All they wanted was a home-cooked meal and now they’re helping out-of-work chefs survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Israeli entrepreneurs Oren Saar and Merav Kalish Rozengarten founded WoodSpoon out of a desire find food like grandma used to make. “We missed the food from home, like real homemade hummus, and kunefe,” Saar says, referring to the Middle Eastern pastry made with a noodle-like dough.
They launched the app in beta-testing mode last November so New Yorkers tired of eating at restaurants could see what vetted chefs in their neighborhoods were cooking at home. They started with just two dozen cooks across three New York City neighborhoods — only half of whom had professional work experience, Saar says.
Then COVID-19 hit and the number of chefs clamoring to get on the app exploded. Since March, WoodSpoon’s network of approved chefs soared from roughly 30 across three ZIP codes — Williamsburg, Park Slope and the Upper West Side — to 100 across 50 ZIP codes, including Queens, Hoboken, NJ, and Jersey City.
Now 90 percent of the chefs have professional experience, including from such big names as Nobu, Cipriani and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Nougatine, Saar says.
WoodSpoon would have even more, but they can’t process the applications fast enough. “After the city shut down, we were flooded with more than 500 inquiries from out-of-work chefs,” Saar said. “They’ve submitted paperwork, but it takes time. We are a small team.”
Kevin Martinez joined WoodSpoon three weeks ago after he was laid off from his job as a line cook at Nougatine.
Martinez, who lives with his girlfriend in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, rides his bike to Union Square Greenmarket to shop for his meals. Dishes have included a pappardelle pasta with meat pecorino and basil for $10; and a seared branzino fillet with sweet potato topped with roasted corn and avocado for $15.
Consumers pay a 15 percent service charge that goes to WoodSpoon, as well as taxes. The branzino, for example, can be had for $18.78 including a $2.25 service fee and $1.53 in tax. Delivery is free.
“WoodSpoon is a lifesaver,” Martinez tells Side Dish, saying he would have gone “out of my mind” without the structure after losing his restaurant job. “It definitely gives me hope. If I could get enough orders a day, this is what I would do. Cooks like myself, with entrepreneurial spirit, will love it.”
The uptick in supply hasn’t yet translated to an equal surge in demand from consumers, Saar said, but the app is ending its beta-testing mode on Tuesday and is raising money for marketing.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Saar said, adding they are still “trying to get the word out.”
As to the all-important COVID-19 safety issue, Saar says all chefs have been vetted, including home visits, now being done by Zoom, to ensure they are meeting food-handling and safety requirements.
All cooks are required to wear masks and gloves and package their food with company-provided supplies.
As to the public health issue, New York state allows people who sell baked goods, jellies or snack mixes to prepare food from home, although they must get approval to do so. In other food categories, chefs need to be subject to regular public health inspections.
“The onus is on them,” Saar said, adding WoodSpoon itself is not responsible to public health authorities for the vetting of home chefs “They join us now and we do our part to make it as safe as possible.”
The app provides its chefs with a proprietary tool to help them price their dishes based on the cost of their ingredients, which Martinez says has helped him learn about factoring in food costs when preparing a menu. Ground beef, for example, has almost doubled in price — from $5 a pound to almost $9 a pound.
“I dream of opening my own restaurant and this is the way to start,” Martinez says.