In just the last few years, the kitchen has gotten a lot smarter.
You can buy an internet-connected coffee maker, refrigerator, and baking set. There are smart beer brewing kits, ice machines, and cocktail makers. There’s even an internet-connected doggie bowl so your pooch can get in on the smart kitchen revolution.
With so many devices capable of being controlled by the tap of a smartphone, it begs the question: Do we really need the Internet-of-Things in our kitchen?
Chicago startup Tovala thinks you do, at least for one device. Tovala has created a countertop smart oven that uses a combination of steam, baking and broiling to create restaurant-quality meals right from your home. The oven scans the barcode of a Tovala-delivered meal, and pulls data from the cloud to know how exactly to cook the meal, switching between the three cooking methods based on Tovala’s recipe. The food cooks in less than 20 minutes, and users get a notification to their phone with their meal is ready.
Tovala–which was founded in 2015, won the University of Chicago New Venture Challenge competition, raised more than $250,000 on Kickstarter, and was accepted into Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator–officially launched its device to the public today. It retails for $399 and offers two meal delivery options: three meals for $36 or three double portion meals for $72.
Tovala is now among the myriad of tech-powered food ordering options available today, from Grubhub to Blue Apron to Amazon and more. But the startup thinks it has some distinct advantages over its competitors. It’s a lot easier to use than meal delivery kits (no messy ingredients to throw together or effort spent cooking a meal–just put it in the oven and press a button). At $12 per meal it’s comparable or cheaper than a lot of delivery options (and with each meal between 400-800 calories, odds are it’s healthier for you, too). And with weekly rotating meal options, it’s simpler than trying to put together a grocery order on Instacrt.
The downside: You have to buy a $400 oven.
But co-founder and CEO David Rabie said that’s one of the reasons Tovala has found early success with customer retention; people who make a large initial investment in the oven are likely to continue using the meal delivery service.
“The whole business is built on this idea that customers will be sticky, especially as compared to Blue Apron and the other food services,” Rabie said. “The pain of Blue Apron is you have to make your own food, and it’s tiring. We solve that.”
After Blue Apron announced plans to go public, it was discovered that the meal kit startup spends a lot in marketing to acquire new customers, and “substantially all of the growth in our net revenue from 2015 to 2016 was driven by new customers,” the company wrote in its S-1 filing. Bottom line: Existing customers aren’t driving a lot of Blue Apron’s growth.
Tovala thinks its story will be different. The startup has delivered around 700 Tovala ovens to Kickstarter backers and early supporters, and Rabie said a majority of its customers are ordering food on a regular basis, though he declined to give specific user numbers or revenue figures.
At the end of the day, Tovala can pack all the technology it wants into its oven, but the startup will be ultimately judged on the quality of its food. To that end, last year it hired Chef Alexander Plotkin, who previously worked at Alinea, to be its chief culinary officer and help design the company’s menu.
Tovala has raised over $2 million in funding, and will likely raise more capital, Rabie said, as the startup has to spend heavily on R&D, food, and hardware costs.
“At the end of the day we’re building a hardware business, a food business and a software business under one roof,” he said.
Images via Tovala