Einat Admony isn’t new to the industry. The Israeli chef and restaurateur is the founder of highly popular falafel chain Taïm, an award-winning cookbook author, and a two-time champion of Food Network’s Chopped. She’s also the owner of New York City based Balaboosta, where dishes like lamb neck shawarma put her on track to become a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist.
It wasn’t until recently, however, that Admony started what she says is her most profitable venture to date. In January of 2021, Admony joined CookUnity, a chef-to-customer meal subscription platform through which Admony now sells 7,000 meals per week.
“The platform changed life for a lot of colleagues and chefs, including myself. It’s what kept my family afloat and doing well for the last year,” says Admony. “I’ve had many, many restaurants in my life – there’s no restaurant I’ve ever worked at that could make this kind of revenue.”
Admony is one of 80-plus chefs partnered with CookUnity. The platform is designed to bring restaurant-quality meals directly to people’s doorsteps. This creates additional revenue for chefs, but arguably CookUnity’s greatest appeal is that it handles nearly every aspect of pre- and post-production, from providing kitchens and equipment to stocking ingredients to sealing, labeling, and shipping meals.
“You don’t need to deal with rent, equipment, insurance, a million different things,” says Admony. “I get to do what I love the most – creating food.”
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How CookUnity works: Born in 2015 out of a single kitchen in Brooklyn, CookUnity now has seven facilities that are able to service roughly 98% of the U.S. population. Current partners include celebrated chefs like Admony, Michelin-star Ludovic Lefebvre, Mŏkbar’s Esther Choi, and James-Beard-Award-winning JJ Johnson. But chefs come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including catering business operators, private chefs, and rising stars.
“It really comes down to the cuisine needs that we have per market,” says David Elkins, CookUnity's director of chef and menu success. “We give preference to potential partners who do have a social media presence, but that’s far from a requirement.”
Any chef can apply. The interview process includes submitting meal concepts, an introductory phone call to review the chef’s background and culinary style, and a live tasting. If deemed a good fit, CookUnity will present an offer.
Once contracts are signed, chefs are generally onboarded within roughly 60 days. In this time, chefs work with CookUnity to determine their opening menu.
“We consider chefs as our business partners. From day one, it’s a collaborative endeavor,” says Elkins. “Our portfolio team is tasked with taking a look at customer behaviors and trends, and distilling that into actionable cases for chefs to design their menus around.”
Akin to a ghost kitchen production, chefs operate out of CookUnity’s facilities, currently based in New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, and Atlanta. Most CookUnity partners have dedicated, full-time teams who cook during all five production days, and some have brought on lead chefs to manage teams across multiple CookUnity locations.
“We work from a quantity available system – on each production day, we assign a maximum quantity [of meals],” says Elkins. “Most chefs starting out have a menu of roughly three to four menu items at 50 quantity each, so you’re looking at 150 to 200 meals per day.”
Sales close 48 hours prior to production so that chefs know the exact number of portions needed in advance. All inventory and ingredient stocking is handled by CookUnity, enabling chefs to get cooking as soon as they show up. Dishwashing facilities and equipment maintenance is also offered, and CookUnity team members handle post-production tasks, like quality assurance, container sealing, labeling, and shipping.
While CookUnity provides a notable level of support, production looks a lot different than à la minute cooking.
“Chef teams are often cooking anywhere from 500 to 2,500 meals in a single day so having experience with large volume technique is super important,” says Elkins. “At a national level, the average weekly volume per chef team is 1,300 meals, but we have some chefs doing as high as 8,000 meals per week, and we have a couple chef partners operating in all seven markets doing upwards of 20,000 meals per week.”
The environment is also distinctly different from a restaurant. Chefs get to work among other talented colleagues, but there’s an obvious absence of customers and the thrill that comes from making food to order.
Admony says that at first, she missed that restaurant energy. But it didn’t take long until she was sold on the concept. “By three months in, I said, ‘I completely get it’,” she says. “There’s a simplicity in that the chef doesn’t have to deal with the purveyors and so many different layers and conflicts within restaurants. You’re in charge of payroll and creating an amazing team, that’s it.”
How chefs get paid:On the consumer side, CookUnity subscribers choose between meal plans containing eight to 16 meals per week. Meal prices vary depending on the size of the meal plan but average between $10.50 to $12 per meal.
CookUnity chef partners get paid on commission at a rate that’s tied to meal performance on the platform.
“The higher a meal is rated by customers, the more commission a chef will get,” says Elkins. “Our customers can rate meals on a one to five system, and right now we offer $1.50 to $3 per meal.”
That puts the average earning potential between $1,950 and $3,900 a week, based on the 1,300 meals the average CookUnity partner makes per week. Chefs can monitor daily sales numbers and customer ratings and reviews on an in-house app. CookUnity also has a dedicated marketing team that works directly with every chef and will help partners launch social campaigns like announcing new menu launches.
But the chefs that do best on the platform are typically engaging in their own marketing efforts, too, and also paying close attention to their sales numbers.
“I do a lot, a lot of research. We heavily analyze what dishes people are looking for and what they’re actually ordering,” says Admony, highlighting her chicken shawarma with Israeli couscous as a current top-seller.
As CookUnity continues to grow, it hopes to evolve its offerings beyond prepared meals.
“We’re going to be launching other product lines – anything from sauces to condiments to cooking classes,” says Elkins. “The ultimate vision is to become a platform where chefs can bring anything they want to market.”
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to email@example.com.