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Chef Sunta Sem closely follows her phone’s notifications while cooking food out of her home kitchen for app-based meal delivery service, Cookin, in Toronto, on Jan. 18, 2023.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Delivery drivers arriving at Sunta Sem’s door are often a bit bewildered. They are used to picking up orders for Uber Eats or DoorDash from restaurants or industrial ghost kitchens – not a house on a quiet street.

“Is this a new startup?” asked one driver, peering into Ms. Sem’s first-floor Toronto apartment one night in January. She smiles, explains as briefly as she can and returns to assembling orders for her business, Soup and Hustle.

“It’s like a speakeasy,” Ms. Sem joked, as she fills takeout containers with curry, inspired by the Cambodian home cooking of her childhood.

Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic grew accustomed to ordering restaurant food, meal kits and groceries for home delivery; at the same time, a wave of restaurant workers lost their jobs or left the industry. A new Toronto startup, Cookin Inc., is offering cooks the option to work from home – and betting there is a market for their home-cooked meals through its delivery app, rather than the restaurant fare of DoorDash.

Ms. Sem, a former line cook at Momofuku, was one of the first to sign on. Her apartment has transformed into a place of business: a breakfast nook table is now a prep station, a closet has become a pantry, a beer fridge stores food and her dining room table is stacked with containers of soup.

Every chef has their story featured on Cookin, whether the Brazilian line cook who makes pasta from scratch or the queer Indonesian refugee whose delicacies include Jakarta street fare such as gado gado. Each meal arrives with a hand-written note from its creator.

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“When we share food it connects us,” Cookin chief executive officer Morley Ivers said. “Our vision is to unite people with food.”

The company has been in the market since October: Thousands of Torontonians have downloaded its app and ordered more than 6,000 meals from 62 chefs on the platform; so far, 36 per cent have ordered again. More than 1,800 chefs have applied; Mr. Ivers expects 80 more on board by mid-March.

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A food delivery worker picks up a package of Chef Sunta Sem’s food that she cooks out of her home kitchen for app-based meal delivery service, Cookin, in Toronto, on Jan. 18.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Cookin is in the early stages of expanding service across the Greater Toronto Area, but Mr. Ivers and co-founder Michael Baruch plan to be in 17 cities by 2025, starting with Dallas and Miami this year. They’ve raised $17-million from investors including Relay Ventures, Mistral Ventures and startup adviser Jodi Kovitz.

“I think there is a clear appetite for this,” said another investor, Mark Cohon, chair of investment agency Toronto Global and son of McDonald’s Canada founder, George Cohon. “You build the right platform, the right team, the right experiences, there’s no reason why we can’t do this in cities around the world.”

They wouldn’t be the first to try. Similar services including Shef, Woodspoon and Dish Divvy have connected home cooks and consumers in U.S. cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Shef raised US$20-million in August, 2021, and counts celebrities Padma Lakshmi and Katy Perry as investors. WoodSpoon has raised US$16-million, including an investment from Tim Hortons parent Restaurant Brands International Inc.

But Cookin is trying to grow amid a sector slowdown: online food delivery players such as Instacart, DoorDash and SkiptheDishes have laid off thousands after big growth early in the pandemic tailed off. Others have shut down, as shaky economic conditions crimp demand for “nice-to-have” services.

Cookin is also navigating a tricky balance between supply and demand. Many of its chefs have capacity to make only one or two dozen meals a night; some sell out hours, even days in advance. But its founders do not want to grow so fast that cooks can’t sell enough to make a profit.

Mr. Ivers and Mr. Baruch have known each other since high school in Thornhill, Ont., and both worked at loyalty management software company Points in the 2000s. After building startups in the U.S., Mr. Ivers decided to return home in 2021 to start his next venture with Mr. Baruch, a sales and marketing executive at the time.

They first tested the market for interest in the concept by setting up a fake site to attract chefs; dozens applied. Hundreds of consumers tried to order from a dummy e-commerce site they posted, hitting a screen saying the service wasn’t available yet.

“We found the stigma really doesn’t exist” about ordering from home chefs, Mr. Baruch said. People were used to the gig economy and trusting strangers. In early 2022, they founded Cookin.

The pair sought advice from chef Patrick Kriss, founder of Toronto Michelin star restaurant Alo, and recruited Apple software engineer Natalie Zamani to build the platform. Carolyn Tanner Cohen, owner of Toronto cooking school Delicious Dish, joined as “chef success lead.” Her team liaises with chefs, helps to photograph their food, write bios, set menu prices and manage timing of orders. Cookin has also partnered with an insurance provider, and uses third-party delivery platforms to find drivers.

Each chef gets 85 per cent of the order price, or 70 per cent if they cook at a commercial kitchen Cookin has rented. That is “an amazing margin” for cooks who do not have to handle logistics themselves, Ms. Sem said. Cookin gets the rest, plus a 10-per-cent service fee it adds on. Customers also pay for delivery.

Cooks must secure an Ontario food handler certificate and undergo a kitchen inspection before they can sell on Cookin. Operators must notify the medical officer of health of their intentions, and comply with food-safety laws including allowing health inspections, said Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones.

While provincial laws do not specifically prohibit what home-based food businesses may sell, the platform operates in what Mr. Ivers admits is a legal grey area.

“Regulations need to be modernized to enable this type of business model, for sure,” he said. Ontario, like many U.S. jurisdictions, has recently updated laws to allow home-based food microenterprises, but it focuses on non-hazardous items like baked goods and jams. “I think it was a step in the right direction, but it does not speak to the full repertoire of what individuals want to cook in their homes” and can do safely, Mr. Ivers said.

The Cookin team isn’t waiting for permission, however, and hoping, like other disruptive technology platforms before, that regulators catch up to the innovation they bring.

“The first thing that comes to mind when you talk to people about this is, ‘What about the regulatory challenges?’” says Relay managing partner Alex Baker. “My answer is, ‘Did you get into an Uber when it launched?’ There were regulatory and insurance challenges. Same with Airbnb.”

Mr. Baker added: “I believe there is real political motivation to make something happen and precedent with those examples.”

Ontario can make it easier for home food businesses. Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli, who has met with Cookin’s leaders, said in an e-mail that his government is “continuing to cut red tape” to make the province an attractive business jurisdiction “so long as all applicable laws are followed.”

There’s plenty for Cookin to work out. While the platform has mostly signed up professionally experienced chefs, it also wants to appeal to home cooks to set up side hustles. Given the limitations of individual cooks on the platform, customers still may have to plan ahead and pre-order. That may be a sticking point for people who have become accustomed to ordering anything they want on demand through the big food delivery apps.

“One of the greatest challenges Cookin has to contend with is consumer expectations,” offering both a serendipitous experience but also consistency as it scales, said Ms. Kovitz, a friend of the founders. “I think they can do it.”

While the founders say they want chefs to be profitable from day one, that may take time: Ms. Sem is just breaking even, since she buys her own ingredients and keeps menu prices competitive. As Cookin grows, Mr. Ivers thinks it can source bulk ingredients and packaging from restaurant industry suppliers to help chefs cut costs.

Ms. Sem, who plans to bottle her peanut sauce and sell it on Cookin, believes the platform will help expand her business. Her dream, she says, is to build an establishment that is a tribute to her mother with the name, Little Cambodian Mom: “That’s the restaurant I want to open one day.”

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