Twenty three-year-old Abhinandan Balasubramanian lived in London and preferred dining at restaurants rather than cooking at home. Soon he drained out of options and the old favourites seemed monotonous.
Once there was a small celebration, and he wondered why not call a chef home and bring friends over. The next day after the party, he realised the hidden potential in this unique proposition. The graduate from the University of Warwick, UK, teamed up with college mate Yiu Yin Yau, a Hong Kong native to start ChefHost, an online community and marketplace connecting chefs with customers for bespoke private dining experiences.
Dinner for five in New Delhi, party for 10 in Mumbai or a wedding anniversary in Hong Kong, call ChefHost. The platform celebrates passion for food between the people who make it and those who eat it. And this it does by matching chef expertise and availability with customers’ interests and requirements.
“My starting point was India from day one due to my knowledge of the market. The rest is now history! Watching companies like Uber and Airbnb do so well in Asia was an absolute plus for ChefHost in the way we modelled it. Yiu Yin Yau told me how he could take this to Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia. I loved the fact that he connected with the idea instantly and I decided to get him on board as the Co-founder,” said Balasubramanian, Founder and CEO, ChefHost. He is also the head of Business Development and the member of the founding team at online private equity platform Liquity.
The startup claims to be the first in Asia with operations in India, Hong Kong and Macau. However, the West has similar online marketplace models such as SimpleeHost and Chefstro.
In India, it is present in Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad in the south; New Delhi NCR, in the north; Kolkata in the east; Ahmedabad Mumbai, Surat and Goa in the west. There are about 20 chefs in each major city with an aim to get 100 chefs per city by the end of the first year.
The startup has raised funding in an internal round and is looking to do a proper external round of funding in early 2015.
How can a host find a chef? If you want to hire a chef from the ChefHost platform, you have to find the right chef, pick a menu and book them by paying. From planning the meal, shopping for it, preparing, cooking, serving and cleaning up the cookware, the chef will handle it all.
In terms of the chefs, just as they would create a profile on LinkedIn, they are required to create their profiles and add their own menus and set their own prices. “We’ve made sure we are taking all necessary details in order to make the ChefHost journey as easy as possible for the chefs and the hosts in terms of getting bookings done. For instance, we ask if a particular menu requires a sophisticated kitchen or a few days notice or if a particular menu can be executed in different formats,” said Balasubramanian.
For chefs, it is free marketing, opportunities, direct interaction with their customers and building a reputation for themselves, and most importantly monetising their potential. For hosts, this is an alternate food experience, making friends, family and colleagues enjoy the opportunity of a private dining at home.
There are some internationally successful chefs, Michelin Star chefs, Le Cordon Bleu chefs and also some popular home chefs on the platform. “We are welcoming aspiring home chefs to the platform too. Why should everyone wait to be on MasterChef? If someone believes they got what it takes at the big level, they can perform for us. If we are happy with their cooking and our critics approve their food, we will take them on the platform. We also have a chef who has cooked for Brad Pitt and Angie Jolie and Chris Martin,” stated Balasubramanian.
Wouldn’t it be a costly affair? ChefHost does not influence prices. The chefs create their own menus and set prices for each order depending on the complexity, style of execution, ingredients required, etc. “We advise our chefs while they sign up on what to consider before setting prices,” he explained.
ChefHost takes a percentage of booking made on the website. When a diner books a chef on the platform, ChefHost takes a percentage of the fee that a chef sets for booking. It also has a concierge service that has additional charges.
All the payments on the platform are made online. There is no cash exchange on the day of the booking, unless the host wants to tip the chef extra. “There are strict policies to follow and hence, no grey area in terms of ‘what if the chef doesn’t turn up or what if the host cancels it at the last minute’,” he added.
Need to educate the users about ChefHost-ing The hotel industry is one of the biggest and most mature industries that is ripe for disruption. The whole task of making people understand that innovating the industry is good is a huge challenge.
“If the big hotel chains/restaurant chains think of us as competition and completely ignore us or impose restrictions on their chefs because of contractual stuff, then it will be ten times harder to build our community. But thankfully, even the big hotel chains have seen benefit that if one of their chefs builds a reputation on the ChefHost platform, it will only improve their brand! So we have been welcomed with open arms. We have started building partnerships and associations with the F&B and hospitality industry leaders to build a cooperative community online,” he explained.
There is a need to educate users on how to go about ChefHost-ing in order to maintain satisfactory outcome for the chef and the host. “All the kitchens are not fully equipped, so we will have to overcome that to get the perfect dish made,” he added.
According to him, regulation of the marketplace is important, but it poses a great challenge. “Hence, we will be implementing a peer-to-peer review system wherein chefs and hosts get rated. That way the platform will be built on a trust model and we will be able to negate any nuisance on the platform,” Balasubramanian said.
‘Fly home a chef’ coming soon! It is soon launching “Fly home a chef” service, where a host can fly a chef home from overseas. “It is a super exclusive service that we will be providing for select occasions only,” he added.
The startup is bringing together additional features in the coming months such as kitchenware renting services, butler services, event organising services, gifting services, etc. All of these will be added to the platform and operated via its partners. Maybe a year from now it will also organise DJs for parties.
The platform is also starting a “get rated and start chefhosting” programme wherein aspiring home chefs will cook for three judges and if they are approved, they can be listed on the ChefHost platform for hiring. According to Balasubramanian, in simple words, they are taking MasterChef and making it simple, easy and more importantly online. The platform is also planning to launch an app by Jan 2015.
It has plans to expand to all Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities in India (around 15 in all) by the end of this year. The startup has identified leadership and distribution channels for releases in Tier 1 cities in China, Southeast Asia and MEA over the course of the next six to 12 months.
Balasubramanian concluded by saying, “Greed is always good, so how about the idea of becoming the Uber and Airbnb of dining!”