Tovala is cooking up a storm.
The Chicago startup launched a Kickstarter on Tuesday, aiming to raise $100,000 to fund the production of their kitchen countertop device and meal delivery service, plus the startup announced it is backed by Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator. It’s the next step toward getting their food tech in consumers’ homes which, if the Kickstarter is successful, should happen by Christmas this year, said founder David Rabie.
“All we had was a crazy idea a year and half ago and we’ve run through multiple prototypes, and now we have 30 prototypes that work that we’ve put in people’s homes that produce delicious food, so I think there is evidence that our team has delivered beyond expectations,” said Rabie to Chicago Inno. “The next steps will be showing that people want to buy it.”
As a refresher, Tovala is a kitchen countertop device and meal delivery service that can bake, broil, steam, and convection heat pre-made meals. Customers get meals delivered once per week in either single or double servings, which will cost $10 to $15 per meal. Once they get a meal, they put it in the device, scan a recipe card and Tovala will do the rest, steaming, baking, and heating a meal to restaurant-quality completion. Home chefs can also cook their own food in the device, and control temperatures through an app.
Meals, which include beef wellington, sea bass, stuffed peppers with spanish rice, and a gourmet mac and cheese, are conceptualized by their team of Michelin-starred chefs, prepared by local catering companies, and delivered by a third party delivery service. Packages are aluminum or biodegradable (the aim is to avoid a Blue Apron issue).
It’s set to retail between $299 and $399, though early Kickstarter backers can get the device for as low as $199.
Tovala, when it was called Maestro, won the University of Chicago New Venture Challenge in 2015. Earlier this year, it raised a $500,000 pre-seed round, rebranded to Tovala, and were accepted to Y Combinator’s winter 2016 cohort. Though Rabie said doing Y Combinator split their team between Chicago, Champaign, and Silicon Valley, the opportunity to work with little distraction made it worth it, he said. “It’s really allowed us to focus on the most critical things.”
Questions still remain as to how Tovala will fare when it makes it to market.
The past year has been dominated by entrants to the premium on-demand food space (including Sprig, UberEats, Radish, and GrubHub in addition to various delivery services like Postmates and Peapod). Hardware is notoriously difficult to scale, and that extends to the kitchen. Don’t people have a microwave and a toaster already?
“As a replacement device, it’s turning your kitchen smarter than it was before,” said Rabie. He pointed out that the ability to use both wet heat and dry heat is something previously only used in professional kitchens. “Being able to use those in tandem is something chefs have used for decades in kitchens, and we’re bringing that to homes.”
In addition, when they ship the device, they’ll also be launching an online community where users can experiment with the device and upload their own recipes. If a recipe gets up-voted enough, Tovala will develop the recipe and offer the chef royalties for meals sold.
But another question remains: do Tovala’s meals taste any good? The Tovala team stopped by Chicago Inno last week to let us do a little taste test.
The first meal was chicken pozole, a Mexican dish garnished with avocado, tortilla strips, and sour cream. I had tried it a few weeks earlier at a Tovala pre-launch event, and didn’t find the meal outstanding. But Rabie assured me they were constantly iterating the recipe.
This time around, the dish impressed. Complex spices and flavors stood out, the chicken was well-cooked, and the vegetables tasted fresh. The garnishes added a texture that you can’t get from microwaving the same sort of dish.
The second meal was a chicken stuffed with mushrooms and cheese. This is where the device showed its versatility: the chicken was juicy, with a crisp skin. The veggies and cheese were flavorful and fresh. That’s a dish that wouldn’t last in a takeout container, no matter how fast it was delivered.
All this being said and done, $10 to $15 is steep for a daily meal, no matter how tasty. But with NVC and Y Combinator under its belt, and a Kickstarter underway, Tovala has the support it needs to deliver. Dinner may soon be served.