A home cooked meal for cheap? There's an app for that, but critics are skeptical
Apps that allow home chefs to sell dishes prepared in their personal kitchens have cropped up in Canada, but uncertainties about health regulations and the strength of consumer demand are raising questions about whether the business models are blue ribbon-worthy or half-baked fads.
Food-sharing platform LaPiat, which plans to launch in April, provides a platform for entrepreneurial cooks in the Greater Toronto Area to make some extra cash from home. Users can take pictures of their dishes to advertise and sell them at any price they set, leaving pick up and delivery to the cook and diner to work out.
Creator Arber Puci said the app spawned from the idea that everyone has friends and family who are amazing cooks and can use that talent to make some extra money, while consumers will find it cheaper than restaurants, take-out joints or other food delivery services such as Uber Eats.
The app targets home cooks like parents who are making lunch for their kids and can easily put together a few more portions to "make some cash on the side," said Puci, who will take a five per cent cut from chefs using the platform.
Predecessors Tffyn, Homefed and MealSurfers all launched in Toronto in the last few years, but appear to have since vanished, leaving behind rival app Kouzina, which hit the market in August.
Kouzina creator Nick Amaral said when he first researched similar apps he found "one or two" in Canada that ended up folding, but he feels the times have changed since then.
"We are getting more used to having services provided from people that we maybe don't know as first," he said.
Kouzina takes a six per cent cut from every item sold on the app. Kouzina has seen increasing numbers of customers and cooks, selling everything from fresh fettuccine and lasagna for $7 a serving to vanilla and raspberry Bavarian cakes for $25.
Both Puci and Amaral said they don't inspect the kitchens and instead rely on phone interviews, copies of food handlers certifications or customer rating systems to weed out those offering substandard customer service and food.
Amaral said he relies on a review and rating system for governance.
"Even one bad review I think would be enough to deter people," he said. "Good reviews will speak for themselves."
The lack of inspection comes as no surprise to Sylvanus Thompson, an associate director at Toronto Public Health, who said TPH has had to intervene a few times. Many of the owners and the home cooks preparing and selling food for such apps are not aware that they are subject to food premise regulations that require their kitchen undergo regular inspections from municipal staff and be zoned for commercial food activities, he said.
As a result, "some of them got out of the business," but Thompson said TPH knows that the "growing" number of homemade food apps is something "we don't intend to stop."
"We want to be able to work with these people to ensure compliance and safe food," he added.
He chalked up the emergence of the apps to the rise of the gig and sharing economy and hastened by food delivery apps including Uber Eats, Foodora and SkipTheDishes.
Gary Grant, who runs a catering business called The Garage Guy BBQ, started using Kouzina when it launched to sell his southern fried chicken, pork ribs, beef brisket, cabbage roll soup and sandwich box platters.
"We had one customer the week the app launched and that's it, " he said. "We have never had another inquiry or mention. It is there but has not done anything for us."
He still thinks the concept behind Kouzina is great, but is disappointed that it hasn't caught on as quickly as several similar apps in the U.S.
LaPiat creator Puci said he's not feeling deterred by the apparent lack of demand for other apps because he's convinced the sharing economy will only increase demand for his offering.
"I can't tell you what is going to happen in a year or two, but (based on) the excitement that I have got so far, I think we are here to stay," he said. "Even if my app doesn't make it, there is going to be someone else."
Though apps are not expensive to develop, their viability lies in getting people to use them and finding a way to monetize them, which can be tricky, said Mike von Massow, a University of Guelph associate professor specializing in food and hospitality.
"Early apps probably fail more quickly because we haven't achieved a critical mass. That's not to say we can't get to that critical mass," he said.
"I think there is an opportunity to get there. I think it is a model that can work."