From the age of 3 until leaving for college, Alvin Salehi lived in a motel in Buena Park.
His parents, Iranian immigrants, invested in the Orange County motel and then had to move in to keep it afloat. Despite these difficulties, there was one thing Salehi and his three siblings could always count on: his mother’s homemade Persian stew and saffron. tahdeeg.
It’s these delightful memories – and the goal of helping other immigrants and refugees earn meaningful income from their homes – that power Shef, Salehi’s online marketplace based in San Francisco.
With co-CEO Joey Grassia, a child of Italian immigrants, Salehi launched Shef in 2019, connecting the hungry take-out crowd with home chefs cooking everything from Armenian dolma to Indonesian beef soup. (Shef launched this January, the same month that AB-626 made it possible for Californians to cook and sell food from the comfort of their home kitchens).
Although laws and enforcement still vary from county to county, the home cooking industry has grown rapidly during the pandemic. Shef has facilitated the sale of over a million meals in its eight markets, including the Bay Area and Los Angeles. There are currently thousands of “shefs” selling more than a dozen types of cuisine. 16,000 others are on the platform’s waiting list.
To date, the startup has raised $ 20 million in funding and is backed by a host of celebrities, including Padma Lakshmi and Katy Perry. Salehi, who worked as a senior White House technical adviser under President Barack Obama, is currently waiving all fees associated with becoming a cook on the platform for Afghan refugees resettling to America. We spoke with him about this initiative, the Washington DC days and how Shef works.
Q: What made you want to create Shef?
A: My parents came to the United States from Iran in the 1970s. Like most immigrants, they had a hard time. They had to rebuild from scratch. One of the things they did was open a restaurant in Anaheim. It was so much fun working there. But statistically, most restaurants fail. On a good day, they were barely breaking even. It is very clear in hindsight that if Shef had been around back then it could have made all the difference to them. We built it for people like our parents. It’s a tribute to my mom and Joey’s mom and all the other parents like them.
Q: What does the onboarding process look like at Shef? How do you manage food security?
A: Food safety is our number one priority. All Shefs go through a 150-step onboarding process, which includes a Food Safety Certification Exam and Food Quality Assessment. They are required to comply with all local laws and regulations. In areas that have not yet implemented home cooking laws, shefs are required to cook in commercial kitchens or other legally permitted facilities.
Q: What is Shef’s cut?
A: Shef charges a 15% transaction fee on each order to help cover the costs of operations, marketing and support services for our shefs. Shipping costs are calculated separately depending on the region. One hundred percent of all tips go straight to the store.
Q: How has your time in Washington, DC contributed to Shef’s development?
A: What I learned there was how to work on regulations and make meaningful progress in government. This experience has helped us establish a lot of goodwill with state regulators across the country. The only reason we started our business in January 2019 was that we were waiting for this legislature, AB-626, the California Homemade Food Act, pass.
Q: How has COVID affected your business?
A: COVID has disproportionately affected people of color. 85% of people on the platform are people of color and 81% are women. Our whole mission has expanded to help them recover from the pandemic. And frankly, a lot of it was organic. During the pandemic, we saw a huge increase in the number of people who, out of necessity, began to cook and sell food at home. All of a sudden, regulators and lawmakers started asking us to do good to their constituents. It was a big flexing point in the family kitchen movement.
Q: Why is this type of market particularly suitable for refugees?
A: When I was in the White House, I took a trip to the Syrian border, and it was an absolutely heartbreaking experience. After I returned to the United States, I felt very compelled to do something to help the refugees. I’ve been to Meetups across the country to talk to immigrant and refugee mothers. And I’ve heard the same thing over and over again: âI have three kids and I’m stuck at home. I have a spouse who has two jobs to put food on the table. So I asked them what they were doing while they were at home. They said, âWe watch the children and we cook. “
A light went out. What can we do to make this transition to this country a little easier? We are setting aside $ 3,500 for any refugee who wishes to start Shef. It is a time of crisis. We are speeding up the onboarding process. And we work with local groups to provide support services and help them buy any cooking equipment they need. Shef is also partnering with locals of the Afghan Coalition to donate homemade meals directly to refugee families.
Title: Co-Managing Director, Shef
Education: Doctor of Laws, Masters of Management, BA in Journalism, and BA in Political Science, all from the University of Southern California
Professional experience: Senior Technology Advisor, The White House; co-founder, Code.gov; research affiliate, Harvard Law School; business partner, NextGen VP; Foreign Affairs Officer, US Department of State.
Family: Single. Father, Mohsen; mother: Shahla
FIVE THINGS ABOUT ALVIN SALEHI
– Under Obama, Salehi wrote the country’s first federal source code policy and led its enforcement.
– He is more of an eater than a cook, but he is known to make a delicious bowl of Persian spaghetti with a Shirazi salad.
– The first time Salehi ordered from Shef, it was a beef and yellow split pea stew called khoresh gheymeh. He believed that no version could ever compare to his mother’s. Until he tastes it: âI was transported straight to my mother’s kitchen table and I was 7 years old. I was emotional.
– He is currently watching “Salt Fat Acid Heat” on Netflix. He loves Samin Nosrat.