Nothing like a home-cooked meal

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 9, 2018 - April 15, 2018.
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There is no denying that food is an integral part of our lives. Beyond sustenance, it acts as a road map of memories, experience and empowerment.

That is what Gwi Terk Chern (better known as TC), founder and managing director of online food start-up Dinez-In, hopes to achieve by connecting home cooks to foodies, and carving a niche in the sharing economy space in the process.

Unlike most food delivery services, which happen to be either a marketplace for restaurants or a centralised food production and delivery business, Dinez-In is a platform for home cooks who provide baked goodies and meals on-demand. It is also open to hosting small groups of diners or providing cooking lessons.

Gwi sees Dinez-In as a platform that provides access to good old-fashioned home cooking while empowering otherwise disenfranchised individuals. “Home cooking satiates more than just the appetite and meals prepared are social affairs. It brings people together. It acts as a unifier ... and I thought why not turn it into something more beneficial for people who love cooking,” he says.

“Ask anyone and they will tell you that there is nothing like a home-cooked meal. A lot of people feel that way because of the memories they associate with their favourite dishes, for instance, rendang — which is unique to Negeri Sembilan — or laksa, which is a Johor speciality.

“Not many have access to homemade versions of their much-loved dishes. But now they do because we have a variety of home cooks, some of whom have probably been cooking these dishes using recipes that have been handed down for decades.”

Gwi says Dinez-in provides home cooks who aspire to set up their own restaurant or catering business with a support system and the hard skills needed to run their own business — all from the comfort of their own homes. “Every kitchen has its story. One of our most popular cooks is an army retiree, who is now living his dream of running his own food business. Another cook is a woman in Ipoh who lost both her legs in an accident but is able to fend for herself today because of this platform,” he adds.

After toiling in a corporate job for three years, Gwi called it quits in 2015. He started Dinez-In after a year of groundwork — raising funds and setting up the platform.

Gwi set up the business with an initial funding of RM200,000 from an angel investor in 2016. He has since received another RM200,000 to expand the team. “There are a lot of food delivery services out there, but most of these aspiring entrepreneurs were not successful in opening up their home kitchens to the masses,” he says.

The main problem such platforms face is balancing supply and demand as well as managing data. “So, we make sure we have an arsenal of cooks who state when they are available to take orders on the website. Customers can then choose accordingly,” says Gwi.

The concept is popular outside Malaysia as it provides an alternative to cafés and restaurants. “We have found that most people are keen to try out home-cooking recipes. What differentiates us from the other food delivery services is that we do not depend on a centralised kitchen. We have a lot more kitchens and more than 1,000 items on our menu, which means more than 1,000 recipes,” says Gwi.

As there is no centralised kitchen, his team does thorough background checks and food tastings to vet the prospective cooks. It also inspects their kitchens.

“We take pictures. We conduct interviews and do spot checks every three to six months. Cleanliness, good hygiene and good service are as important as taste,” says Gwi.

“If a customer raises a red flag, we will investigate. And if the cook is found guilty, we will ban him or her and the customer will receive a full refund.”

Dinez-In does not stop at providing access to homemade food. It also handles the pick-ups and deliveries to ensure the entire process is seamless.

Initially, it operated solely as a delivery service for home cooks. But it has now diversified, allowing listed cooks to host small groups for dinner or organise cooking lessons.

Gwi says the initial idea was based on the underground supper club concept, which is a social dining space usually operated out of someone’s home. “We have expanded our business model to allow cooks to open up their homes to small groups that would like to have a personalised dining experience and a sneak peek of different cultures,” he adds.

With empowerment at the crux of its business model, nearly 40% of the cooks listed on the site are retired individuals or from the underprivileged segment, for example, people living with disabilities and single parents.

“When I started this business, the idea was to simultaneously provide a consistent livelihood for people living in difficult circumstances or who are housebound. So, some of our home cooks are retirees who feel that this is a better use of their time, single mothers, the disabled and the poor. The rest are passionate cooks with day jobs and college students who want to showcase their culinary skills,” says Gwi.

Reputable and experienced home cooks also have the option of being part of the platform’s catering squad, which takes large orders for events. “Our aim is to be a leader in the F&B space in Asia. This is possible because of the number of meal boxes we are selling. In the Klang Valley alone, we have more than 120 kitchens, with another 200 waiting to come on board,” says Gwi.

“Some of our home cooks are selling cakes or jams while others sell fish balls or even dry food. We have a lot of foreigners joining us to sell food that is popular in their countries, for example, Pakistan.”

Dinez-In also takes on large catering assignments. Some of its notable clients are the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) and life insurance provider AIA Bhd.

The company used to only cover the Kuala Lumpur city centre and Cheras. But two years ago, it expanded its coverage to the entire Klang Valley. “We have been delivering meal boxes to places such as Klang and Rawang. During festive seasons, we can deliver up to 1,000 people a day,” says Gwi.

Dinez-In plans to expand its services to the rest of Peninsular Malaysia, starting with George Town in the north and Johor Baru in the south. Gwi does not want to just focus on meal delivery. He wants to turn private kitchens into tourist attractions.

“I am trying to work with the tourism boards of the different states, as well as travel agents and tourist agencies, to attract inbound tourists. People come from all over the world to enjoy our beautiful scenery and different cultures, but what tourists always remember about Malaysia is the good food,” he points out.

“There are many more recipes from home and commercial kitchens, but they don’t have the right support to get the word out about their cuisines.”

Dinez-In has expanded its business to help struggling kitchens, including cafés and restaurants, to boost their marketing and operation systems by using data analytics and artificial intelligence.

Despite the mammoth task ahead, Gwi is also planning to expand regionally. “The most valuable lesson I learnt from my corporate job is creating a sustainable business and investing in continuity, rather than just settling for short-term impact. I am working on the ecosystem here so that I can easily replicate it in another country. I plan to go to Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia in the coming years and turn Dinez-In into a regional player,” he says.