Can the Sharing Economy Work When It Comes to Home Cooking?
Food Entrepreneur Charles Vanijcharoenkarn wants you to sell extra servings of your dinner.
Food entrepreneur Charles Vanijcharoenkarn is on a mission to connect busy Bostonians with delicious home-cooked meals, one dish at a time. After studying economics and sustainability at Harvard, Vanijcharoenkarn began his career as a consultant. He experienced firsthand both the difficulty of finding time to cook and having access to healthy, affordable and diverse food options in his neighborhood. His new venture, Take-In, is the first of its kind: an attempt to bring home cooking into the sharing economy.
Tell me about Take-In. What is it exactly?
It’s basically a peer-based cooking and eating network that strives to make it easy for home cooks to share healthy cuisine and authentic ethnic dishes with people in their community. The basic goal is to get people eating better. We’re encouraging them to develop more sustainable eating habits, to expand their palates and create a community around food. Our organization also supports local charitable food initiatives to bring quality food to those who need it most. I’ve been working with a charitable cooking initiative called Community Cooks, and I’ve committed to donating a portion of our revenue to local food initiatives based on every meal sold.
What inspired you to create a business around this?
One of my main inspirations was to make authentic, diverse food more accessible. My father was born in Thailand and my mom is from Burma. I grew up in Atlanta in a household where large dinner parties and sharing food with family and neighbors was a common occurrence. We traveled a lot, and my favorite part was discovering new foods. As I grew older, my schedule became really busy and unpredictable, and it was very difficult to find time to cook. There also weren’t that many diverse food options where I lived. I thought if there was a way that I could make it very easy for people to share food—almost like a virtual potluck that brings the best part of food sharing and discovery together—and if we could make that more accessible across the community, that would be a really cool idea.
So convenience is a factor?
Yes, and I was also inspired because of my work as a consultant in the healthcare and food space. Studies have shown that Americans cook less due to time constraints, regardless of socioeconomic status, and get a higher share of calories from processed foods. It’s not helping us combat the rise of diseases like diabetes, hypertension and obesity, which can derive from poor eating habits. I wanted to build a platform that motivates people to take a more active role in their own health and wellness.
Can you explain how it works?
The cooks decide very selectively when they’d like to cook, what dish they’d like to share and what price they’d like to set, given the cost of ingredients. Eaters basically log onto this platform, browse what’s cooking and reserve a dish. We handle everything in between to make it as convenient as possible for both parties. There’s benefit on both sides.
That’s where the model of the sharing economy comes in, like Airbnb and Uber. The whole thing hinges on the fact that both parties can benefit and neither of them has to sacrifice much. It’s very flexible. That’s very powerful, because in order to get people to start changing their behavior—which, in this case, means getting people to eat healthier and use fresh instead of processed ingredients—I think you have to make the barriers very low. The cooks can use this platform as a way to subsidize their groceries. By splitting the cost among 10-15 people, it makes it more affordable and more accessible. At the same time, the person who’s eating has the opportunity to try a special dish.
How can people sign up?
Well, our next step is to launch a beta test, so we’re not fully active yet, but we are in the process of recruiting cooks and making sure we have the logistics in place. The testing period will be four weeks, and it will involve close to 20 cooks and hopefully 100 or so eaters. We’re focusing on a specific geographic area [Cambridge and Somerville] and we want to grow the community through organic relationships. It’s a private network, so unlike a restaurant, people have to agree to the terms and know that these are home cooks.
How do you handle food safety—do you follow a certain set of standards?
Take-In is a private network, or club, which means that you must opt in and acknowledge that the services provided are from home cooks usually cooking out of the comfort of their own kitchens. Because Take-In doesn’t produce any food—we are simply the platform that helps connect people who enjoy cooking and eating—we do not legally certify or control the food that is being produced. Similar to any online matching service, whether it’s a dating site, eBay or AirBnB, it’s the responsibility of the individual parties to provide truthful information or they risk being banned from the platform. That said, we do take steps to foster a trusting and safe food community because we know that is important to the user. The idea of trust and safety is very important. One of the things we’re doing is sourcing cooks through friend networks and also through recommendations.
So you need to be invited to become a cook for Take-In?
Yes, either that, or, we’ve been approaching culinary schools looking for people who are trained. So they’re either currently personal chefs, or working in the food truck scene and looking to open their own place. Many of them are already certified as a food handler, as am I. There’s a vetting process. Cooks have to provide information about themselves by submitting a form. I interview each of them personally. We also perform a kitchen visit to check that their spaces are places that we, as home cooks, would eat out of. We provide them with food handling best practices for things like handwashing, food temperature, eliminating cross-contamination, etc., and we’re working on a way to subsidize voluntary ServSafe training for cooks sometime in the future. Take-In also provides each home cook with new, clean containers for each meal. We take a lot into consideration before we onboard a cook.
Will people be able to leave a review?
Yes, when you go through and place an order, you’ll be able to see testimonials about dishes and the cooks who make them, and after you sample it, you’ll be able to rate the dish and leave comments. The next step is creating profiles of all the cooks so they’ll be on the site when we officially launch. And usually there’s a story behind the dish they’re preparing, too.
What’s the average cost of a meal?
It depends because the cook sets the price, and some people are using more expensive ingredients, like all-organic. We’ve had a range of $7-$12 so far, but I imagine with a wider range of food in the beta test phase it will be $7-$14 per dish.
Logistically, how does it work? Is this a delivery service?
For now, to make things easier, we’re only doing delivery. Eventually, when this thing is running full-scale, I would like it to be a platform that encourages people to have both options, to meet or get the food by delivery, based on the cook’s specifications.
What are some of the challenges to making this work?
Balancing supply and demand is definitely a tricky thing. You need to give people what they want, which means providing people with more options. I want to treat this as a passion project. It’s very much about creating a self-sustaining network. If I can do that, I consider that successful.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Amanda Balagur.
Visit take-in-food.com to learn more about Take-In and founder Charles Vanijcharoenkarn. To find out when the site will officially launch, subscribe to the newsletter mailing list or find them on Facebook.