When you order takeout, you’re usually paying for the convenience of enjoying a restaurant-cooked meal in the comfort of your own home.
But what if it’s actually your mum’s home-cooked meals that you crave?
That’s what the founders of Umi Kitchen, a New York-based food delivery app, are banking on. Founded by CEO Khalil Tawil, former Tumblr VP Derek Gottfrid, and Hallie Meyer (daughter of Shake Shack founder and Union Square Hospitality Group CEO Danny Meyer), Umi Kitchen provides a platform for home chefs to cook meals for strangers through an iOS app.
The name “umi,” which means “mother” in Arabic, plays into the theme. The name takes inspiration from Tawil’s own mother, who immigrated from Lebanon to Missoula, Montana in 1976, and baked dozens of pounds of bread for the local farmer’s market.
“My mother would cook dinner every single night, and our dinner table became the center of our social lives,” Tawil said.
When Tawil went into the army, his mother would even send him vacuum-sealed meals. After several deployments, Tawil got an internship in finance and then went to Yale Law School, where he would later meet Meyer, who was a second-semester senior there.
“In that first semester of law school, I was eating Chipotle and Shake Shack every day,” Tawil said. “
I would walk past people’s homes and just feel really frustrated that I didn’t have access to a home-cooked meal.”
He and Meyer decided to post a Craigslist ad looking for someone who might be interested in cooking them a meal. To their surprise, they got more than a dozen responses, and the idea for Umi Kitchen was born. They were later introduced by a friend to Gottfrid, who helped them get their tech infrastructure up and running.
“I had been doing a bunch of advising at other startups and was thinking of getting into something, but not really,” Gottfrid said. “The part that really differentiates [Umi] is the passion that these people bring to their cooking. They’re really sharing their souls with you.”
“Something that’s made with so much love and care and excitement — that’s actually in short supply.”
Though it’s launching as a competitor to delivery services like Seamless, UberEats, and Caviar, Umi Kitchen says that it considers the home-cooked quality to be more central to the concept than the convenience of delivery.
“I think the exciting part is the food, and the delivery is just the clarifier,” Gottfrid said. “I don’t think anyone is excited that something is delivered in New York — it’s kind of expected at this point. In some ways, the delivery is the most unexciting part.”
The founders evaluate each application and taste test a sample menu before allowing cooks to open their kitchens up to customers. Their only guidelines are that each chef should have a dish they consider their signature, and that the full meal should be enough to feed a hungry adult.
They find that the chefs who sign up for Umi Kitchen do so for very different reasons.
“Some of them have gone to culinary school, but many of them have not. They’re just wonderful cooks with signature dishes they’re excited to share with people,” Meyer said, adding that each cook who is accepted onto the platform must first pass food safety training — the same training required of restaurant workers.
Meyer herself is plenty familiar with the food world. Though her father is one of the most successful restaurateurs in the business today, she grew up cooking for her family and guests they had over to the house.
She started her first company — a catering company with the Yale Sustainable Farm — while still an undergrad, and won the school’s version of Iron Chef twice.
“I grew up in a family where food was always about where it came from, and the story behind it. Cooking together was just what we did, it was all we talked about … I feel totally lucky to have him as a friend and advisor on the sidelines through all this,” she said. “Biggest piece of advice: have fun. And don’t take yourself too seriously, especially in a business where the business is of making people happy.”
The service has been available in Brooklyn since April, but launches in Manhattan on September 13. Anyone between 116th Street and Houston, and to the east of 5th Avenue, can order through Umi Kitchen’s app, which uses Postmates as a third-party delivery partner. Umi Kitchen is currently available only for dinner (and there’s no menu for Fridays or Saturdays) but the founders haven’t ruled out eventually offering more meals on the platform.
Umi Kitchen raised a $1.4 million seed round of funding led by Box Group’s David Tisch and Adam Rothenberg. Additional investors include Danny Meyer, Version One Ventures, the Sweetgreen founders, Henrik Werdelin of Bark & Co., Hayley Barna of BirchBox, Yale University’s Yale Innovation Fund, and Elizabeth Cutler of SoulCycle.
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