The San Francisco Bay area is all about innovation, creativity and a kind of cooperative spirit that is the legacy of the 60's and the Summer of Love. And so, it seems only fitting that a new, cooperative business model formed by folks who would seem to be competing for the same customers would be born here, in the Bay. Here's is how it happened:
In an August 18th column, we posited the question: Did Kitchit Tonight force the demise of the Kitchit Marketplace? and explored the landscape of the food-meets-tech business sector which is thriving in the San Francisco Bay area, with its innovating dining options that range from pop-ups to secret dining clubs. While many of these innovations are a great fit for the middle market that is serviced by Kitchit Tonight ($39 dinners are prepared in a commissary kitchen which cooks re-heat and plate in the customer’s homes), there is little activity as the higher end. IfOnly has definitely stepped up its efforts in the Bay area, and even courted some of the former Kitchit Marketplace chefs, but their business model is diverse as are the culinary "Experiences" they offer, ranging from a chef's shirt hand signed by Michael Chiarello ($250) to an entire category dedicated to Culinary Apprenticeships, and, of course, offers from some of the top chefs in the region (we counted over 20).
With so few players in the space, Kitchit Marketplace chefs felt they were left without critical access to customers who are looking for bespoke cuisine. Chefs are a communicative group, and a FaceBook group quickly popped up called Formerly Kitchit Chefs, where ideas, gig opportunities, complaints and suggestions were exchanged and friendships fostered. Out of that, a new model emerged: a co-op marketplace which currently hosts six chefs on a website called Private Chefs of the SF Bay (full disclosure: this columnist is one of the chefs on the site), which went live November 1st, 2015. Each chef has a presence on the site’s home page, their own dedicated page complete with bio, menus, food photos and contact information. The business model is one in which a small percentage of proceeds from events booked through the site go back to the co-op to support marketing and site maintenance, with half of those funds being earmarked to support selected Bay Area non-profits operating in the culinary sector.
The co-op marketplace, with its tagline, “A Curated Collective of Culinary Talents” offers a broad range of cuisine; from California Cuisine to Indian, Latin, Mexican and Moroccan to Wine Country and Asian Fusion and Southern comfort cooking, as well as culinary coaching and cooking classes. “We wanted to offer the consumer enough options so they can find whatever they were looking for on the site, but not so many as to overwhelm them with choices” says Chef Rose Johnson, one of the core team members. Private Chefs of the SF Bay has some more unusual culinary offers, as well, like Wild Game from Chef Bobbi Jo Wasilko, and a Guest Chef of the Month as a way to involve more chefs in the venture and offer unique food. “We are covering all our bases” continues Chef Rose, “we have chefs from as far north as Santa Rosa, east to Tracy and south to Los Altos”. Customers have the option of requesting a specific chef, or asking a concierge to send menus and proposals from up to 3 chefs.
Private Chefs of the SF Bay is also doing some things differently, with six chefs who feel they learned a lot from the Kitchit Marketplace experience. For example, and this is perhaps one of the keys to why Kitchit turned to a lower end ticket, a downward spiral is created when chefs undercut each other in order to fill their schedules. With some many chefs on the Kitchit Marketplace, one experiencd chef explained it this way, "So many chefs [lack the experience to] command the appropriate rate for their work... [and need to] learn how to do some math on food and labor costs.... I was a Kitcheningsurfing chef in the very beginning when it had a marketplace, [and saw that] all too often the winning bid 'chef' had undercut the price point budget a client would set just to get the job". To avoid this kind of unhealthy competition and create an offer that is more consistent, the chefs in this new co-op set agreed-up minimum pricing, and came together on a score of other policies that affect the customer, like travel distances and related fees, costs per server, and holiday rates. "We wanted to make it easy for the customer, and allow them to make their decision based on the chef, his or her culinary style and bio, the menu--- the food" says Johnson, as opposed to comparing policies. Beyond this, each chef sets their own prices and is in direct contact with the customer from the start, something which is not the case with third party sites whose income stream is generated from the chef side. The co-op model lends itself well to the open communication between host and chef so crucial to creating a successful event.
Are co-ops the new direction for bespoke chefs? That remains to be seen. The Bay area chefs behind Private Chefs of the SF Bay are sharing the model with former Kitchit chefs in the New York region. It will be interesting to see if they follow suit.