Food delivery startup ChewBox is fusing technology with the spirit of generosity to help restore economic opportunities in Los Angeles’ marginalized communities.
“This is the reimagination of food services as a perpetual, sustainable vehicle of social justice,” ChewBox co-founder and CEO Kim Gaston told CBSN.
“It’s an empathetic economy, you know — something we need right now,” co-founder and celebrity chef Roy Choi added.
Choi and Gaston, along with chairman and investor Stephen DeBerry, are on a mission to empower people by delivering chef-made meals under $10 — all of which can be traced back to a “ghost” kitchen in the Watts neighborhood of South LA.
“We operate in a low dollar-per-square-foot area. And we hire locally, people who would otherwise be on public assistance,” said Gaston, a native of Watts. “We’re able to employ and inspire and support people who society have either forgotten or left behind, to give them a chance to earn a livable wage.”
Funneling capital to “denied” communities
The ChewBox app not only allows you to order and plan meals weeks or months ahead, but it also has a social component that lets users comment and interact with others. Integrated into the design is also an option for customers to easily “gift” meals to the Watts community while ordering for themselves.
“What we’re doing on the top level with the merging of technology and culinary and kind of culture, to be honest, is that we’re bringing eyes and validity and possibly future investment, you know — venture capital into communities that have been denied,” said Choi, who helped transform food-truck culture with the launch of Kogi BBQ in 2008.
Watts is where generations of families, including Gaston’s father, have been shaped by the deadly riots of 1965. It’s also the community that adopted Choi when he opened LocoL with chef Daniel Patterson in 2016. Their concept was to bring healthful fast food to the underserved neighborhood while employing locals. They closed their retail operations in 2018, but the ChewBox app is the next iteration of the LocoL vision.
“We just hunkered down, kept the building, continued to keep the mission and just rethink what we were doing,” Choi said.
“For us it’s all about each one teach one, each one reach one,” he added. “It’s one person at a time. It’s one community at a time. One street, one block, one neighborhood. And our goal has always been to use that to try to move out throughout every inner city within America.”
Empowering the “virtual food hall”
ChewBox began its rollout by offering their services to teachers. But Gaston and Choi were forced to accelerate their plans for a public launch due to COVID-19.
“I think the world, because of COVID, is having to reimagine a lot of things. And food is super-duper essential,” Gaston said. While addressing the lunch needs of teachers was the start for ChewBox, he said “it just so happens that our solution to that also applies to the larger society now that COVID has entered in and is disrupting the way things have always been.”
In line with the goal of helping to revitalize neighborhoods, ChewBox’s aim is also to spark entrepreneurship.
“If you’re a single mom, you can start your own business as a driver, you know, delivering for us two hours a day. And you can make more in two hours than a lot of people make in four or six hours driving for us,” Gaston said.
Their app also allows people from the community, like former LocoL chef Robert McCovery, to launch their own virtual kitchens alongside Choi.
“In every ‘hood you know who the enchilada lady is. You know who the candy lady is. You know who makes the best this or that,” Gaston said, adding, “There’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs to earn a royalty on every single meal that’s sold from ChewBox because they have their own kitchen there.”
“It’s like a virtual food hall,” Choi said.
As ChewBox taps into people’s generosity, Gaston said that since Juneteenth they have served 1,000 meals to Watts families in partnership with nonprofit organizations like Sisters of Watts. He also said the compassion that he has witnessed while building ChewBox gives him hope as his team works to scale their platform to expand beyond Los Angeles.
“The heart of our customer is profoundly, profoundly inspiring —because it’s a small microcosm, a small window into what’s true about America,” Gaston said.
“People are upset. They’re angry. They’re taking their frustrations out,” he added. “But also people are being more generous than ever. They’re being more patient and understanding than ever.”