Food-sharing startup Josephine doesn’t want to be like the rest of the gig economy

Silicon Valley’s gig economy isn’t known for being very supportive of its core workers — the ones working on the ground, making deliveries and picking up and dropping off passengers. The “best” cases in point are Uber and Lyft, two on-demand ride companies that have been resistant to allow drivers to access their fair share of wealthJosephine, the startup that facilitates home-cooked meal sharing, wants to do things differently. That’s why Josephine is gearing up to offer its cooks ownership, more agency and transparency in the company.

“We’ve been thinking a long time about how tech platforms can be less extractive and provide more value to the communities,” Josephine CEO Charley Wang (pictured above) told me. “We did a lot of research into cooperatism and the B-corps. We finally felt like we were at a good place where we could make meaningful stakes in trying to be an ethical employer and non-extractive platform.”

Starting January 2017,  Josephine will give 20% of its company to the cooks via stock options, which will be distributed dependent upon how long the cooks have been with Josephine and how many meals they serve. Josephine is also launching a Cook Council, which will be a rotating group of cooks that will be able to meet with the company’s leadership team and function as a conduit for feedback from the cook community. The Cook Council will also have at least one seat on Josephine’s board of directors starting in 2017. 

While that’s all well and good, back in May, Josephine paused its operations in Oakland — the company’s first launch city — after some cooks in the East Bay received cease and desist letters for the illegal sale of food from their homes. It turns out that it’s illegal in California to sell homemade food unless they are “non-potentially hazardous foods” — foods that are unlikely to grow bacteria at room temperature — like baked goods (cookies, biscuits, pastries), candy, dried fruit, popcorn and dried pasta.

“I think overall the approach we took on leaning in to policy and leaning into systems change work has been difficult,” Wang said. “The proven method for platforms is to put your head down and continue to grow as quickly as possible where our approach is trying to work with and being really transparent about policy and systems changes we’d like to see from the get go. That has come with its own challenges. Luckily, the shut down led to our ability to connect with a lot of folks who are currently in our coalition.”

Now, Josephine is focusing its efforts on Seattle, Denver and Portland, despite the fact that there are similar cottage food laws in Washington, Colorado and Oregon.

“In our push to markets, we’ve been proactive about reaching out to local regulators and officials — really getting to know people who have been in those markets for a long time who are experts and have relationships, and leaning on those to navigate,” Wang said. “In deciding to go to Portland and Seattle, there was research on the legislative and political climate as well.”

Regarding California, there’s a longish road ahead for Josephine, but Wang seems optimistic that it will work out in Josephine’s favor. That’s because Josephine is currently drafting legislation with its opposition, the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health.

“Assuming that we come to a draft that we’ve both written and have had input on, presumably there will be little to no opposition on that bill,” Wang said. “That’s the optimist version. I think the tougher challenge is the fact that we’re trying to represent and engage a group of people who have historically not had a lot of faith in local government. So it’s a challenge to convince our cooks to have faith and to stick their necks out and to engage in the system. I think hopefully they’ll be able to have their voices heard through the town hall, through the petitions, through a lot of the work that we’re trying to facilitate. We’re trying to play middlemen through this legislative process.”

Despite some of Josephine’s challenges around food legislation and regulation, investors don’t seem to be fazed. At the end of June, Josephine completed a $2.5 million funding round from SV Angel, Kapor Capital and other impact investors.