Camden Home Cooks: Fixing local food delivery

Born as an emergency response to lockdown, could this chefs-to-neighbours concept end up revolutionising how we eat in?

Andy Fenichen was on furlough from his hospitality job with nothing much to do, so he posted on a local Facebook group asking if anyone would like him to cook them some food. “It got a remarkable response,” he says, which lead to the idea of creating a group specifically for other chefs near him in Crouch End to do the same.

“The whole thing really snowballed after that,” he says, still sounding surprised many months later. “We were overwhelmed with chefs wanting to cook, and a growing community of customers, too.”

Interest from further afield lead to the creation of a dedicated group for Kentish Town, recently rebranded as the catch-all Camden Home Cooks, delivering to a patch that stretches from Archway to Swiss Cottage.

Despite this rapid growth, it remains a purposefully homespun affair run by volunteers. To assure quality, chefs must first pass a taste test from the ‘Council of Eaters’, made up of Andy and founder friends George and Mike, plus some trusted customers. There are stringent kitchen cleanliness standards, and the chefs are encouraged by the nature of the system (ordering via leaving a request in the Facebook comments) to react quickly to feedback.

You can see them building a real rapport directly with the community, who rate meals, make dietary requests, and have to act quickly to secure their orders since everything sells out. “We’ve even seen couples having arguments over their orders in the comments,” laughs Andy. “But actually one of the most incredible things is that it’s made Facebook a nice place to be. We’ve had thousands of comments now, and not a single one has been negative. Not so much as an angry emoji.”

There’s something about the fact that the chefs are feeding their neighbours that encourages a respectful environment. And while many are professionals providing restaurant quality food at a homemade price, the group has a decent amount of enthusiasts too, from a 16-year-old culinary whizzkid to bloggers, talented new mums and anyone else who can rustle up something genuinely tasty at home.

Being Camden, the menus naturally feature a world tour of cuisines, taking in Burmese specialities to Swedish and Sri Lankan ones. “We’ve got a Brazilian chef who produces these dishes that I’ve never seen before, week after week,” says Andy, “it’s really exciting eating.”

Chefs are given tips on how to photograph their food, and respond directly to customers about their orders

A lot of restaurant food isn’t made with love, it’s just operations, whereas our guys are making 10 orders at home for their neighbours

For a profession that was left in tatters when Covid first arrived, the Camden Home Cooks model has quickly started to offer some major new advantages for the boroughs many talented chefs. With no upfront costs or the risk of betting everything on a restaurant concept that doesn’t take off, chefs can test out wild ideas, refine dishes to perfection, and make a decent return for far less gruelling hours and working conditions.

“The other side of all this is tackling the disillusionment within the world of hospitality,” says Andy. “It’s been made so much more difficult to survive with the likes of Deliveroo coming into the market. For small restaurant-owners, you can’t afford not to be on their platform yet they take a massive commission, so you can end up losing money on every order.”

While the business press have gushed over the explosion in food delivery, the negative side of the coin tends to have been focused on the bad deal that the zero hours drivers get, as opposed to on the economic clobbering chefs and restaurateurs may also be experiencing.

“Deliveroo is so convenient for people, but it’s a hugely toxic environment for everyone in hospitality,” says Andy. “Home delivery is up 30-40% in the last few years, but can you think of a single restaurant brand that’s grown that much as a result? Prices keep getting higher to cover the huge commissions, so the ‘success’ of the model actually means more expensive food for the customer and massive losses for the restaurants. It’s a ridiculous situation.”

While new challengers in the food delivery tech bonanza are sure to come, Andy is wary that they will just try and extract even more money from his industry, cushioned by huge pots of venture capital. But has he inadvertently stumbled upon the Deliveroo-slayer in the Home Cooks concept? Could the idea of chefs building up a small local following, free from major financial rolls of the dice or predatory app platforms, thrive long after lockdown? And how can it stay true to its vital community roots while also growing sustainably?

“We’ve always asked the chefs to tell us their costs so we can make sure the pricing works for everyone,” says Andy. “If we did decide one day to charge a small commission for the service, that’s all we’d do. We know that our prices would still be a lot lower than Deliveroo, plus you’ve got a direct connection with the person making your meal. A lot of restaurant food isn’t made with love, it’s just operations, whereas our guys are making 10 orders at home for their neighbours.”

One of the community members has offered to build them a website, to eventually move off Facebook, which is obviously not the ideal place to run everything in the longer term. “The key is not to lose the community aspect,” say Andy.

With communities now popping up in Islington and Stoke Newington, it does feel like the bleakness of lockdown for hospitality may yet have a positive outcome – a whole new, viable outlet for London’s culinary creatives.

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