When Alvin Salehi worked as a senior technology advisor under President Obama, he visited the Syrian border to learn more about the refugee crisis and, in doing so, found himself looking into something of a mirror. As a child of Iranian immigrants who came to the US in the 1970s, Salehi knew firsthand that whether one has the privilege of a safe and stable life or not begins with where you happen to be born. Having grown up in motel rooms, watching his family struggle to build a new life in a new country, Salehi doesn’t take that privilege lightly. So when he met with seven-year-old refugee kids who looked almost identical to him, he saw himself and his younger brother reflected in them. “After a trip like that, there’s just so much that compels you to want to do something to help,” he tells us.
“But I felt helpless. I knew I needed to do something, I just didn’t know what it was,” he continues. In search of answers, Salehi began attending meetings with immigrants and refugees, asking them what they needed in order to resettle in America. Their nearly unanimous response was that they needed meaningful income yet had to remain at home in order to take care of their kids. This inspired Salehi, with co-founder Joey Grassia, to create Shef, an online meal-delivery service that empowers immigrants and refugees to become food entrepreneurs.
Launched in 2019, Shef—which is available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Houston and Austin—operates like Uber Eats or Postmates in that they provide freshly cooked meals that customers can browse and order to be delivered. But unlike those services, Shef uses local, home cooks that are trained and safety certified. Their names and cultures are listed on the site, which is home to over 100 different countries’ cuisines from Nepalese to Haitian, Gujarati and Thai. For consumers, Shef offers a diverse and authentic array of meals, homemade by cooks who grew up with that culture and whose recipes have been passed down for generations. For cooks, Shef provides a platform where they can share their culture, generate income and work from home at their own schedule.
To become a verified chef on the site, applicants must pass through 150 steps. An accredited food safety certification exam, a quality assessment, randomized food safety audits and a consistent high rating on the platform all must be secured. “Food safety is and always will be our number one priority. We will never compromise food safety in the interest of growth and as a result, we have over 16,000 people on our waitlist to become a chef because we do take it so seriously,” explains Salehi.
Once verified, chefs are supplied with hairnets, gloves, masks, thermometers and anything else they need to maintain food safety. From there, cooks are their own bosses, deciding when and how much to work—a business model that Salehi and Grassia intentionally crafted to cater to the needs of at-home parents, caretakers and those with other kinds of extra jobs. In fact, the pair chose the platform’s name as a combination of “She” and “Chef” as an homage to immigrant mothers who do so much for the family. So it’s no coincidence that 85% of the chefs on the platform are people of color and 81% are women.
“Flexibility is so huge,” she tells us. “And in corporate America, that’s really hard. I’ve been in companies where they try to encourage that, but at the same time you have all these deadlines and everybody breathing down your neck.” On Shef, Mir is free to follow her passions while making some money off of it.
In 2020, the at-home and flexible conditions in working with Shef made the platform a lifeline for many in the food service industry when it was hit hard by the pandemic. “We reached out to the restaurant industry during COVID, to make sure that they knew that anyone who they were laying off had a second home on Shef until restaurants were able to get back on their feet,” says Salehi. The platform helped many hospitality workers continue to generate much-needed income, some even at a higher rate than ones they were making before. “In a traditional restaurant, line cooks make around $13 to $15 an hour on average. On our platform, many chefs are making an average of $40 an hour, and they’re doing so on a flexible basis,” Salehi continues.
A year later, when nearly 667,900 Afghans were forcibly displaced from their country, Shef’s platform once again offered relief. To help the estimated 37,000 Afghan refugees resettling in America, Shef opened its platform to Afghans with an expedited review process. They set aside $3,500 for each chef to help them with cooking supplies, providing additional training and waiving all fees. In addition, they consistently donate 100 meals per week (including Mir’s own authentic Afghan food) to organizations like the United Afghan Association to further assist refugees. When it comes to other issues—like the Haitian refugee crisis—Shef partners with Women for Women International.
Still, the most revolutionary aspect of this meal-delivery service isn’t its donations (though they are undeniably noteworthy), but rather how it breaks barriers for immigrants and other hopeful chefs to become entrepreneurs. To open a new restaurant, there is a great price tag—around $275,000 to get started—something Salehi knows all too well. “I saw my parents work so incredibly hard to build a better life for their kids. They opened a restaurant. That was supposed to be a really big inflection point for our family,” he says. “Unfortunately, they had to close down the doors and I realized that most restaurants actually fail in their first year of operation and, with that price tag, most people never have the opportunity to realize their culinary dreams.”
But with Shef, home cooks invest very little in order to start selling food. For some, like Mir, growing a following and testing recipes on the site can be a jumping off point to pursue dreams of creating a cookbook down the line. As Salehi tells it, Shef is “a platform where people who have never been able to build a food business before are able to do it with very minimal upfront costs. We essentially provide a very low-friction entry point to becoming a food entrepreneur.” For many families, that opportunity makes all the difference.
All images courtesy of Shef