2016–2017. Home cooking, Delivered.
From late 2016 to 2017, I had the amazing opportunity to be a part of the team building Umi Kitchen, an app that makes home-cooked meals accessible to everyone.
I worked as a UX designer & front-end developer during the app’s transition from NYC to a larger market.
How it works
Here’s an example: One day a week — Thursday — Shalini Singh transforms her home kitchen into a kind of professional staging area, turning out 16 to 18 meals that will be delivered to customers in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Singh cooks for Umi Kitchen, a food startup that launched earlier this year with the goal of connecting enterprising home cooks to hungry, takeout-weary customers. The basic deal is this: consumers order dinner through the Umi app by 2 PM on a given day; the cooks receive the orders and prepare the meals; Umi coordinates delivery, provides packaging, and takes a cut of the proceeds. If you’ve read about it, you may have seen Umi described as “Seamless for home-cooked meals” “Etsy for food” or “Airbnb for takeout”.
What is Umi Kitchen?
Umi Kitchen is a new food startup, connecting customers with local home cooks who make and sell small batches of their signature dishes. While the variety of meals available on the app is wide, the focus is food that you can’t get other places, such as the kind of meals not typically on take-out menus (meatloaf, casserole, etc.) and family recipes from cuisines not authentically available in all neighborhoods that have been passed down for generations.
The app was conceived in 2014 when founder Khalil Tawil, then a first-year law student, yearned for his mother’s cooking. Khalil posted an ad on Craigslist writing: “Craving a home-cooked meal. Sick of getting take out.”
In 2015, Khalil pulled together a team to build out his initial vision for Umi Kitchen, based around a mobile app, at-home cooks, and an upscale market segment. Following an initial seed round, the app would launch in early 2016 to a warm reception, positive press, and very happy customers.
Unfortunately, in 2016 the food-as-a-service app space became incredibly hot. Plated, Freshly, Uber Eats, Door Dash, Postmates, Hello Fresh, Peach, Blue Apron, and a seemingly endless list of imitators, were all competing for the same key markets as Umi–Young, busy office workers in New York, San Francisco, & Los Angeles, with more disposable income than time to cook.
And, as it turned out, the market where we had the most traction wasn’t foodies in Brooklyn. It was church groups & small communities in the midwest.
Interestingly, these seemingly-lucrative locations & demographics weren’t where Umi was the most competitive. For every cook who had signed up in a larger urban center, dozens more had signed up in rural cities elsewhere. Cooks who had independently attempted to build their own small businesses using a similar business model, but were struggling to integrate technology.
And in another interesting twist, they were better able to recruit their own customer bases, instead of relying on our app to acquire customers.
Near the end of 2016, after about a year in business, the Umi team came together to re-evaluate their position, questioning a number of assumptions about the business. Recognizing that we were still experimenting with the core business model, we opted to move away from building a polished iOS app, to a simpler, more flexible hybrid mobile app that we could treat as an MVP.
Instead of spending our effort controlling the platform, we re-imagined the relationship with our cooks as a partnership. We would build the tools for our cooks to promote their offering, and manage customer relationships. They would run their businesses, independently, as they see fit. Instead of promoting the Umi brand, we used it to add trust to our Chef’s independent kitchens.
Originally, our plan was to restrict ourselves to a small number of markets where we could pool our resources together and market the platform collectively. Facing stiff competition at home, we instead attempted to move into smaller markets– those outside the reach of other competitors, but with a healthy queue of cooks ready to cook on the platform, who could begin promoting in their local area.
My role during the transition was to redesign the experience, for the web, offline, and in a hybrid mobile app. We rethought and recreated the core functionality, marketing, and branding as we crafted a new narrative to recruit both customers, and home cooks.
I conducted user research to inform the design process, redesigned the end-to-end experience for customers & cooks, and built the Umi Kitchen web app.
Primary Home-cook Persona: Kathy
- Home cooks list their upcoming week’s menu on the Umi platform.
- First touch via marketing channel (Home cook, Umi, or referral).
- Customer discovers availability and pricing in-app.
- Customers receive weekly emails from the kitchens they subscribe to.
- Customers are able to build their next order on the Umi website, Prepay, & schedule delivery. Cooks are paid immediately.
- On the advertised day, cooks purchase ingredients and prepare their orders (usually a weekday). Customers who arranged a pickup typically arrive in the afternoon. In the evening, deliveries occur within a specified delivery area (typically short, local routes).
- Customers are asked for feedback in-app or via email.
Research & Prototyping
I typically start each project with a paper prototype, and a physical idea board. This allows me to solicit feedback in an iterative process, and build upon ideas organically, making changes quickly until I feel confident that we’ve explored the experience from end-to-end.
Next, I move to wireframes and (potentially) an interactive prototype (Marvel, Invision, Etc.).
Finally, I iterate on a visual design & plan for testing.
I’m a big fan of in-person, moderated usability testing. However, for this project, my users always seemed to be just out of reach, or a Skype call away.
So, testing consisted of in-app analytics, Hotjar session recordings, Heatmaps, & User Interviews.
This actually turned out to be more appropriate. Rarely was the interface our problem, since we were iterating on a business model and an app simultaneously. The larger user experience was the focus of most of our interviews with both home cooks and customers.
The Web App (Umi 2.0)
Branding & Website
Our Home Cooks
Visit our Medium blog to meet a few of our home cooks!
Press & Feedback
Not all startups get a happy ending
If our startup had one fatal flaw, it would be this: The food industry operates today on razor-thin margins. This makes it extremely challenging to experiment with new concepts & business models.
“The trickiness of making delivery economics work out for everyone involved.”
It was fairly easy to make our end-users happy. However, long-term success meant building a sustainable, scalable business model for our home cooks as well.
Unfortunately, most startups in the food/technology space face a similar issue: Customer Acquisition costs are high because we’re in a competitive market. While it may have been fairly easy to keep the app going, home cooks don’t have the same luxury. They need to be profitable in a much shorter timeline than we could provide.
Ultimately, Umi Kitchen ceased operations in July 2017, after two years of service.
Not all startups get a happy ending. Umi Kitchen, however, gave us the opportunity to bring smiles to a lot of people, via quality home-cooked meals.