After incorporating in January and winning a $15,000 summer fellowship from the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, the social dining application Homecooked Inc spent the summer expanding its presence in the New Haven area.
The app offers a dining experience that connects guests with local amateur chefs. Founders Hojung Kim and Kevin Zhen ’20 first met in high school, remained close as they charted separate paths to college — Kim to the University of Chicago and Zhen to Yale — and have led Homecooked since its inception. Coder Eric Duong ’20 joined as a third co-founder after attending Homecooked’s inaugural event, held in Silliman College’s student kitchen in March.
Homecooked provides a platform where hosts can plan a meal, set a booking price and invite six to eight guests into their own kitchen. The app processes payments and reservations and allows guests and hosts at the same event to connect with each other. App users can then add fellow diners as friends, track their mutual interests and attend future events together.
Zhen referred to the venture as “an Airbnb for food, with a Tinder twist.”
“The endgame is relationships and community,” Zhen said. “We can define success based on number of active monthly users and revenue, but I’m dreaming of the day when someone picks up the phone and they call me and go, ‘Kev, you won’t believe it: I met my wife through Homecooked.’ That would just taste so sweet.”
Since its founders began fundraising efforts in March, Homecooked has won $70,000 in non-equity funding from startup competitions, including a $50,000 award from Missouri-based 1ST50K and the $15,000 summer accelerator grant from Tsai CITY in the young center’s first ever summer fellowship. Homecooked worked with eight different New Haven chefs this past summer to organize twelve total meals. Overall, 90 guests attended various events, paying between $15 and $25 for a plate. Total revenue hit $1,800, with hosts netting 85 percent and Homecooked taking the remaining 15 percent.
While living in an off-campus apartment at the University of Chicago, co-founder Hojung Kim initially conceived of Homecooked as a way to combat isolation. According to the NPD Group, a market research company, 57 percent of Americans still eat meals alone.
“It stems from a place where I struggled from loneliness and depression for several years,” he told the News. “In this new social media saturated environment, I would spend very little time talking to and being connected to others.”
After witnessing the culture around social dining when travelling in Europe, Kim began to see food as a powerful way to connect others, he said, adding that he then invited friends, their friends and soon strangers for meals in his apartment.
Exposed to Homecooked through Facebook, Hannah Lant GRD ’21, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, first attended a friend’s event before hosting her own with partner Chris Wang GRD ’21 over Labor Day weekend. They cooked for a group of eight people, serving butternut squash ravioli and macaroons to a friend, a New Haven retiree and a Yale undergrad, among others.
“We had a really valuable conversation about the Yale community, its relationship to the larger New Haven community and how Homecooked could potentially foster some ties and improve that relationship overall,” Lant explained. “It is the kind of conversation you don’t always have if you’re talking to people in the same sphere as you.”
Despite Homecooked’s warm reception in New Haven, competing groups like EatWith and Feastly exist in the current marketplace. But those groups often charge much higher prices for elite fine dining experiences, Zhen said. Homecooked’s competitors have been challenged to defend the gray regulatory area in which hosts operate, cooking without a food license but at private events in their own kitchens. Zhen said that Homecooked’s recent acceptance to the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Clinic at Yale Law School will help them address such issues.
“We have a small army of Yale lawyers working to defend our startup,” Zhen explained with a smile.
Caroline Smith ’14, co-director of Collab, an incubator for Connecticut startups that she founded with her Yale classmate Margaret Lee ’14, first met the Homecooked team when they applied to Collab’s accelerator program. Lee and Smith remain mentors to the company, and Smith told the News she is optimistic about the impact Homecooked can have.
“They are really dedicated to ending loneliness in cities, especially for new folks that come or for those that want to expand their networks.” Smith said. “They will be in multiple cities, people will be having meals with people they’ve never met before, and there’ll be chefs aspiring to develop their culinary skills. I believe in them.”
Zhen, who currently juggles Venmo payments and Google Forms sign-ups from the kitchen table in his New Haven apartment, has Homecooked events lined up for the next six weeks. Homecooked’s app, currently offline for an extensive update, is scheduled to relaunch on October 23.
William McCormack | firstname.lastname@example.org