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Shef, startup for home cooking, creates new kind of takeout

Diane Davis

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Many immigrants settling in the U.S. under devastating circumstances have little choice but to rebuild lives from scratch and secure stable incomes. That will soon be a reality for the first group of approximately 37,000 Afghan refugees resettling in America. In need of swift revenue streams, many in the past have turned to cooking to earn a living, relying on a shared skill many possess in the homeland, says Laila Mir, a stay-at-home mom who came to the 1990s from Afghanistan with her parents. “Everybody is a great cook,” she fondly says of her compatriots.

Mir cooks and sells authentic Afghan meals via Shef, an online platform that allows immigrants to start their own businesses selling home-cooked food, while the company provides tech, regulatory, and marketing support. The offering has become more important during COVID-19 as a way to make money in the safety of your own home—and its also been helpful as new Afghan refugees are coming to resettle in the U.S. Chefs say that it’s also become a way to counter negative media coverage or xenophobic sentiments, in getting the community to embrace their culture through their food.

The Shef site is similar to a DoorDash or Grubhub: customers can browse menus in their area and pick food they want to order. But, they’ll also see the names of the chefs, and cuisines tend to be more diverse than the regular offering, including Nepalese, Taiwanese, and Haitian. Unlike at many restaurants, the cuisines also get very region-specific—not only Indian, but also Punjabi, Gujarati, and Udupi. Customers then place their orders and schedule deliveries a few days in advance, to give chefs time to buy the ingredients and prepare the meals. But also like DoorDash or Grubhub, growing the platform means the company’s model has sometimes pushed the boundaries of industry regulations, in ways that create questions about the future of home cooking startups, the gig economy, and food safety laws.

Just like mama used to make

Alvin Salehi knows firsthand that starting and maintaining a restaurant business is financially precarious. His parents came to the U.S. from Iran in the 1970s, and set up a restaurant that they eventually had to shutter. “That was supposed to be a big inflection point for our family,” he says. “[But] it became very clear that on a good day, they were barely able to break even.” As the average price of starting a restaurant is around $275,000, Salehi knew that route was cost-prohibitive for many. So, he aimed to start a platform to bring the food industry to where they already were: at home. He cofounded Shef in 2019 with Joey Grassia, a former marketing employee for Facebook and food startup entrepreneur.

Mir has now been cooking at home via Shef for six months. She says the initial on-boarding process wasn’t so much difficult as it was rigorous. That’s by design, says Salehi—who became familiar with intensive regulatory processes during his government days, when he worked as a senior tech advisor for the Obama White House. In order to comply with complex food safety regulations, chefs-to-be go through food safety certification exams, food quality assessments, and receive hairnets, masks, and thermometers, and they must retain a high rating on the site. Salehi says Shef has a waitlist of 16,000, caused not just by high demand from prospective cooks, but the slowness of safety procedures.

Rather than work for the company, chefs work independently as 1099 contractors, similar to the Uber-driver model. The intention is that they can keep flexible schedules—Mir works three days a week—though it also means they’re responsible for securing their own health insurance. Mir admits it’s currently hard to make a decent profit because of the high price of ingredients—halal meat has tripled in cost—and because people expect home cooks to charge less than restaurants. Cooks set their prices; you might find a mung bean dal and rice for $7.99, a butter chicken for $9.99, and a Thai panang curry for $8.99. Shef takes a 15% transaction fee per order, and says the the average earning per chef is $40 an hour.

[Photo: Shef]

Mir, who’d had some experience with food blogging and photography, says it still took time to create awareness for her and her cuisine, through hard work. “From my first order,” she says, “I treated it like I was feeding a king.” One of her most popular dishes is borani banjan, eggplant cooked in tomato, topped with a garlic and yogurt sauce. Her personal favorite is the country’s national dish, qabuli pilau, sweet-and-savory rice with lamb, jeweled with carrots and raisins. “In Afghan culture, there’s no celebration without this dish,” she says. She also sells sides and desserts, like firni, a milk pudding infused with rosewater and cardamom.

Salehi doesn’t intend for Shef to replace restaurant outings, rather complement them, for busy people who want home-prepared meals most nights. In Salehi’s experience, home-cooked dishes—like the Persian yellow-split-pea stew, khoresh gheymeh, that takes him back to his childhood whenever he tastes it—is never quite the same at a restaurant. “It’s a little too oily,” he says, “[and] you don’t really feel great about it afterward.” The “homemade” notion refers to the style of cooking—using recipes passed down generations from “mothers and aunties”—rather than the location where it’s prepared. Because though the original intention was to create entirely home-based enterprises, many of the chefs legally cannot cook from home.

Navigating stringent food laws

In many states, food laws are restrictive, and most only approve shelf-stable foods, like pies, cookies, or jams, to be produced at home. Only California and Utah permit cooks to sell full meals from home kitchens. But, even in California, which passed the law AB 626 in 2018, counties must opt in, and only seven have done so. Chefs who live in any of the other 51 counties of California—or the entire rest of the country—legally have to cook in shared commercial kitchens, such as ones in San Francisco and Seattle with which Shef partners.

One of the advocacy groups that helped push through the California law is the nonprofit, Cook Alliance. Its founder, Matt Jorgensen, was a cofounder of a startup called Josephine, one of the original companies that pioneered the idea of helping home cooks sell food to neighbors. Josephine shuttered in 2018. “We tried to do it like a cannabis club, to sidestep the regulations,” he says, before realizing they really had to change the law first. His alliance tracks platforms that opened up after the law passed, which he counts at more than 50. These platforms started “with the narrative of, ‘hey, this is legal now,’” he says. “And, it’s not quite true.”

Shef received $8.8 million in seed funding, and $20 million in Series A from Andreessen Horowitz, Y Combinator, and celebrity investors including Katy Perry and Padma Lakshmi. Jorgensen knows firsthand that investor involvement can lead to regulation flouting in the short term. “There’s a growth curve that becomes expected that just, frankly, isn’t super compatible with the pace of regulatory change, or even just like cultural adoption.” He says he gets emails from cooks, including from Shef, who say they’re confused about laws and can’t get permits.

Some critics suggest the company is pushing responsibility for food safety on to a unmonitored network of amateur cooks. But David Owen, Shef’s head of policy, stresses that the company educates its cooks continuously about local laws and regulations, including via live calls and webinars, for individual states and regions. If credibly alerted by local health officials that a chef is not complying, the company says it will suspend them from the platform, which they have done previously.

Another are of complication is delivery. The original California state law legalizing home cooking startups was based on underground dining clubs or takeout. Now, we’re in the world of on-demand delivery, and regulators are especially scrupulous, making sure that food from home kitchens is handed off directly, without third-party delivery. Shef confirms that in some areas, in order to circumvent those onerous clauses, it uses a “distribution model,” whereby chefs drop meals off to an empty commissary kitchen used as a logistics hub, from which third-party drivers are then allowed to deliver. But, the startup also says that in California counties where AB 626 is fully implemented, chefs who’ve obtained food permits have legally set up systems to have customers directly collect meals from designated pickup locations, eliminating the need for delivery.

A “lifeline” during simultaneous crises

Since the start of the pandemic, 55 home-cooking bills have sprung up across 31 states. Jorgensen, who’s helping craft this next generation of food legislation bills, wants to include delivery allowances. He’s optimistic that new laws will give options to food industry workers who don’t want to go back to low-wage jobs, and want to go it alone. Salehi has also been working with state legislators to help expand opportunities. And, when unemployment surged during COVID-19, the chef base evolved from solely immigrants, Salehi says, to anyone “desperate for a lifeline.”

And now, as initial group of Afghan refugees starts to resettle, including an estimated 5,300 in California, cook Laila Mir has been spreading the word about Shef to family and friends. It will take people time to settle in, but when they’re ready, Shef is creating an emergency fast track for them to circumvent the long waitlist, so they can generate an income as fast as possible.

In the meantime, Shef has also started a donation program, teaming up with local charities to send meals to the newly arrived, funded jointly by the company and customers. Mir has been cooking hundreds of extra meals in recent weeks to send refugees comforting tastes of home after months of residing in camps and trudging from airport to airport. “It’s a lot of work for me,” she says, “but it’s very rewarding.”

But, Mir says most of her customers are not fellow immigrants pining for nostalgia, rather local people open to trying new cuisines. She’s found that sharing her food is a way to educate the community about her heritage, and even change the minds of people who are skeptical about incoming migrants. “Afghanistan is always in the news for negative reasons,” she says. “Being on this platform, and showing the world a good side of Afghanistan through food, it’s just been really meaningful for me.”


Technology & Innovation

The Download: tracking animals, and biotech plants

Diane Davis

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dossier of journalist information concept

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

How tracking animal movement may save the planet

Animals have long been able to offer unique insights about the natural world around us, acting as organic sensors picking up phenomena invisible to humans. Canaries warned of looming catastrophe in coal mines until the 1980s, for example.

These days, we have more insight into animal behavior than ever before thanks to technologies like sensor tags. But the data we gather from these animals still adds up to only a relatively narrow slice of the whole picture. Results are often confined to silos, and for many years tags were big and expensive, suitable only for a handful of animal species.

This is beginning to change. Researchers are asking: What will we find if we follow even the smallest animals? What if we could see how different species’ lives intersect? What could we learn from a system of animal movement, continuously monitoring how creatures big and small adapt to the world around us? It may be, some researchers believe, a vital tool in the effort to save our increasingly crisis-plagued planet. Read the full story.

—Matthew Ponsford 

This story is from the upcoming print issue of MIT technology Review, dedicated to exploring hidden worlds. Buy a subscription to get your hands on a copy when it publishes on February 28th! Deals start at just $8 a month.

These are the biotech plants you can buy now

—Antonio Regalado

This spring I am looking forward to growing some biotech in my backyard for the first time. It’s possible because of startups that have started selling genetically engineered plants directly to consumers, including a bright-purple tomato and a petunia that glows in the dark.

This week, for $73, I ordered both by pressing a few buttons online.

Biotech seeds have been a huge business for a while. In fact, by sheer mass, GMOs are probably the single most significant product of genetic engineering ever. But the difference now is that people are able to plant and grow GMO houseplants in their homes. Read the full story. 

Watch this robot as it learns to stitch up wounds

The news: A new AI-trained surgical robot can make stitches on its own. A video taken by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, shows the two-armed robot completing stitches in a row on a simple wound in imitation skin. It managed to make six stitches before a human had to intervene. 

Why it matters: It’s common for surgeons today to get help from robots, but we’re a long way from them being able to fully replace many tasks. This new research marks progress toward robots that can operate more autonomously on very intricate, complicated tasks. Read the full story. 

—James O’Donnell

Three frequently asked questions about EVs, answered

Transportation is a critical part of the climate change puzzle: it accounts for something like a quarter of global emissions. And the vehicles that we use to shuttle around to work, school, and the grocery store in many parts of the world are a huge piece of the problem.

Last week, MIT technology Review hosted an event where we dug into the future of batteries and the materials that go into them. We got so many great questions, and we answered quite a few of them (subscribers should check out the recording of the full event). 

But there were still a lot of questions, particularly about EVs, that we didn’t get to. So let’s take a look at a few of those. 

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly newsletter all about the technology that could combat the climate crisis. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The first US moon landing for over 50 years is due today
If all goes to plan, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus spacecraft will touch down at 5.30pm ET. (WP $)
Here’s how you can watch it. (NYT $)

2 ChatGPT had a meltdown yesterday
Which is not necessarily worrying in itself… but it isn’t great that we have no idea why. (technology%2F2024%2F02%2Fchatgpt-alarms-users-by-spitting-out-shakespearean-nonsense-and-rambling%2F%3Fmc_cid%3D8d2404be49%26mc_eid%3DUNIQID&data=05%7C02%7C%7C7a9f483188ae4387f99e08dc33a02068%7C961f23f8614c4756bafff1997766a273%7C1%7C0%7C638442010063983878%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C0%7C%7C%7C&sdata=duo%2BDx%2FppidnuHwo4iXqtn7l4NWMB6FN1qSQ4Yt%2Bkhk%3D&reserved=0″ target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Ars Technica)
Gab’s racist chatbots have been trained to deny the Holocaust. (Wired $)
+ Soon, we might be using AI to do all sorts of tasks for us. (NPR)

3 You can buy Vision Pro headsets in Russia 
Two years after Apple quit the country. (NBC)

4 Google is racing to fix a new “overly woke” AI-powered tool 
It was returning women and people of color when asked to produce images of America’s founding fathers, for example. (BBC)
It’s pausing the ability for Gemini AI to generate images until it’s fixed the issue. (The Verge)
These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. (MIT technology Review) 
How it feels to be sexually objectified by an AI. (MIT technology Review)

5 American winters are getting warm
They’re also getting shorter, and less predictable. (Insider $)

6 Instagram is a news site, whether it likes it or not
And that means it has a responsibility to do content moderation properly. (NYT $)

7 Inside the weird world of Instacart’s AI-generated recipes
It’s becoming harder and harder to work out what’s been made by a human versus a machine. (404 Media)
Why Big Tech’s watermarking plans are some welcome good news. (MIT technology Review)

8 We need protection from companies building tech to read our minds
It’s not such a concerning issue right now, but it could be sooner than you know. (Vox)
How your brain data could be used against you. (MIT technology Review)

9 Why AM radio lingers on 
A surprisingly diverse group of people still rely on it, even as it heads towards obsolescence. (The Atlantic $)

10 Writing by hand has a positive impact on memory and learning ✍
I knew it! (Scientific American $)

Quote of the day

“Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ????

—An example of how ChatGPT went off the rails yesterday, screenshotted and shared by a user on X. 

The big story

Inside the app Minnesota police used to collect data on journalists at protests

<a href="https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/03/23/1047899/secret-police-app-minnesota-police-journalists-protests-data/?truid=<<%20Test%20Link%20ID%20>>&utm_source=the_download&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the_download.unpaid.engagement&utm_term=<dossier of journalist information concept

MS TECH

March 2022

Photojournalist J.D. Duggan was covering a protest in Minnesota in April 2021 when police officers surrounded him and others, and told them to get on the ground.

Officers sorted the press from the protesters, walked them to a parking lot, and began photographing them, one by one, with cellphones, which they told Duggan would be stored in an app. 

An investigation by MIT technology Review found the data was collected using a tool called Intrepid Response, an easy way to almost instantly de-anonymize protest attendees and keep tabs on their movements. For some, the tool’s use is a dangerous step in the direction of authoritarianism. Read the full story.

—Sam Richards & Tate Ryan-Mosley

+ Fascinated by the stories in this grisly interactive map, which details murders committed in medieval London, York and Oxford. 
+ Terrible night’s sleep last night? Fear not, it’s possible to salvage your day. (NYT $) 
+ This athletic fluffy cat is bound to bring a smile to your face.
+ Some simple ways to make your diet healthier.


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Technology & Innovation

Here are the biotech plants you can buy right now to grow at home

Diane Davis

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caprese salad in a bowl made with halved yellow, red and purple-fleshed cherry tomatoes

Biotech seeds have been a huge business for a while. In fact, by sheer mass, GMOs are probably the single most significant product of genetic engineering ever. Except most of us aren’t planting rows of cotton or corn that can resist worms or survive a spritz of RoundUp, the big gene-splicing innovations that companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred first introduced in the 1990s.

What makes these new plants different is that you can buy them directly from their creators and then plant them in the yard, on a balcony, or just in a pot. 

Purple tomatoes developed by Norfolk Health Produce.

NORFOLK HEALTHY PRODUCE

Purple tomato

Starting off my biotech shopping spree, I first spent $20 to order 10 tomato seeds from Norfolk Health Produce, a small company in Davis, California, that created what it calls the Purple Tomato. The seeds have a gene introduced from a snapdragon flower, which adds a nutrient, anthocyanin, that also gives the fruits their striking color.

According to Channa S. Prakash, a geneticist and dean at Tuskegee University, the tomato is the “the first-of-its kind GMO food crop marketed directly to home gardeners.”   

The CEO of the company, Nathan Pumplin, was packing seeds when I reached him by phone. He claimed that anthocyanin has health benefits—it’s an antioxidant—but he agreed that the color is a useful sales pitch.

“I don’t need to make a label that says this red tomato is better for you than the other red tomato,” says Pumplin. “We can simply put out the purple tomato, and people say, ‘Oh my gosh, this tomato is purple.’ Its beauty is a distinguishing characteristic that people can just immediately see and understand.”

There is a plan to mass-produce the purple tomatoes for sale in supermarkets. But Pumplin says the company couldn’t ignore thousands of requests from regular gardeners. “It’s not the main focus of our business, but we are very interested in having people grow these at home,” he says. And “if home gardeners want to save the seed and replant it in their gardens for their own use, that is okay.”

couple in their glowing garden of gmo petunias
A promotional video for Light Bio’s firefly petunia.

LIGHT BIO

Glowing flower

I next decided to shell out for the “firefly petunia,” so called because the plant is supposed to glow in the dark. It’s sold by Light Bio, a startup backed by the venture capital firm NFX .

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: deep diving, and virtual power plants in China

Diane Davis

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open and closed doors with a ribbon of text running around and through them

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Meet the divers trying to figure out how deep humans can go

Two hundred thirty meters into one of the deepest underwater caves on Earth, Richard “Harry” Harris knew that not far ahead of him was a 15-meter drop leading to a place no human being had seen before. 

Getting there had taken two helicopters, three weeks of test dives, two tons of equipment, and hard work to overcome an unexpected number of technical problems. But in the moment, Harris was hypnotized by what was before him: the vast, black, gaping unknown. 

Staring into it, he felt the familiar pull—maybe he could go just a little farther. Instead, he and his diving partner, Craig Challen, decided to turn back. They weren’t there to exceed 245 meters—a depth they’d reached three years earlier. Nor were they there to set a depth record—that would mean going past 308 meters. 

They were there to test what they saw as a possible key to unlocking depths beyond even 310 meters: breathing hydrogen. Read the full story. 

—Samantha Schuyler

This story is from the next print issue of MIT technology Review, all about exploring hidden worlds. Want to get your hands on a copy when it publishes next Wednesday? Subscribe now.

Why China’s EV ambitions need virtual power plants

Virtual power plants (VPPs) are an idea whose time has arrived. They’re basically a layer on top of resources like electric vehicle chargers, solar panels, and battery packs, which allow you to coordinate energy consumption and supply. This lets utility companies handle times of higher energy demand by adjusting the end use of electricity, for example reducing the efficiency of an EV charger so it takes longer to finish and thus puts less burden on the grid.

In China, which is adopting electric vehicles faster than any other country, VPPs could be transformational. The country has just started testing programs which incentivize EV owners to charge their vehicles late at night, when there’s less demand on the grid. 

It’s also piloting bidirectional charging stations, which would let EV owners not only use electricity, but even sell it back into the grid at times of peak demand, earning them a little extra cash. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter giving you behind-the-scenes insights into China and its tech scene. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are ‘children’
It’s a worrying development, especially for people seeking infertility treatments. (CNN)
The first IVF babies conceived by a robot have been born. (MIT technology Review)

2 Inside AI startup Anthrophic’s funding spree 
Investors cannot hand money over to promising AI companies quickly enough right now, it seems. (NYT $)
OpenAI is now valued at a staggering $86 billion. (Bloomberg $)
Why the New York Times could win against OpenAI. (Ars Technica)

3 The EU is setting up rules for sucking CO2 out of the sky
It’s creating a first-of-its-kind certification framework for carbon removal technologies. (The Verge)
+ How carbon removal technology is like a time machine. (MIT technology Review)

4 Researchers are imbibing AI with human-like qualities
No one is immune from anthropomorphism, it seems. (New Scientist $)
If you’ve posted on Reddit, your words are probably being used to train AI. (technology%2F2024%2F02%2Fyour-reddit-posts-may-train-ai-models-following-new-60-million-agreement%2F%3Fmc_cid%3Deecfd57aad%26mc_eid%3DUNIQID&data=05%7C02%7C%7Cd1b49b76477142945b0508dc32d84365%7C961f23f8614c4756bafff1997766a273%7C1%7C0%7C638441151658419211%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C0%7C%7C%7C&sdata=yEmOuq3VhexDU0vVNasDICewGMS5cbdip0ZnnePNd8Y%3D&reserved=0″ target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Ars Technica)

5 What mind-reading devices can teach us
They’re restoring functions like speech and movement. But they’re also shining a light on how the brain works. (Nature)
Elon Musk claims the first Neuralink patient can now control a computer mouse with their thoughts. (CNBC)

6 Fake funeral livestream scams are proliferating on Facebook
Beyond grim, and Meta’s doing almost nothing to prevent it. (404 Media)

7 A spacecraft is about to try to snag some space junk
If it works, it’ll be an important development for the effort to clear Earth’s orbit of debris. (Ars Technica

8 People are breeding pythons to have ‘emoji’ patterns 
But, as always amid a gold rush, some of them are doing some deeply unethical things in the process. (New Yorker $)

9 How scientists predicted Iceland’s vast volcanic eruption
And saved a lot of lives in the process. (Quanta)
How machine learning might unlock earthquake prediction. (MIT technology Review)

10 Older people are among VR’s most enthusiastic adopters
And studies suggest spending time in virtual reality can produce positive effects, too. (AP)
Virtual reality can be used as a painkiller. (MIT technology Review)

Quote of the day

“People say AI is overhyped, but I think it’s not hyped enough.”

—Puneet Chandok, who leads Microsoft India and South Asia, says we should get even more excited about AI, the Economic Times reports.

The big story

The open-source AI boom is built on Big Tech’s handouts. How long will it last?

open and closed doors with a ribbon of text running around and through them

STEPHANIE ARNETT/MITTR | ENVATO

May 2023

Last year a leaked memo written by a senior engineer at Google said out loud what many in Silicon Valley must have been whispering: an open-source free-for-all is threatening Big Tech’s grip on AI.

New open-source large language models—alternatives to Google’s Bard or OpenAI’s ChatGPT that researchers and developers can study, build on, and modify—are dropping like candy from a piñata. These are smaller, cheaper versions of the best-in-class AI models created by the big firms that (almost) match them in performance—and they’re shared for free.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. AI won’t thrive if just a few mega-rich companies get to gatekeep this technology or decide how it is used. But this open-source boom is precarious, and if Big Tech decides to shut up shop, a boomtown could become a backwater. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

We can still have nice things

+ Paul McCartney has been reunited with a beloved bass guitar that was stolen 51 years ago. 
+ How to have a better relationship with money.
+ Obsessed with Nimbus and his marvelous piano skills. 
+ Cracking up at this game where you have to guess if a name refers to antidepressants or a character from Tolkien.

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