Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The sharing economy moves into a new niche: dinner. Will queasy eaters and regulators buy in?
A few weeks ago in Midtown Manhattan, I watched six slices of vegetable quiche change hands between two women who never even laid eyes on each other.
Leni Calas had cooked the quiche – peppers, mushrooms, asparagus heads, Gruyère – in her kitchen in Astoria, inside a modest yellow-brick house with an inflatable pool and a vegetable patch out front. She’d packed up the dinner with an arugula salad on the side, the dressing in its own little container.
Then on cue, at 4:28 in the afternoon, a bike messenger named Gaetano sporting an Occupy Wall Street T-shirt turned up to pedal the meal to Manhattan. It was 102 degrees outside.
"Can I have a glass of water?" he wanted to know first. He and Calas had never met before, either, although it turned out standing in Calas’ kitchen that they knew some of the same Occupy people.
"Yes," Calas said, as if this domestic scene – the cyclist in her kitchen, the homemade quiche, the carry-out containers traveling the wrong direction – were entirely ordinary. "But you’re going to have to help yourself." She was still folding another family’s dinner into a brown paper bag, the other half of what she planned to feed her own family that night.
Calas recently joined a year-old food cooperative called Mealku that's built on the premise of people who don’t know each other sharing homemade food, with no money exchanged. If you’ve ever belonged to a meal-swap – I cook Monday if you cook Wednesday – picture scaling that up to an entire city, far beyond anyone’s natural circle of trust. Ted D’Cruz-Young, Mealku's creator, says the network currently has a "few thousand" members plus 31 bike messengers in New York City, with plans to expand to other cities later this year. These are the pioneers of the food frontier of "collaborative consumption," the growing niche of the economy where people are sharing instead of buying all kinds of consumables (cars, apartments, tools) in a behavior that seems less eccentric by the day.
On his way from Queens to Manhattan, Gaetano made an additional stop before arriving at the MetLife building in Midtown (there was a bit of delay getting the quiche through the security desk downstairs). In a break room up on the 17th floor, Nicole Horne, a working mom who buys and sells commercial real estate, was waiting to take the food home to her husband and two kids in Park Slope.
This literal food chain, from Queens to Manhattan to Brooklyn, from private kitchen to private kitchen, is meant to skirt the byproducts of the current food system: the top-down regulation, the processed meals, the greasy take-out, the wasted leftovers, the anonymous relationships around everything. Mealku, like a lot of upstart ideas in the sharing economy, has its eye on the much more ambitious goal of rewiring how we relate to each other and the things we consume.
"There are fundamental connections around food we'd like to remake, fundamental connections around commerce and engagement, around participation," says D’Cruz-Young, a 43-year-old former advertising creative with a Scottish accent and a taste for African peasant food (so says his Mealku bio). He knows this sounds intense, and he quickly disarms the sweeping mission with an apt aside. "I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just bitten off more than I can chew."
It turned out, from Queens to Manhattan, that the salad dressing had spilled en route ("we’re still testing the packaging," Karen Lerman, Mealku’s marketing manager, tells me). But Horne later reported that the quiche was fluffy, filling, and reheated well even after a ride on the 4 and R trains. And Gaetano went on to cycle nearly another 20 miles that day.
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Four main obstacles stand in the way of scaling up any kind of cooperation around food, beyond the informal leftover swaps between neighbors that have existed for generations.
The first is organizational: How do you sync calendars and cooking plans among hundreds of people or more?
The second is operational: How do you logistically move the food around?
The third is psychological: How do you create trust among so many strangers around something as consequential (and potentially sickening) as food?
The last is regulatory: Is all of this even legal?
For Mealku, the answer to the first three questions is, in essence, technology. What the platform is proposing is a very old idea – let’s go back to the way we used to eat and share food – but the mechanism for doing that is entirely modern. In the distance between those two worlds, the old-world village that D'Cruz-Young evokes and the new millennium in New York City, the regulatory question is much murkier.
Sitting in a conference room in a coworking building in SoHo where the company does most of its work, D’Cruz-Young pulls out his laptop to show me the back end of the platform that runs Mealku, which has effectively converted home cooking into data.
For the past year, members have been able to post online whatever food they have to give. These offerings generally consist of what you'd think of as leftovers, say, two portions of chipotle-marinated chicken available on a Wednesday night. The theory for many of these people, in a city full of singles, is that recipes rarely come in solo or two-person proportions. Who wants to eat chipotle-marinated chicken five nights in a row, regardless of how good it is?
Mealku’s website collects all of these remainders of meals, with recipes, cook profiles and narratives attached. Other members can peruse and order the food online for the cost of some Mealku credits. Make food, and you earn credits. Receive food, and you spend them. The bike messenger costs credits, too, but Mealku pays guys like Gaetano in actual money, $10.50 an hour (no tip necessary) that’s currently covered by the investor capital that launched the company. There’s also a membership fee of $1 a month.
This is supply-side sharing. But Mealku is also hoping to send food both ways: "I want chipotle-marinated chicken, who will make it for me?" The dynamics of the site are evolving around this notion of demand, which presupposes that some amateur cooks would want to earn a name for themselves on the site, and possibly make some money in the process. As Mealku expands across New York and onto the West Coast later this year, members will be able to trade in "ku" for cash, or spend cash to get credit in the system as an alternative to typical takeout. The financial model is based on a transaction percentage taken off the value of these meals, as well as the monthly membership fees and other revenue-generating cooking classes and partnerships.
On his laptop, D’Cruz-Young searches the homepage for "beef spicy," which then turns up dozens of recipes culled both from Mealku’s history and other sites on the web. Mealku tells us there are 254 home cooks in New York likely interested in making us spicy noodles with beef and mango, based on their own food preferences and the things they’ve made in the past. The back side of the site catalogs every meal by its ingredients (eggs, fish, chicken), its ethnicity (Mexican, Lebanese), and its characteristics (gluten free, halal, kosher). The more members search for, cook, order and review recipes, the more these data points come to define people, too. If you have no idea what you want to eat for dinner tonight, Mealku does. If you like Southern Indian food but you're not sure why, Mealku knows that, too – it's the coriander.
The logistics are equally intricate. Every day at noon, software that Mealku has built from scratch reconciles all of the orders for that night and runs a simulation of how many bike messengers will be needed to distribute the food on time. D’Cruz-Young plays one of the simulations from a previous day, and we watch a little brown bag icon symbolizing eight portions of black bean and chick pea chili wind down Third Avenue to a green drop-off location. Soon, other brown and green dots and paper bags sprout on the map, as the simulation works through an entire evening’s orders (on a week night, D'Cruz-Young says, there are usually more than a hundred). As the network expands, the distance between individual nodes of people cooking and wanting food will shrink. A bike messenger traveling five miles will be able to hit eight homes instead of two.
In real time, the software constantly adjusts, rerouting cyclists and notifying members if the pickup or drop-off will be more than three minutes late. The cyclists know only their next move; when they complete it, the software texts another one. The system is far more sophisticated than a taxi dispatch service. It seems to have solved a logistics piece that goes well beyond some other startup apps for leftover swaps and in-home dining. And it’s heavily driven by data – data about dinner, data about people, data about the layout of the city.
"It was completely inconceivable before 2006, 2007," says D’Cruz-Young. "I can take that data structure, map it, and split it so that a meal becomes a number of portions, a number of transactions. We align those transactions and map them in time, place, distance. And now everyone's kitchen is a hub. Now we have the largest kitchen on the planet."
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You can pretty reliably order dinner from this networked kitchen and expect that it will show up when you want it to, not unlike regular take-out (though with some advance planning). But that still leaves the problem of trust in the food itself, and in the kitchen that produced it. The dynamic is notably different in other parts of the sharing economy, whether you’re sharing a ride on Lyft, or borrowing a blender on SnapGoods, or even renting a flat on Airbnb. City regulators don’t inspect every rental car or consumer good or apartment in town. But they do inspect every commercial kitchen.
"What's interesting about food is that at its heart it is the most communal of all experiences," says David Jones, the CEO of the media company Havas, which is planning to roll out Mealku to its New York employees.
But food is also the most vulnerable product we could possibly share. Salmonella will always be a more real, ever-present danger than, say, renting an Airbnb room from an axe murderer.
Mealku addresses this by, first, sending "welcome cooks" to evaluate the kitchens – and the motives – of every person who wants to cook in the network. They poke through fridges, into cupboards, and under sinks, homing in on expiration dates. Listening to several people describe this process, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that my own kitchen probably wouldn’t pass this test, for its wealth of dubious condiments. Mealku also has a slightly less objective standard: "No lazy, crazy or selfish people are allowed."
"If it feels funky on any dimension – hygiene, attitudes – we just don’t second-guess it," D’Cruz-Young says. "We say 'Great to meet you, feel free to order some food, but our cooking ranks are full right now.'"
Cooks also have to take an online food-protection course. But the real device for ensuring trust is the same one that eBay has used for more than 15 years: ratings. Every meal in the system comes with feedback – positive, negative or neutral. That's far more transparency than you'll get from a health-inspection letter grade on a restaurant door, D’Cruz-Young argues. Every portion of every meal could never be reviewed in the world of commercial kitchens.
The tone of the reviews, though, tends to reflect the cooperative nature of the whole enterprise. D’Cruz-Young says that less than 1 percent of the reviews have been negative. People aren't paying cash for these meals, after all. And would you eat for free at your friend's mother's table and then tell her everything that was wrong with her cooking? When I suggest to D’Cruz-Young that this attitude might make it hard to weed out bad cooks, if not the unsafe ones, he counters that the data will make such distinctions clear over time. Great cooks will develop a following. And the crummy ones, whose leftover borscht no one would actually want for dinner?
"On one level, we're racing back to the village," D’Cruz-Young says. "If I'm the cobbler, and I make shoes that fall apart, I'm not going to be the cobbler in town much longer. No one's going to trade me anything."
None of the Mealku members I encounter seem the least preoccupied by health risk, including Calas and Horne, both of whom run blogs aggregating advice for local parents. Christian Leue, a member whose own cooking I tried without fear, admitted to having received a few dishes that weren't exactly what he wanted. But he also said he'd been turned on to avocado chocolate mousse and a "paleo cassoulet that was out of this world."
Spend enough time talking about food with these people, and it starts to seem like the true risk-takers are the diners who order takeout sweet-and-sour shrimp surprise from Bob's Chinese Buffet around the corner.
"I would say 60-70 percent of the [potential] investors were sort of horrified by the idea that you would eat food cooked in someone's kitchen that you didn't know," says Shaun Abrahamson, an adviser to D’Cruz-Young who himself became an investor. But then for every five people weirded out by the idea, someone was curious about it. "With a lot of behaviors – and that's ultimately what this is – I don't need a lot of people to make it safe for other people," Abrahamson says. "I need a few people to go into the water and confirm that there are no sharks. And then other people can go swim."
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D’Cruz-Young is convinced that Mealku is beyond the reach of city health regulators. No meal has an actual price tag on it. No money directly changes hands between cooks and eaters. Mealku's credit system intentionally defies easy conversion into dollars. One ku is worth something a little less than a buck in the new cash-back system. To D’Cruz-Young's thinking, Mealku is a closed, membership-based food club.
"If we can't operate, then that's the end of bake sales. Bake sales can't exist," he says. "It's that simple. We have to kill all the grannies, because it's not safe."
But as Mealku expands, it will invariably bump into two problems: It may soon be running a takeout service that's better than the takeout services already in business in any given city. This is precisely how the alternative taxi service Uber has gotten itself into trouble in New York and Washington. And with new opportunities to actually earn money cooking for other people, parts of the site will cross a line from pure sharing into micro-industry. That's not necessarily a bad thing from the standpoint of Mealku's original mission. When a lot of advocates of the sharing economy talk about reverting to the way we used to do things, they don’t mean no one makes any money; they mean value is created and consumed in a less top-down, industrial way.
"If you were determined enough and wanted to make two lasagna trays instead of one, you could certainly be making $50 a day, pretty easily," Calas reasons to me, sitting in her dining room. "If you're a mom, that's $800 a month. That's not insignificant to a family."
Mealku money could cover your groceries (which sounds like the argument that Airbnb, in conflict with hoteliers, just helps people afford their rent).
Local governments, of course, are unlikely to view things that way. And the more existing businesses feel threatened by Mealku – as has happened with Airbnb and Uber – the more likely regulators are to look closer. When I reached out to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene about Mealku, they told me they consider people who offer meals to the public for money to be running food service establishments in need of permits. I suggested that the "public" in this case was a member-based cooperative, and that the "money" being exchanged was technically credit. In a few early stories about Mealku's launch last year, the Health Department seemed to shrug that "clubs" where people prepare food for each other are not regulated by the health code.
But when I pressed about the specifics, the department told me something a little different: "Being a member of a cooperative does not make a difference. Anyone who offers meals to the public for compensation, including credits that can be exchanged for cash, is considered to be operating a food service establishment."
At the very least, Abrahamson reasons, Mealku may encounter legal questions once it has already effectively developed a lobby of people who depend on the service, as Airbnb has. This seems to be the best legal strategy any startup in the sharing economy has today. The traditional hotel, restaurant and taxi industries certainly have lobbies. Why shouldn't the sharing economy, too? "I don’t know what happens when people talk openly about using Mealku instead of Seamless web," Abrahamson says. "My view was always, as an engineer, I see how this can work, I understand the technology, all that stuff has become relatively easy. The bigger problem is that it's a different business model, and it's going to take business away from someone else."
Of course, that's also the point: It's a different business model. If Mealku neatly fit within a city government's conception of legitimate food purveyors, this idea would hardly be challenging the status quo, or those fundamental connections around commerce and engagement and participation that D'Cruz-Young says he's after. His own frame of reference for food was conditioned by his mother, a World War II baby who grew up in a small Scottish town where cooking was invention and waste was considered morally bankrupt.
"The flip side of waste is community," D'Cruz-Young says. And this makes some basic sense, even if you're squeamish at the thought of the innards of some other person's fridge. "The flip side of not wasting is connecting."