For Akshay Prabhu, nothing ties a meal together like community. His Davis-based startup, Foodnome, reflects that philosophy, turning regular homes into restaurants the way Uber turned regular cars into taxis.
“People have a deep connection with food,” says Prabhu, cofounder of Foodnome, which launched in April. “Rather than driving for Uber or hosting for Airbnb, you’re starting your own home restaurant.”
Foodnome has about 50 home cooks in its local network, with plans to soon expand throughout California and, eventually, into other states with food freedom laws. Registered cooks prepare what they choose, then post their menus and hours on the Foodnome app, Prabhu says. Hungry patrons sign up and show up to feast on homemade meals, which could include diet-specific options.
Prabhu’s passion for food began as a boy, watching the Food Network with his mom and trying recipes. While studying neuroscience at UC Davis in 2015, Prabhu wanted to sell steamed buns from a food cart on campus and around town. But he says Yolo County’s food laws were too complicated, so he didn’t go through with it. An early iteration of Foodnome, where Prabhu crowdfunded dinner parties in Davis, was shut down in 2018 by the county’s Environmental Health division.
Fed up with strict rules, Prabhu lobbied for a push for food freedom laws. Advocates demanded changes to regulations that restricted individuals to selling only nonperishable foods (chips, pies, jams, etc.) and operating out of permitted restaurants and commercial kitchens.
Last year, the California Legislature passed AB 626, an amendment to the California Retail Food Code that allows “microenterprise home kitchen operations” to be legitimate food facilities where cooks can sell perishable foods. The victory was a communal effort, which for Prabhu underscores the indelible link between food and community. He calls it a win-win across party lines, as Republicans want deregulation and Democrats believe it’s a good social cause.
Under the new legislation, home cooks are allowed to make 60 meals a week and make no more than $50,000 in food sales a year. Food must be prepared, cooked and served on the same day, and home cooks need training and certification.
To build the Foodnome app, Prabhu assembled a team of three developers, all UC Davis grads. So far, the startup has raised $150,000. For some home cooks, Foodnome might be a side business, a hobby to supplement income or a means of gathering people for dinners on special occasions. For others, Prabhu says, the business could serve as a stepping stone into the restaurant industry, giving cooks experience in the comfort of their homes.
“We’re reducing the barrier of entry to the industry, so they don’t have to take out a loan or work in a commercial kitchen,” he says.
Janet Li, one of the Foodnome home cooks, started cooking while studying chemical engineering at UC Davis. But she struggled with the same legal blocks. “It’s difficult to be a home cook when legislation is not catching up as fast as you want,” she says. “I had to pay bills and needed a new car before I could think about pursuing my passion.”
The passage of AB 626 has allowed her to dig into her hobby. She cooks on weekends, usually choosing dishes that inspire her. So far, Li has cooked ramen; steak sandwiches; and kimchi jjigae, a Korean stew. With Davis being a small community, diners at her first five events have been mostly friends, but she looks forward to bringing in more people from outside of her circle.
Individuals who want to be a home cook with Foodnome apply on the app, Prabhu says. After that, a health inspector will come to the house to assess basic criteria: good ventilation, no pets or carpet in the kitchen, hot water. If they pass inspection, they need to obtain liability insurance, and then they’re in business, he says.
Prabhu is working with corporate sponsors to get discounts on local ingredients and with local farmers for bulk discounts. The Foodnome app also scales recipes and prices meals for the cooks. A token system is also planned, which will work like gift cards.
“I see it as the cannabis industry,” Prabhu says, “a new emerging market, where it’s important to get into the market early to build our resources. People are lacking in social interactions these days, but everybody loves food.”