Want a home-cooked meal? Order it via an app

Passionate home cooks are selling food and hosting dining sessions through websites and apps

It is 7pm on a Wednesday and retired shopkeeper Lily Wong has spent the past five hours cooking - steaming chicken with chopped pineapple and ginger as well as simmering a pot of lotus root soup.

Although the 53-year-old has whipped up these family favourites many times, a sense of anticipation hangs in the air - she is playing host to two strangers who are dining in her four-room Housing Board (HDB) flat in Bishan for the first time. They have ordered a four- course dinner via meal-sharing platform Dine Inn. It costs $40 a person.

Ms Wong, who specialises in Cantonese-style dishes, says: "I enjoy cooking, but only my husband gets to eat my food. Meal-sharing services are an interesting way to find more guinea pigs to try my food and exchange cooking tips with new friends."

Passionate home cooks like her are fuelling the burgeoning meal- sharing industry here. At least five start-ups have sprung up over the past 10 months. They include Dine Inn, which was launched last month, and Share Food Singapore, which started in November last year.


Retired shopkeeper Lily Wong serves dinner to her guests in her four-room HDB flat in Bishan. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Banking on the age-old notion that home-cooked food is more wholesome, these websites and apps sell food, facilitate home- dining sessions and arrange catering for small-scale events.

Diners can search for food by location or cuisine, browse food photos, descriptions and customer reviews, and chat with home cooks through the apps.

Payment ranges from cash on delivery to credit card. Most diners collect their orders from the home cooks, given the high delivery charges imposed on small orders.

Businesses say that demand for meal-sharing is growing steadily, with about 40 to 200 orders received in a week. They each have a stable of 100 to 400 home cooks, who are mostly housewives and working adults who cook in their free time. These services are free to join.

They are permitted under the HDB's Home-based Small Scale Business Scheme, which allows residents to prepare small quantities of food for sale.

These home businesses should not "cause any nuisance to neighbours", use commercial-grade equipment and hire workers.

HDB adds that home businesses should adhere to food hygiene guidelines by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which states that no licence is required to operate such businesses.

Most meal-sharing firms limit the quantity of food by home cooks to 15 to 30 servings a day.

Meal-sharing firms say they are filling a gap in the local food scene.

Ms Loo Pei Wen, 30, executive director of Share Food Singapore, says: "People struggle to think of what to eat in hawker centres and foodcourts, which are dominated by franchises serving the same type of food."

Mr Renton Yap, 39, co-founder of the Hcook app, which started last July, says that a pull factor to try meal-sharing services is heritage dishes or festive goodies that are family recipes.

"These dishes are not commercially viable to make in large quantities."

Meal-sharing services gel well with the trend of the sharing economy, an economic model in which assets or services are shared among Internet-savvy consumers, either for free or for a fee. This can be seen in the rise of lodging portal Airbnb and car-pooling services such as UberPool.

Mr Luke Lee, 41, founder of Dine Inn, says: "With these services, people are more open and comfortable with sharing personal assets - in this case, their kitchens. We have seen a 50 per cent increase in sign-up rates for home chefs in the last few months."

He adds that customers are also more adventurous and crave unique dining experiences. "With meal-hosting, it is more relaxing and intimate as diners can have a private space to themselves, customise the food and interact with the hosts."

Some businesses are also using meal-sharing platforms to do good in the community.

About 20 per cent of Hcook's home chefs are from low-income backgrounds, who have been identified through regular talks with grassroots and non-profit organisations.

"Starting a home-based food business has low start-up costs and we can empower those from lower-income backgrounds to earn some money," Mr Yap adds.

However, meal-sharing services are still niche. A big challenge to grapple with is consumers' doubts over food hygiene.

To assure them, Dine Inn makes it mandatory for home chefs to attend a Basic Food Hygiene course offered by tertiary institutions here, while the other firms encourage their home cooks to do so.

Dine Inn has also implemented personal liability insurance, which ensures that diners receive compensation should they come down with food poisoning, for example.

Others such as Hcook and Share Food Singapore are following suit. They add that insurance costs are included in their service fees, which comprise up to 25 per cent of the transaction costs.

Most firms also visit homes to check the condition of home kitchens and provide food-packaging stickers that say when the food was prepared and by what time it should be consumed.

NEA recommends that catered food be consumed not more than four hours after it is cooked.

Another challenge is sustaining sales of home-cooked meals.

Mr Aaron Tan, 43, founder of YummyBank, admits that sales on its website have been "slow and passive" a few months after its launch in July last year.

To showcase the food to a wider audience, he introduced YummyLunch, a weekday lunch bento box menu for time-strapped office workers in the Central Business District. The meals can be ordered via the YummyBank app, which was launched two weeks ago.

"Instead of being a passive list-and-order platform, we want to push home-cooked food to the market and grow its demand," he says.

Diners who have tried meal-sharing services are drawn by the flexibility they offer.

Account manager Shirley Lee, 42, who dined at Ms Wong's home, says: "The pricing seems steep at first glance, but I like that I can customise the menu to my preferences and enjoy my wines with no corkage charges. It was a friendly and relaxing dining session."

VIDEO: Watch Ms Lily Wong serve guests in her home at http://str.sg/42rV


Where to buy a home-cooked meal

HCOOK

What: Hcook (pronounced hook) offers more than 2,100 dishes in 16 food categories, including meat, kueh, cakes, vegetarian food, set meals and special diets, from its stable of 400 home cooks.

The Hcook Bespoke service curates dishes from various home cooks and caters food for up to 20 people.

Payment is by cash on delivery or inter-bank transfer. Credit-card payment will be built into the app later this month. Hcook will also offer public liability insurance that compensates diners for unforeseen situations such as food poisoning. The app is available for both Apple and Android devices.

Price: From 60 cents for an epok epok to $380 for 4kg smoked wagyu beef brisket. Order at least one day in advance.

Info: www.hcook.sg


SHARE FOOD SINGAPORE


Share Food Singapore co-founders Joshua Tang and Loo Pei Wen with home cook Ann Leong (centre), who sells bento boxes and local dishes. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

What: Choose from more than 1,900 dishes spanning 13 categories, including Chinese, Indian and Cakes & Pastries, from more than 200 home cooks. Interesting dishes include a laksa cake that is made with noodles shaped like a cake and topped with eggs, prawns and bean sprouts.

The website version of the app will be launched by July, coupled with an updated version of the app that will come with more tools for home cooks to market their dishes, and a delivery function. Payment is via cash on delivery or inter-bank transfer. The app is compatible with both Apple and Android devices.

Price: From $1.50 for a chocolate chip muffin to $350 for pen cai (seafood treasure pot). Order one day in advance.

Info: www.sharefood.sg


HEARTLAND CHEFS

What: Pick from more than 200 dishes offered by about 140 chefs on this app. The menu includes options such as Thai-style laksa, kimbap (Korean rice rolls) and siput lemak (snail curry).

Payment can be made via credit card and e-wallet services such as Apple Pay. Self-collection of food is encouraged, which allows diners to build community spirit in the estate. The app is compatible with both Apple and Android devices.

Price: $5 for fried rice to $12 for a two-course meal. Order at least one day in advance.

Info: heartlandchefs.com


DINE INN

What: The most comprehensive meal-sharing service of the lot, this website-cum-app offers four types of services: selling food, meal-hosting, chefs-for-hire and a tingkat (weekly meal orders) service.

It offers more than 400 dishes from 60 active home chefs. Highlights include confinement food such as pig's trotters in vinegar, Kashmiri food and vegan and gluten-free food.

Prior to dining at a host's place, diners can read up on the food, host, home amenities, house rules and browse photos of the home.

Users can only book meals and dining sessions up to three weeks in advance. Orders are confirmed instantly upon payment by credit and debit cards. The app is compatible with both Apple and Android devices.

Price: From $2.50 for a teriyaki chicken slider to $55 for a whole Thai milk tea cake. Hosted meals start at $25 a person for a four-course Chinese meal.

Info: sg.dineinn.com


YUMMYBANK


YummyLunch. PHOTO: YUMMYBANK

What: This app offers food from 30 home cooks with a stash of 200 family recipes. Options include Hainanese beef stew, Penang-style ayam buah keluak and truffle claypot rice.

Two weeks ago, it rolled out the YummyLunch menu, which is targeted at the office crowd in the Central Business District (CBD) on weekdays. The menu of five bento sets (pictured), which changes daily, is scaled up from 45 recipes by home cooks and cooked at The GAB cafe in the Esplanade, before being delivered to the CBD within 10 to 12 minutes. Dishes include pan-seared miso salmon with quinoa and cognac sesame chicken with rice.

Prices range from $8.50 to $14.50. It receives about 100 orders daily. Orders can be made via the YummyBank app, which is compatible with both Apple and Android mobile devices.

Price: From $25 for seafood tofu soup to $80 for Kuala Lumpur-style char siew. Order one to three days in advance.

Info: www.yummybank.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'Cooking for strangers'. Print Edition | Subscribe