Borahm Cho, originally from Germany and now living the Brooklyn life, co-founded Kitchensurfing in 2012 along with his partner Chris Muscarella. Kitchensurfing connects local chefs with people who want to host a meal in their home for occasions ranging from dinner parties to date nights. Borahm was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2014. He recently sat down with New York International to discuss his inspiration for starting the company, his thoughts on the gig economy, and his experience as an international entrepreneur in New York City.
Kitchensurfing is such a cool idea, what gave you the inspiration to start the company?
I have always had the desire to create interesting social interactions. Even from a young age I remember my mom inviting friends over to our home where she would cook for them. My parents are Korean, and living in Germany most people didn’t really know a lot about Korean food. I was inspired by how she used our home to introduce people to Korean culture in this way.
These days we are so surrounded by tech, and I began to wonder how I could use technology to create these same type of meaningful interactions. The eating part, for me is really not the most important part, but sitting together around a table, sharing stories and talking is what I really enjoy. It’s the food that brings us together.
You were raised in Germany but started your company in New York. What were the reasons for that move?
I was traveling a lot and had been to many cities but when it came to New York I understood this is the city for food. That’s really important for any startup company to think about—where is your community? Where are your customers? New York is a place where you have the diversity of food on a really high level and I realized I have to be here if I want to do this. Also the talent pool and the experience of people here is great. The ecosystem of investment, talent and the feeling of wanting to create something wonderful for future generations is really tangible here.
Given the average (tiny) size of a New York kitchen, was having private chefs come to homes an idea that New Yorkers latched onto right away or did it take a while for the idea to grow on people?
Sure, it took time. The way we approached it was in two steps. First we started with special occasions, birthdays, catering for larger groups at bridal showers and similar events. At that point the most important thing was to get the word out and let people know about Kitchensurfing. But over time people wanted to use Kitchensurfing more often. Our next step was to add a different model where people could use it for smaller groups or couples. We recently launched “Kitchensurfing same day dinner.” It’s a dinner for $25 per person, including the chef, ingredients, and tip. This is a less expensive option for two to six people. You can choose from a few set menus and the chef comes, cooks and leaves in about thirty minutes. So, you can get a pretty awesome meal in your home for not a lot of money. We want people to use Kitchensurfing for everything from weddings to special date nights.
Do you have any competitors?
Not really. People ask me if restaurants are our competitors, and yes, somewhat. But you don’t go to a restaurant every day. With Kitchensurfing you can have something else in the mix that isn’t food in a box.
There are companies that do drop-offs of premade meals, or send you all your week’s meals, but that’s not what we are about. We don’t see food just as a commodity. I want to spend time eating together with my girlfriend without having to choose between spending three hours at a restaurant or eating food out of a box.
Do you feel that gig economy services such as Kitchensurfing and TaskRabbit are the way of the future?
The sharing economy came out of leveraging assets, such as a house (AirBnB) or a car (Uber), but we have another asset, which is time. The gig economy is creating more flexibility with people’s time. For example Uber drivers can work seven days a week, or they can switch off their phone and not work. There’s more flexibility and I think that’s the direction we’re going to move in. Some people say millennials are less responsible and don’t want to hold down a job. That might be true on some level but I think people are just picking more carefully what they actually want to do and spend their time on. Some people want to be an Uber driver for a while, and then try something else. They’re not tied to the job and these gig jobs are often ones anyone can do. Sure you can say people are losing basic skills like installing a light fixture. But there’s an economic for this now, and with the time you gain, you learn to do something different.
Do you feel these gig economy companies can scale, or will they eventually need to adopt a more corporate model?
I do believe it scales and it creates more entrepreneurs because these companies help people to become their own brand. Brands are about trust, and that’s what those companies like Airbnb do for their people. Before Uber, Airbnb and Taskrabbit, we only trusted companies. But the gig economy is not only stepping into an existing market, they’re also expanding the market. More people will take cabs with these drivers; more people will use services to get their house fixed. Uber is a huge company, and as you can see by a bunch of studies around it, they’ve not only expanded the cab market, but more people than ever are using car services like Uber. The internet is a place where knowledge, time, and skills are being shared for free. Why is the rest of the world not like this?
Do you feel that starting in Brooklyn—a growing startup hub—gave you any particular advantages?
I want to believe yes. I feel Brooklyn is a different community than the rest of NYC. I live in Brooklyn and so does my co-founder Chris. I love Manhattan, but I feel that in Brooklyn it’s a bit more personal. Our first office was a townhouse where we had a huge kitchen, and we would invite chefs we were thinking of hiring to come and cook for us once or twice a week. You just have more space in Brooklyn, it’s more inviting, it’s a different vibe. I feel like it fits better with startups. And it’s a lot cheaper.
What do you wish existed that might have helped you in the early-stages of founding your company?
For me it’s immigration. It’s still a really big issue and very complicated. You need to know the right people who have good knowledge about immigration and can help you out. There weren’t really any government resources in NYC that we saw to help with that. Getting a visa is probably in some ways easier in Germany than in the US.
What advice would you offer international entrepreneurs looking to bring their business to the US?
Just meet people here. Come and stay for three months and get to know the city and the dynamic here. I felt in Germany if you’re a designer, you only have designer friends. But in New York City I feel that you have a bigger mix of different networks that overlap a lot. Don’t look for something specific. Don’t just look for investors, but try to meet as many people as possible.
Is there a specific way you recommend meeting people? Any platforms you find useful?
Just go to coffee shops, especially ones with community tables, and talk to people. In Williamsburg there’s a nice one called Toby’s Estate—it’s Australian. They have a huge community table and people can really talk to each other. Connections happen over and over again. Co-working spaces are also great. Entrepreneurs need to get out and not sit in front of their computer alone hoping their idea will work.
What is your favorite restaurant in New York?
I have three favorite restaurants. Katsuei in Park Slope is a sushi place that has an outstanding omakase. I always see the same staff and sushi chefs; they are constantly delivering the highest quality.
Also, I recently started going more often to Maialino. I love going there for lunch or brunch, it’s beautiful, it’s not too loud, it’s a good atmosphere and is one of my favorite Italian places in New York now. The third one is Rucola in Boerum Hill, my co-founder Chris’s first restaurant. It’s Italian farm to table with an emphasis on sharing. I like very simple food, where the restaurants care about the ingredients rather than the presentation.
What app do you use the most?
Headspace is actually my favorite. It’s a guided meditation app. New York is a pretty exhausting city; you need to find out where to fit in time for yourself. I make time to meditate for about twenty minutes every day.
So, what’s next for you?
I recently moved into an advisory position at Kitchensurfing so I can take some time to reboot and look for what’s next. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I think it’s a good idea to take a break once in a while to clear my mind and get a new perspective.