The company Josephine nourishes a sense of empowerment, empathy and community.
A YOUNG COMPANY called Josephine, based in Oakland, Calif., is newly arrived in Seattle. According to Charley Wang, the company’s founder, it’s the logical next step in the movement to create more empathy for the labor that feeds us. What started with farms and farmers markets is moving its way down the food chain: Josephine helps home cooks market and sell small numbers of meals to people in their communities, thereby letting consumers purchase local, artisanal, handmade food from a convenient location, while building community and generating income for the producer.
Wang says he knew he wanted to start a business by finding a problem that would be interesting to solve. He and company co-founder Tal Safran were new to Los Angeles in 2013 and staying with the mother of a mutual friend when they realized how important the act of sitting around a table every evening and sharing real food was to their overall sense of well-being.
They began delving into the spectrum of the food industry and quickly discovered that it’s very exclusive and focused entirely on consumers. They decided, Wang explains, that they wanted to “create a place where cooks and craftspeople could succeed, have their agency, be fairly compensated and have the direct relationships that make cooking and feeding and nourishing people so emotionally resonant.”
And so, after moving to Oakland in October 2014, they launched Josephine, a platform “for any food entrepreneur to build whatever business they want,” and named it for their host in L.A. Its driving force is economic empowerment for the providers, and bridging gaps within communities with diverse demographics.
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Because “food” and “business” are involved, there are other considerations. Washington State’s Cottage Food Operations Law allows home cooks to sell “nonpotentially hazardous products” produced in their home kitchen, with annual gross sales of no more than $25,000. But high-risk foods, like hot, ready-to-eat meals, do not qualify. However, according to Josephine co-CEO Matt Jorgensen, “The Josephine model involves private-meal sharing from cooks to their friends and neighbors, an activity not contemplated by existing laws for public retail food sales.”
Public Health – Seattle & King County has issued the following statement, regarding Josephine:
“Public Health – Seattle & King County strongly supports and helps cultivate King County’s diverse and dynamic food culture, and our responsibility is to advance food safety to keep residents safe from foodborne illness. Our assessment of Josephine’s current approach is that it does not comply with state code. This is similar to the findings in California and Oregon. We will be working with the Washington State Department of Health and other counties who have been contacted by Josephine on identifying options.
“Public Health’s responsibility is to reduce the risk to the public from foodborne illness. There are many pathways for food businesses to operate safely and legally. We are available to meet with cooks to provide them with guidance and resources to help. In addition, there are also many organizations available to assist cooks in starting legal food businesses. For example, Project Feast is a social enterprise empowering refugee and immigrant cooks with pathways to employment in the food sector; Food Innovation Network is a network to empower food entrepreneurs in South King County; and Food Corridor is a matchmaker between commercial kitchens and businesses looking for kitchen space. Together with the nearly 12,000 permitted restaurants, caterers and food trucks, along with over 3,000 festivals, farmers markets and temporary events, these innovative food businesses have contributed to an exciting local food culture that we cherish and support.
“Josephine has suggested a pilot program and/or making changes to that code to allow for safe and legal home food production. We will work with the state for next steps on this process.
“To learn more about the food safety, why and how Public Health provides oversight, to understand the law and get a sense of the many foodborne illness outbreaks we investigate each year, please visit kingcounty.gov/foodsafety.”
Josephine’s Seattle-based cooks and their customers plan to email and call the King County Board of Health, and Josephine is collecting input from its cooks on the limitations of the available permitting options.
Almost half the cooks on Josephine have an annual household income less than $45,000. Most are women; many are immigrants with limited English, stay-at-home moms or people who have retired from the food industry.
As a business, Josephine says it is “trying to eke out more impact rather than just more dollars.” Josephine has raised $2.5 million from philanthropists, foundations and impact investors; offers the platform free to nonprofit partners; collects 10 percent of revenue earned by users; and offers its cooks more than 100 hours of curricula on everything from how to use their publishing tools to managing finances and orders, setting pricing and providing customer service. The idea is that Josephine focuses on the cooks, and the cooks focus on their customers.
Wang explains the concept is “predicated on a relationship. One of our fundamental beliefs is that you can’t sell home cooking to strangers.” When cooks start on Josephine, they sell meals to friends, co-workers, neighbors and members of their churches or other activity groups. The cooks attract customers who are open to exploring new foods and patronizing other cooks.
While Josephine provides the platform, it puts the onus to operate legally in the hands of its cooks. Legal disclaimers begin, “Cooks are solely responsible for compliance with all applicable laws, rules, regulations and local ordinances, including without limitation, obtaining necessary permits and/or licenses … ”
Josephine operates as a private marketplace. In order to join, new customers must be invited by a Josephine cook or other community member, or request to join. In theory, cooks are selling to friends and neighbors, and for the record, I joined because one of my neighbors is part of the Josephine network.
Josephine does require that all of its cooks complete their state’s food safety-training course and obtain a current Food Worker Card. They also must pass a kitchen inspection. (I have ordered, paid for and eaten homemade Josephine meals from four different cooks so far, and haven’t worried for my safety. In fact, there’s something to be said for getting to see the kitchen where your food is prepared.)
Josephine has sponsored and co-authored a bill in California that would allow cooks to sell all kinds of food made at home. The bill passed the state Assembly Health Committee last week, and is under review in the state Legislature. In Washington, Josephine is in contact with elected officials as well as the King County Board of Health. On May 1, Seattle City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien sent a letter of support to John Wiesman, Washington State secretary of health, and Patty Hayes, director of public health for Seattle and King County.
“We’ve been able to find common ground with regulators in both California and Oregon and are similarly optimistic in Washington,” Wang says.
Here in Seattle, Josephine gives Logan Niles, a professionally trained chef with years of catering experience, the opportunity to sell her potpies, get feedback on recipes and build a customer base in anticipation of the day she opens a brick-and-mortar business. And it lets Glenda Elley get paid to do something she loves and does well (I’m a big fan of her lasagna and roast chicken) while staying home as primary caregiver to her young daughter.
Although Josephine has had a presence here only since last year, it already has more than 75 local cooks with diverse backgrounds and reasons for using the platform, in neighborhoods from Edmonds to Federal Way.