It’s possibly the most nondescript headquarters you could imagine: a condo tucked 20-odd stories above the Shaughnessy Village in a building populated with international students at nearby Concordia. But inside, whiteboards line the walls, listing chefs, media outlets, agendas and phone numbers. This is the home base for a new start-up called Yuma, and despite the low-key physical presence, its two founders are hoping to make a revolutionary splash on the internet.
The description may be a cliché but it’s more or less accurate: Yuma is “[insert successful sharing economy app name here] but for home cooking”. As founders and at present, the only staff, Adam Albarghouthi and Mohamad Makkawi explain, it’s a simple concept: home cooks sign onto Yuma and put a menu forward; customers order food, pay, and pick it up or get it delivered.
Cooks selling their food out of “informal”, non-restaurant kitchens isn’t a groundbreaking concept in Montreal — Thai whiz Chak Wow (Jesse Mulder) has been at it on-and-off for a few years, the now-defunct Vélo Burrito did it so well that they switched to a bricks-and-mortar operation, and Restaurant Day gives budding chefs a platform for it every few months.
But there is no real permanent hub for such ventures, many of which succeed purely through word-of-mouth. So Makkawi says he and Albarghouthi want to fill that void and provide the platform for cooks to get their food. It stems from Makkawi’s own attempts to find reliable and affordable eating options that lean towards home cooking rather than fast food.
“This started two years go, my parents were moving back to their home country and I was kind of left with the thought of “what am I going to do for food?”. I saw a friend who was ordering from a Lebanese cook. So I started ordering from him, and started finding a trend where it wasn’t just him doing this, there were many other chefs.”
Makkawi points out that a problem such home-based operations face is that they have trouble expanding beyond one network of customers.
“That kind of sparked the idea of automating the industry for them to give them more exposure. A chef is going to plateau through word of mouth. For example this guy had the Arabic students coming to him, so he plateaued because those students come and go.”
Although they’re just in the early twenties, the pair have been working on Yuma for two years already, with the idea taking root while they were still undergrad students at McGill University. Their studies proved a distraction so the first meals only made it to mouths this summer, after the two graduated. The delays have allowed similar operations to surface, laments Albarghouthi.
“It’s allowed for a bunch of competitors to jump in, but that validates the idea behind it.”
Albarghouthi and Makkawi have wrangled nine cooks into working with Yuma so far. The cooks so far have been curated carefully to allow for quality and a range of cuisines, but once the app finds its footing the doors will be thrown open to any aspiring local cook. Most popular on the app so far is Syrian cook Nizar Al-Khalfa, offering homey stews such as lamb and okra.
“We put up his menu on Facebook and he got sales right away, and people love the food,” exclaims Makkawi. Other highlights include Curry Go, a Pakistani artist in the Mile End who creates adventurous and original all-vegan curries, and Zuzu, a Turkish grandma.
“She makes some of the best authentic Turkish food that in my opinion it’s going to be very difficult to find at any restaurant, and if you do find it it’s going to be at a much higher price. She brings those tangible skills that you won’t find anywhere else,” says Makkawi.
Some big names are in the works too — Dan Geltner, formerly of L’Orignal and SuWu has a healthy eating project in the works that could pop up on Yuma, and Chak Wow could be on board too, although it’s currently on hiatus.
Beyond the standard comparisons to Uber, AirBNB and other main tenets of the so-called “sharing economy”, Yuma inevitably draws comparisons to delivery services like Foodora and A La Carte Express. But those businesses are so customer satisfaction-oriented that restaurants can sometimes get a raw deal.
“We’re kind of the polar opposite of Foodora. Foodora works on the ancient ideology of the on-demand system, and it doesn’t give the cook freedom,” argues Albarghouthi.
“What we’re saying is no, we need to work on the cook’s time as well, whereas Foodora says we only need to work on customer’s time, and the customer decides when he wants his food, within half an hour or an hour, it’s the impulsive ideology behind eating which a lot of us suffer from.”
That means Yuma’s customers need to plan ahead to some degree: orders are taken in advance with customers choosing their delivery time so chefs can prepare and arrange delivery. Yuma doesn’t do “to your door in 30 minutes or less”, and is geared towards customers who want to order a few dishes to cover multiple meals. But that has the bonus of allowing chefs to avoid food waste, and keeping prices down.
Much like the legal dilemmas Uber has faced in Quebec and beyond, there is one grey area for Yuma — whether or not it’s permitted for home cooks to just sell their food. It would appear that at the very least, the cooks should have a Quebec food handling certificate from the government, which is something Albarghouthi and Makkawi say they’re tracking. With more experienced cooks on the app right now, it’s less of a worry, although the duo indicate that they’ll be looking at cook’s certifications more in future. Yuma is also set to have a ratings system which would allow customers to denounce any food that poses a hygiene problem. But for now, Albarghouthi says Yuma is just a facilitator, and questions of hygiene fall on the cooks.
“We don’t judge, we don’t limit, we’re a marketplace saying ‘come share your food’.”
Yuma is now available for iTunes — but you’ll only be able to order food if you’re in Montreal.