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Cooking as a side hustle: Tasty but very tricky

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When Linda Delaney's kids went off to college, she found herself with a little too much free time. Hopping on a website called ThumbTack, she discovered that she could parlay her expert cooking skills into part-time income through the so-called gig economy.

Delaney, who lives near Los Angeles, now cooks several times a week for both regular customers and new ones she found through a young cooking-oriented site called DishDivvy. An avid chef, Delaney likes the ability to make a little side income doing something she loves and does anyway. But a word of warning is necessary for those who want to follow her lead and cook for a living.

Cooking-oriented side gigs fall faster than a cold souffle., a site that rates money-making side gigs, started researching cooking side hustles with a list of 20 different platforms and discovered that at least a dozen have gone out of business.

MyTable, Meal Surfers, Umi Kitchen, Sprig, Maple, Leftover Swap, Cuchine and the ever-popular Josephine are all formerly well-used gigs that have disappeared or formally folded. A few others, such as KitchenSurfing and ShareYourMeal still have websites, but they don't appear to be offering meals -- or at least not in the U.S.

To be sure, offering home-cooked meals to strangers is an unusually tricky business. Not only do you have to find a way to provide some consistency and quality control in a profession that many cooks consider "art," subject to constant recipe tinkering, you also have to get meals to customers before the food gets cold. Few other side hustles have the same time pressure.

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Worse, home cooks must deal with an often unfriendly regulatory environment. In most states, selling home-cooked meals for delivery is illegal -- a violation of food safety laws.

A few of the remaining cooking opportunities, such as Feastly, get around that by offering cooks access to a commercial kitchen. Others, including DishDivvy, require all cooks and customers to be part of a closed community -- essentially a cooking club.

"We have had to be a little creative is offering this as a private service," said Ani Torosyan, chief executive of DishDivvy. "When you purchase the food through us, you are essentially commissioning a private cook to buy groceries and cook for you."

California, where Dish Divvy is headquartered, does have a pending law that would legalize and standardize the home-cooking industry in the state. However, the law came too late for Josephine, one of the industry pioneers, that found itself in hot water in 2016 for violating California's Homemade Food Act. This law effectively prohibits individuals from selling hot meals.

After shutting down briefly in 2016 after regulators threatened to cite and fine all of the site's home cooks, Josephine announced in early February that it was closing down for good at the end of March.

"At this point, our team has simply run out of the resources to continue to drive the legislative change, business innovation, and broader cultural shift needed to sustain Josephine," the company said in an email to its members.

Josephine's founders, however, said they'll continue to champion the C.O.O.K. Alliance, which is pushing for a new law that would allow cooks to operate small-scale food preparation services in their own homes. The bill has passed the California Assembly and now awaits a hearing in the Senate.

Still, the gig economy does offer a few attractive opportunities for home cooks. SideHusl lists six sites that specialize in allowing you to cook for a living, including EatWith, which is available worldwide. You can also find a number of broad-based employment sites for cooking and food-service gigs, including ThumbTack.

But even if you find a cooking platform that you like, you may want to start building your own clientele. After all, you don't want your budding side hustle to get burned if your cooking platform goes up in flames.

-- Originally published

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