Not long after launching his catering company, Motta Cuisine, from his apartment in Spanish Harlem, Ralph Motta began marketing it on Feastly, a site where professional and amateur chefs host meals that others pay to attend.
Today, Mr. Motta cooks three meals a week, sharing the cuisine of his native St. Croix: a dinner and two brunches. Charging $38 to $50 for dinners and $45 for brunches, including alcohol, he has grown his revenue to about $1,500 a month.
And that’s the rub. It’s not nearly enough to sustain him. He still has to drive a truck part-time for a catering company to make ends meet.
Meal sharing has been dubbed the Airbnb of food, and platforms like Feastly and EatWith, both based in San Francisco, and Meal Sharing, headquartered in Chicago, are gaining traction in New York. Micro-entrepreneurs use them to promote in-home supper clubs, cooking classes, and personal chef and catering services.
But in a city where the competition includes some of the world’s best-known restaurants, many chefs have found it’s not easy to make a full-time living on the platforms.
Is it even legal?
Noah Karesh, co-founder and chief executive of Feastly, which was launched in 2013 and raised $1.5 million in seed money in November, said food-service platforms like his “are extremely good at empowering micro-entrepreneurship.” But by his account, 90% of those on the site earn a supplemental, not full-time, income.
But the legality of in-home restaurants is an open question, making it unclear how sustainable they are. “Home-based restaurants are illegal throughout New York state and are not eligible for food-service establishment permits,” said a spokesman at New York City’s Department of Health. It isn’t possible for the department to determine if home kitchens meet proper sanitary requirements or if home chefs practice good hygiene, he said.
Feastly’s website says it vets every cook on the site and “follows strict guidelines to make sure every food experience is safe and clean.”
Municipalities have varying rules about the legality of in-home eateries, said Guy Michlin, CEO and co-founder of EatWith, which operates in 151 cities worldwide, including New York, and has raised $8 million in Series A funding. “We got a legal opinion in San Francisco, and there it’s completely legal,” he said. “I’m expecting at some point we will have to address this.”
For the time being, there’s no doubt the platforms offer a valuable service by aggregating potential customers who would be hard for independent chefs to find on their own. “They provide a marketplace to connect buyers with sellers, a payment and marketing platform, and a review and rating process to help people trust one another,” says Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research in Lafayette, Calif., who studies the sharing economy.
Before Mr. Motta tried Feastly, he offered dinners and brunches to attract catering clients but had trouble reaching beyond his social circle. “I wasn’t able to make a living,” he said.
But building a big enough clientele to go full-time isn’t easy. Professional chefs Sean and Katherine—who identify as “Sean & Kat” on Feastly’s site—offer dinners for eight to 25 people in their Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, loft. (They didn’t want to publish their last names because they work full-time at Manhattan restaurants.) Sean is skeptical that Feastly meals alone can be a viable business. “The highest you can charge for a dinner tops out at about $60, so these home meals are more like a launching pad for other endeavors,” he said.
EatWith hosts Dalila Ercolani and Marco Maestoso have been able to make a full-time living with their business, Casa Maestoso. The couple quit their day jobs in January and transformed their small, Upper East Side studio into one big dining room. (In warm weather they offer meals in their first-floor garden.) They started offering Sunday-night dinners last spring; a year later they are up to four dinners a week and also offer cooking classes at their apartment or at clients’ homes. Their income hasn’t yet exceeded what they made before leaving their jobs, said Ms. Ercolani, but she’s hopeful. “We see room for it to expand,” she said.