“I didn’t know there was so much money in food till I got into it last year," says Tresa Francis, a Bengaluru-based home chef who specializes in authentic Syrian Christian food and sells it via Meal Boat, an online marketplace that helps connect home chefs with consumers.

Francis, who worked in a legal firm for over a decade and quit last year to start her business, has always loved food. “My mother is a fantastic cook, so I started cooking when I was fairly young," she says. While her repertoire is wide, she chose to specialize in Syrian Christian food because, “there aren’t enough people doing authentic food out here. Also, this is the food I grew up with and I love it".

Francis, 35, is among a breed of micro-entrepreneurs who are using a larger digital business to push their own ventures. In this case, she has started a catering business riding on the back of Bengaluru-based Meal Boat. There are others like her, who have joined the growing e-commerce world with their own businesses, employees and a leap of faith with a safety net.

Francis likes the flexibility that Meal Boat offers her.

“It works well for stay-at-home mums like me," she says, adding that she didn’t need to make an initial investment, which was another positive. “This forum is amazing; people now know me because of it," she says, adding that her net billing on an average ranges between Rs1 lakh and Rs1.5 lakh every month.

Francis’ website, Travancore Tasties, lists out a tantalizing array of food—from the predictable appam, stew and payasam to the more exciting fare including pork cooked with raw banana, seer fish in a delicately spiced gravy, biryani studded with prawns, fish, mutton or chicken and a variety of puddings, cheesecakes and mousses.

Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

She sells on both her own site and on Meal Boat, she says, because the reach is much wider. Orders have to be placed two days in advance and need to have a minimum value of Rs1,000. “I don’t even go out and buy ingredients until the order is confirmed," says Francis, adding that she can cook for as many as 35 people.

A finicky cook, she prefers to do all her chopping and pre-prep herself. “Though I do have help with cleaning," she says, “thankfully Meal Boat took care of the delivery."

Chennai-based, Tajunisha S. of A1 Tasty Home Food, which provides boxed lunches for around 30 IT professionals via watscooking.com, another such online platform, is not quite so lucky. “I hire an auto-rickshaw to pick up and deliver this food," says the 41-year-old a single parent and sole breadwinner of her family.

Tajunisha, who has studied till Class X and has never held a “job" before this, is happy to be economically independent.

“I wanted to earn myself and not be a burden to my parents," she says, adding that she earns on an average Rs45,000-50,000/month and employs a woman to help with cutting and cleaning.

The proliferation of online platforms linking working professionals craving a warm, home-cooked meal to house-bound chefs willing to provide one, is because, “we have a lot of people who are good at cooking and want to work from home", explains Mohamed Ismail Jamal, the founder of watscooking.

“Before I started this platform, I did research and found out that Indians spend a lot of time in the kitchen—around six hours on a minimum (per day). This means the skill level is pretty high," says the software engineer.

Currently, watscooking has around 4,500 chefs across 50 cities listed on the portal. They do not take care of delivery.

“This platform is based on a shared economy that enables people to earn from home and reach out to customers," says Ismail, who is now looking for an investor as he wants to scale up.

A co-founder of Meal Boat, who doesn’t want to be named—they are still experimenting and don’t want to go public unless they are sure—says the market is ripe for this sort of model. “We have a lot of people whose forte is cooking—there is some amazing local food being made by these home chefs," she says.

“Additionally, there are a lot of younger people working in metros who prefer not to cook. They may be living on their own or with a working spouse, but they still crave a warm, home-cooked meal."

The portal, which started early last year, calls itself an “enabler". Using Meal Boat, home chefs can market themselves, put their menu out and reach clientele without having to step out of the house.

“They use this portal to monetize their time and culinary skills—this way they are economically empowered without needing to opt for a 9-5 job," she says.

Earlier, Meal Boat carefully curated the people on the platform, ensuring that they tasted the food before putting it out. They arranged for delivery and charged the home chef 15% of the meal that was supplied.

“We are changing the model now though," says the co-founder, adding that the portal is going to be open to everyone. “We plan to use a review system to retain the right people."

So far, around 150 home chefs are on the site, offering a wide range of offerings including regional food, desserts and pastry, snacks, cheese, even food for diabetic people. Also, they plan to withdraw the delivery system, a logistical nightmare.

“We plan to leave the delivery to the chefs—either they can deliver or tell the customer to pick it up," she says, adding that they plan to now create a subscription charge for home cooks who are registering on the site.

For most of these home chefs, sites like Meal Boat prove to be a boon as it helps them connect with their customer. Which is why, they don’t mind paying extra to be listed on these sites.

Ismail’s watscooking already works on a subscription model. The home chef pays a yearly subscription (which starts at Rs599) to be listed on watscooking. Once they are listed, their profile can be filtered out by buyers depending on the food requirements and areas. The buyer then makes a request.

“Once he does, an SMS immediately goes to the home seller," says Ismail, following which an offline transaction takes place.

Most of these home chefs are women—stay-at-home mums, career women on a break and homemakers, but there are a few men as well, says the Meal Boat’s co-founder, laughing.

“We have this elderly retired gentleman who makes the best biryani ever—he is one of our favourite home chefs and gets a lot of repeat customers," she says.

Scalability is often a problem, admit these home chefs, most of whom operate out of home kitchens with little more than their regular domestic help for assistance. Some, of course, have managed to go mainstream.

Mumbai-based Amal Farooque of SugarOverdose is one of them.

“It began five years ago when I switched careers," says the 33-year-old who holds double masters’ degrees in finance and worked for five years before she started baking at home because, “my heart has always been in food".

She started from a small corner of her mother’s kitchen with ancient equipment—“a 30-year-old egg beater and a 35-year-old oven", she says, adding that her investment was zero to start with.

Most of her orders happened through social media and word of mouth, at first.

“I remember my first order," she reminisces—a single chocolate mousse cake for someone in Malad. “I charged Rs800 and went all the way to deliver it," she says.

Today, she retails on portals such as Swiggy, has her own commercial kitchen and retail outlet and hires around four people to help with her business.

“I invested everything I made back in the business—slowly buying the things I needed for it," she says.

Two of the people she has hired are trained, the other two come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I am training them to take control of full production," she says, adding that she hopes to hire more as she continues to expand and scale up.

She agrees that the business is not for the faint-hearted—there is produce to source, rising prices to account for, salaries and fixed costs to worry about. But it is worth the effort because, “people come to me when they have a baby, when they sign a major acquisition deal, when they celebrate something," she says.

“I have been blessed that my stuff makes them smile," she adds.

This is the second of a four-part series on how micro-entrepreneurs are using their skills to become independent and provide employment to others. Read the first part here.