Josephine Food Start-up Keeps Willard Students Cooking
BY MOLLY GORE ◊ PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIKA GASINU
On a mild Thursday night in late October, long after the school day had ended, the Willard Middle School campus drew a lively, hungry stream of visitors. Against the backdrop of a thriving, terraced garden, students doled out Styrofoam bowls of homemade minestrone, salad, and steaming garlic bread from two folding tables under a white tent. A heaping basket of perfectly square cornbread samples encouraged peckish customers to linger, while others wandered the garden, scoping the land that supplied the green beans, kale, zucchini, tomatoes, and herbs for the soup. One customer teased a student behind the table: “Is this stuff any good?”
“It’s really, really delicious, I promise. I made it,” said one of the youngest, sitting on a cooler.
The garden at Willard Middle School serves as the backbone for a beloved part of the curriculum that teaches children to garden and cook. Last year, USDA budget cuts threatened the program, but it’s been rescued partly through an unusual collaboration with Josephine, a friendly start-up that sells meals prepared by home cooks to people in the cook’s neighborhood. Although partnering with Willard is a bit outside Josephine’s main model, the collaboration allows the school to utilize Josephine’s expansive network and easy-to-use platform to reserve spots and sell dinners, while Josephine gets to facilitate the kind of community building that inspired its model. Together, they’re empowering students to advance their own educational goals.
The partnership came about when Cindy Tsai Schultz—the director of partnerships for Willard’s new program, Growing Leaders—started ordering Josephine dinners. Every week, the Josephine folks send a casual text with the week’s menu, and recipients RSVP online to pick up dinner at a cook’s home. Schultz saw potential to use the platform to help Willard students sell food from the garden, and the ball started rolling.
Growing Leaders was spearheaded by Matt Tsang, an affable teacher who arrived at Willard 17 years ago as an AmeriCorps volunteer and never looked back. When the USDA cut $1.9 million from food education in Berkeley last year, including all $180,000 required to run Willard’s cooking and gardening program, Tsang needed a way to keep the curriculum afloat. He created Growing Leaders, which empowers students with financial literacy and business sensibility through mentorship and electives while providing the same cooking and gardening education students have enjoyed for the last decade. To fund the program, students are selling what they make, involving themselves in everything from harvesting to cooking to setting the price point. Beyond basic marketing and accounting skills, students also learn to pickle or can seasonal produce and sauces, and prepare meals twice a month that they sell to the community after school with a little help from Josephine.
For Growing Leaders, Josephine was a natural pick—small, local, and dedicated to empowering cooks. The model differs from similar food start-ups, like Feastly or Eatwith, because it eliminates the responsibility of hosting and allows cooks to do what they want to do most: make delicious food. The set-up largely attracts parents and grandparents devoted to the merits of home cooking but too busy to manage it nightly. Often, neighbors show up with an order for the entire family, taking home a large meatloaf or four servings of Senegalese groundnut stew.
Started by Tal Safran and Charley Wang, Josephine is an antidote to the frenetic pace and abstract results of the tech work that filled its founders’ former lives. Before they met, Safran was a freelance software developer, and Wang did business development at a large advertising agency in Los Angeles. They met through a mutual friend and, enthused by a common mission, became business partners. Their mutual friend quickly became an investor and advisor to the company, and Josephine was born—named after their friend’s mother.
Safran and Wang wanted to design a values-driven company devoted more to building community than immediately swelling its bottom line. Spending their days attached to computer screens left the pair craving a tangible impact, and Josephine offered a fundamental answer to the universal human need for food. Drawn to how deeply Bay Area denizens invested in their food, the duo decided to set up shop in the East Bay.
“We weren’t terribly scientific about it, we qualitatively looked at where people care about food,” says Wang. “We weren’t just looking for a foodie culture, but investment in all of the aspects of food: social, economic, health.”
Working out of Wang’s backyard and employing cooks around the corner, Wang and Safran also attend all of their cooks’ Josephine dinners, forging relationships with a mother-son flavor. Josephine’s network is roughly a dozen cooks strong, and still growing—albeit selectively. The roster includes amateur cooking enthusiasts, as well as former professional cooks and other industry veterans. Resumés aside, Josephine cooks feel more like next-door neighbors than paid chefs. The takeaway dinners are cozy and casual affairs, and more often than not, customers tend to stick around for the sake of catching up or lingering in the spiced air and hospitality of a kitchen at dinnertime.
“We’ve been conditioned to believe that home-cooked food only comes from the nuclear family you live in,” says Wang. “But it doesn’t have to be.”
In a way, Josephine is a family extension, an increasing web of homes a little away from home. Building a nurturing community drives the company’s ethos and evokes an intimacy that brings into sharp relief the polished, VC–funded marketing campaigns that dominate the food start-up industry of late. Josephine is a bit rogue in its aspirations too, devoted to making something the community needs before looking at profit. For the moment, all that Wang and Safran are taking home is dinner.
When it comes to working with Growing Leaders, money is mostly beside the point.
“It’s more about supporting each other,” says Wang. “Partnering makes sense from a business perspective, but it’s also emotionally invigorating. Sometimes, it’s what keeps us going.”