It’s hard to ignore the lure of on-demand food delivery startups like Sprig and SpoonRocket. Select your meal, press a button, and poof, a delivery person is waiting outside your door in minutes (at least during off-peak times).
But buying meals from these services, and others in the so-called “shut-in economy” doesn’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy. Someone is making a lot of money on these startups, but your personal experience is this: grabbing food from a harried deliveryperson who is probably getting paid less than they should.
Then there’s The Town Kitchen, a food delivery service that doubles as a food justice initiative.
The Town Kitchen launched last year in Oakland, California, with a mission to prepare high-quality, on-demand meals for businesses, while paying low-income teenagers and young adults a living wage ($15 to $20 an hour) for working in the kitchen and getting trained in valuable culinary skills.
In addition to getting food prep experience, the kids will learn about social justice and entrepreneurial skills, as part of an education partnership starting this summer with the Oakland Unified School District and San Francisco State University–the latter of which will give course credit for kitchen work.
The food options are inspired. One upcoming lunch features a Japanese curry chicken salad sandwich, seared salmon with a pesto orzo pasta salad, a smoked tofu Cobb salad with avocado-lime dressing, and a strawberry spinach salad. Sides and drinks include an Arnold Palmer from Mamacitas Cafe (a women-owned pop-up cafe), as well as artisan marshmallows and salted caramels. “It’s definitely a chef-crafted meal,” says the company’s co-founder and CEO, Sabrina Mutukisna.
Mutukisna previously owned a cupcake business, but she was always intrigued by the potential to bring together communities with entrepreneurship and workforce development. Then Mutukisna met Jefferson Sevilla, a sous chef at Google who would go on to be the executive chef at SpoonRocket. “We talked about how we could make a food delivery company that’s about social justice, but is also for-profit,” says Mutukisna. Sevilla soon quit his SpoonRocket job to orchestrate The Town Kitchen’s meals.
The startup officially launched in December with an Indiegogo campaign that raised over $41,000 in 30 days. Since it began delivering food on January 12, the Town Kitchen has sent out 3,000 meals to tech and finance companies, nonprofits, educational institutions, and conferences.
Now that it has moved into a large kitchen in downtown Oakland, the Town Kitchen–which just graduated from urban ventures accelerator Tumml–will be able to expand its operations even further, producing 1,000 meals a day, with five days of service per week starting in May (it launched with two days per week). An upcoming mobile app will streamline delivery operations further, letting customers order from their phones and track deliveries.
Vetted drivers go from business to business, but youth employees are the ones actually getting out of the car and delivering food.
There are a few big differences between the Town Kitchen and services like SpoonRocket that quickly deliver to individuals. For now, it only delivers to businesses (the average delivery size is 35 meals), and customers have to order the day before delivery if they need their food at a specific time. The Town Kitchen always leaves room for last-minute orders, however.
The company finds its youth employees through local partner organizations; many of them take a personal interest in entrepreneurship and food justice. Some of them will grow into new roles at the Town Kitchen as it grows, while others will likely go on to work at partner organizations.
“The nice thing about having a workforce program around food is that there’s never a dull moment. There’s no space for them to be bored,” says Mutukisna. “We see the kitchen as a great place to build community, to build structure, and be really great at time-management skills.”