Simon Prockter almost gave up on his idea of ‘Housebites’. The original concept began life in 2010 as a social dining experiment, an online version of the Channel 4 hit programme “Come Dine With Me”. His version paired singles, or those wanting to extend their social circle, with a dinner party in their area, a list of like-minded guests looking for the same thing, alongside a menu of decent food and someone to cook it, and deal with the post-supper detritus. It was good, but would take a while to develop the business. The reason being, that some of us Brits get more than a little fractious at crossing the threshold of a strangers house to mingle, let alone picking up a few numbers and a potential life partner. Once the clients arrived, they loved it, but it was that initial hurdle that was well and truly holding the business back.
So, a lost weekend in his office ensured a last ditch attempt at resurrecting a little of the original idea. What about great food cooked in a chef’s home, without the awkwardness of meeting strangers? A different guise maybe but keeping the same name, it’s a business that no one else was currently doing, and one that could bring in a good income for the trained chef, or competent cook who dreams of running their own restaurant. It’s also a way to tackle the sorry state of the takeaway market in this country, which is worth a whopping £10 billion, and the home delivery market a further £1.6 billion (Mintel).
When I meet him at his offices, close to the so-called Silicon Roundabout in East London, he’s waiting on a leaflet delivery. For those of you who haven’t heard of Housebites just yet, you will, Simon’s planning the mother of all leaflet drops. In local neighbourhoods, tube stations and train stations.
So, get on with it. Stop teasing. How does this life shatteringly new food service you can’t possibly live without, work? The Silicon Roundabout mention was a massive clue. It’s a web-based service, which matches your postal code with a chef and evening menu, within a two-mile radius, fresh to order. Can you remember the last time you collected a takeaway or ordered a home delivery without turning on the oven or slamming it in the microwave? Housebites are almost always delivered by the chefs who prepare it, so it takes the helmeted learner motorcyclist, who’s English is restricted to the word ‘tip’, with a knackered moped, a massive airy back box and a chip on his shoulder to match it, out of the equation. My apologies to those delivery drivers who take off their helmets. Customer service is paramount for this to work. There are rivals out there, some of them doing a brilliant job, but for those who could do better, if you try and complain about their service, then it’s usually someone else’s fault, primarily the restaurant in which the food was cooked. But, that said, if there is a problem with your Housebites meal, it’s dealt with speedily, often with a free meal and a full refund. How refreshing is that? This company sign up chefs who know the difference between delighted and satisfied. Chefs are currently limited to eight covers a night and once the system is bedded-in that will increase.
The business model means the chef runs the business. It’s what’s now known as a Marketplace business and in old-fashioned money, a franchise. They get support from the Housebites web team with managing the site, marketing, support, and the food boxes, but it’s up to the chefs to organise the buying and delivery of their own ingredients, menu choice and delivery. If they want to stand at a tube station and hand out free chocolate mousse in a shot glass (keep an eye out, this will be happening) then they can. If they’re entrepreneurial, and want to hire a courier or cyclist to deliver their orders, then they’re free to do that too. The guys behind this venture are awfully experienced in areas where chefs who may have always worked for someone else will not be; pricing structures and marketing are just two examples. If you bear in mind the average wage for a professional chef is £19,000 a year, then this could be the opportunity to make some decent money without the unfeasibly long hours. You choose when you want to work and you can make as little or as many dishes as you care to offer your diners.
Inputting your postal code on the website takes you automatically to chefs cooking that day. This site has been launched for just three weeks and is in its very early infancy and Simon has some big plans for how it will develop. Not every chef cooks 7 days a week, so initially you may not find exactly what you crave. When I type in my postcode for Shepherds Bush for example, on a Wednesday night, Miroslav is the chef that pops up. He’s cooking a Czech menu. Authentic (he’s from the Czech Republic), well thought out menus and great customer reviews to match. He’s just outside the remit, (2.1 miles), and, he’s collection only. I jump on the website at 22:30 to check pricing. He finished cooking at 22:00 and it would appear he’s sold out of everything. The beef goulash I could have had is a reasonably priced (£9.40) and comes with houskovy, sliced bread dumplings. If you don’t fancy that you can have rice instead. His vegetarian dish is roasted vegetables in 5 herbs with Parmesan (£8.50) and he’s also offering a British turkey escalope (£9.90). However, Mina Galletta in W3 (1.2 miles) is nearer, delivers, but sadly doesn’t work on Wednesday, her menu looks great and leans heavily towards the Italian. Some chefs have lots of choices for all three courses, whilst others just one for each. Prices vary between £10 and £15 for a main course and the average order is £30. The chefs work their own hours, usually between 1800-2300. The service is hyper-local, so that the food is delivered hot, there’s currently no drop down menu for cuisine type. You order from the menus on offer.
Every day there are new chef signings and on Monday, West London gets another one in Kew. Obviously, Housebites can only expand where the chefs live and Simon says he’s in a position to do just that, such is the interest from excellent cooks and professional chefs in all the London boroughs. Like any restaurant, these chefs know that it’s the reviews that will make or break them and Simon reassures me that when they do expand the business, the quality of service will remain high.
There are lots of ideas being worked on in his office. Ever fancied a Sunday roast, but just can’t be bothered with the preparation or washing up? Well, Simon’s developing that too, although can’t give much more away, apart from the fact that someone with a lot of experience in that department will be helping them spearhead the campaign. If you know any good cooks out there with roast as a specialty I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. There’s a click-through box on the website with details on how to apply and what to expect. Christmas dinner, brunches, bakes, you name it; the market is wide open for Housebites to conquer. But be prepared for a rigorous sign up policy; they don’t take just on anyone. They have two former head chefs who vet potentials, one of whom is a Masterchef finalist, and you’ll need to prove that you can put on consistently good, seasonal menus and cope with the orders. If you’re not a professional chef but everyone says you’re lasagne and lemon possett are winners, then I’m afraid that simply won’t cut it. Smashing. But you need a little more in your food portfolio than that. Housebites go the extra mile they make sure the chefs have the right hygiene certificates (not a legal requirement) they’ve had a special policy underwritten that covers the food on every step of the journey to your front door (also, not compulsory by law) and the chefs are regulated by the local authority so you need to be clear about what you’re signing up to. They expect their chefs to shake their menus up, you might have just the one chef nearest you, and so they’re changed each week. As Simon says, nice though it is, who wants a goat curry every Monday night?
Once the London template is up-and-running to a point where Simon’s happy, he may take Housebites to Edinburgh, Cambridge and Brighton.
I’m meeting one of the chefs in Maida Vale. He’s called Laurent, is French, and has worked as a personal chef in the Caribbean, the States and here in the capital. Add No 1 Lombard Street, L’Oranger and L’Aventure restaurants to that list and the fact he’s a chocolatier then ask me how upset I am at having to spend tomorrow evening’s service in his company?
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