moved out to California without really knowing anyone, but they had a mutual friend, who said, "Charley, you have to meet Tal, Tal you have to meet Charley, and you both have to meet my mother." Her name is Josephine. They both ended up crashing at Josephine's house, who gave them a place to hang their coats, but also, she fed them. They started to think about the table as the central vehicle of culture and exchange. And so they wanted to answer this question: How do we get home cooking into peoples lives? Josephine is really kind of an invisible technology that's connecting cooks to people who live around them. We provide the tools and the resources for building a small micro-enterprise out of your house—the payment processing, customer management, ongoing education, and other tools.
How does someone become a verified Josephine cook, and how much would you say the cooking skills range from cook to cook? It starts with an application. The interest has been awesome, so we can afford to be selective about the people that we onboard. We have two masters of public health on staff and they're responsible for doing the vetting and the kitchen inspection and making sure that people have food handling cards, which is the industry standard. Other regulations vary from state to state. Food safety is the number-one priority for us. Most of our cooks have been involved in the food industry before. Once you're on the platform, there's a built-in accountability system, so customers can leave reviews publicly and send messages directly to the cooks or the Josephine team. We think of each cook as running their own micro-enterprise, so there is a huge range of kinds of people on the platform. There's a Vietnamese immigrant who used to own restaurants in Vietnam. There's Uli, who makes pretzels and authentic German cuisine. It's cool because the food can be reflective of the community that the chefs serve.
How do the menus work? Do chefs just pick what they feeling like cooking? Yeah, so they have total creative control. They can cook whatever they want, set their own prices, and set their own menus. For example, we have one cook who just makes matzo ball soup—it's the best you've ever had. There is a degree of flexibility and creativity that you get with a model like this that doesn't exist if you're a line cook at a restaurant.
How is Josephine making money? Are you collecting a surcharge to facilitate the exchange? There are two models. One, we have non-profit partners, where we provide our services for free. But with private, for-profit entrepreneurs, we take a 10 percent service fee, which covers things like the payment processing, the tools and resources, the containers.Do you have any people working out of food deserts? It seems like Josephine might be a really good tool for providing healthy food to people who can't get it through other means. Yeah, we are based in Oakland and we're partnering with local nonprofits to help out cooks source ingredients at reduced costs and help them reduce food waste. In a place like West Oakland, for example, where there aren't many good options for grocery stores or farmer's markets, it's an opportunity to give people alternatives at a reasonable price point.
Where do you guys operate today and what's the future for Josephine? We just started launching nationally. We began in the Bay Area, but we just launched our first cooks in Seattle and Los Angeles. We're on the cusp. Our ambition is vast and we're at just the beginning.Thanks for speaking with us, Simone.