Julie Hotz for the photo of Charley & Tal
Tal Safran and Charley Wang, founders of Josephine, an East Bay startup that sells home-cooked meals. Photo: Julie Hotz

On Thursday evenings, a black clapboard sign sits outside Terry Betts’ West Berkeley home. A steady trickle of people stops by to fill their own containers with Greek-style chicken cooked with honey, cinnamon, tomatoes and garbanzo beans, rice pilaf and a cucumber salad on the side.

While there, they can choose from a few add-ons, like home-made granola, fresh juices and a plum cake for dessert. Some sit around the living room and chat for awhile before leaving.

Betts is a talented home cook who is making additional income each week through Josephine, a new start-up offering home-cooked meals for sale. On another night, she offered Vietnamese tamarind chicken with rice noodles, and on another, it was Polish stuffed cabbage.

Greek chicken
Greek-style chicken: a home-cooked dinner prepared by startup Josephine. Photo: Sika Gasinu

The brainchild of Charley Wang, 24, and Tal Safran, 30, Josephine was born out of the desire of the two friends, who first met in Los Angeles, to spend less time in front of screens, and more time building community, especially around food. The name comes from a mother-figure type who fed them often while they were living in L.A.

They knew that while many people are after gourmet restaurant experiences, others want home-cooked meals, but just don’t always have the time to do it themselves.

“Most of our customers know how to cook,” said Wang. “And they want home-cooked food, not restaurant food.”

New to the Bay Area in the spring, they began by cooking a meal themselves in Safran’s kitchen – Israeli food, since Safran’s parents are Israeli – and inviting the few people they had met so far.

“We had no idea who would be interested in this,” said Safran. “At first we thought it would be young urban professionals and foodies, but our demographic is really parents and grandparents. We have a lot of great customers who buy for the whole family.”

More than 900 people now subscribe to their email list that tells of upcoming meals that week. Their stable of six regular cooks – more are currently being vetted — make enough for 30 to 40 meals each session, what Safran and Wang believe a home cook is capable of. Their cooks are either seasoned home cooks looking to make a bit of extra money, or people who have been, or are looking to be, professionals, who are burnt out by restaurant kitchens, and want to get closer to why they started — the simple act of feeding people. Meals range from $7 to $11 a serving.

plum cake photo Sika Gasinu
Plum cake: one of the ‘add-ons’ on the menu recently at Josephine. Photo: Sika Gasinu
Plum cake: one of the ‘add-ons’ on the menu recently at Josephine. Photo: Sika Gasinu

While even the new cottage laws do not allow people to profit from food made in their own kitchens unless it meets certain requirements, the pair say they are going by the same model used by EatWith.com and Feastly.com, in which diners pre-pay for a meal cooked by a chef at her own home. All Josephine chefs have a California food handler’s certificate.

“Josephine is a marketplace that helps facilitate the booking of these community events,” said Wang. “We think our service is positively impacting a lot of people’s lives, and hope to be part of a conversation about more thoughtful regulation for this emerging arena in shared economy. In the meantime, we’re being very thorough with cook vetting and making sure all of our cooks have the resources and capabilities to safely and legally work with us.”

So far, the only thing Safran and Wang are getting out of it is dinner – all profits are going straight to the chefs, but they hope that will change as they grow.

Wanda Stewart is a regular cook for Josephine. She is known for her own urban farm in South Berkeley near Longfellow School. While her kitchen training comes from cooking for her family, praise for her jerk chicken comes from many corners.

Used to cooking for large groups, she said the meals she does for Josephine are exposing her to large segments of the population she wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

“I’m trying to make a sustainable way of life as much as I can,” she said. Growing her own produce and incorporating it into the meals she sells helps her do that. She often cooks a side of collards that come from her own farm, though one customer recently traded her own home-grown collards for a meal.

“I like when you can multiply and move it around,” she said. It was her idea to ask her friend who makes organic fruit juices to offer them as add-ons, saying “my friend was already doing that, so this way I could share the exposure and profits with her. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Pork chile verde Photo Sika Gasinu
Pork chile verde with herbed rice and Napa cabbage slaw, a dish served recently at the Growing Leaders program at Berkeley’s Willard Middle School.  Photo Sika Gasinu
Pork chile verde with herbed rice and Napa cabbage slaw, a dish served recently at the Growing Leaders program at Berkeley’s Willard Middle School.  Photo Sika Gasinu

Recently Josephine partnered with Willard Middle School’s Growing Leaders program, to help it sell 150 servings of pork chile verde with herbed rice and Napa cabbage slaw.

The program, which recently lost much of its funding, teaches Willard students about cooking and nutrition by having them grow their own produce and then cook it into meals that they sell.

The partnership happened because Cindy Tsai Schultz, who happens to be director of partnerships for the Growing Leaders program, was a customer at one of Josephine’s early meals.

“I immediately thought it was a great idea,” she said. “When I was a parent of really young children working full-time, I’d get together with other working parents for informal dinners with the idea that if one of us is cooking, the others don’t have to. Josephine mimics that experience of collective support.”

Matt Tsang, Growing Leaders’ director, said the pairing is a natural since both organizations have a mission of community building.

“We’re in our pilot year, and we couldn’t be doing the volume of takeout meals without Josephine’s marketing support and online reservation system,” said Tsang. “With Josephine, we’re able to generate needed program income plus gather data and feedback from our meals which we incorporate into our curriculum. They focus on the logistics and we focus on the kids. It’s a great partnership.”

Growing Leaders’ next community meal is planned for Oct. 23. For information about that and other upcoming Josephine meals, visit Josephine’s website.

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...