David Rabie and I share a booth at an old diner. He’s sipping decaf–so enthusiastic about his new company that he doesn’t need extra chemical stimulants to energize his pitch. I’m poking at a piece of coconut cream pie, fresh from the gleaming pastry case but, upon first bite, clearly made with instant vanilla pudding and a preformed frozen pie crust.
It’s easy to forget that the diner was a revolutionary idea for its day. These budget-friendly, prefabricated buildings found a foothold in the 1920s, allowing entrepreneurs to launch their own businesses even during the Great Depression. A hundred years later, the diner sounds like an idea that could have easily emerged from a Silicon Valley startup.
It seems like the perfect setting to talk about how Americans eat at home, which Rabie’s new startup, Tovala, hopes to revolutionize with its eponymous smart oven and meal subscription service. Tovala was prepped in the renowned startup incubator Y Combinator and served to hundreds of salivating Kickstarter donors earlier this year, and as of today, its oven is available to 2,000 more customers who’d like a taste.
You could easily mistake Tovala for a tech company. Its primary product is the $399 Tovala smart oven. It’s a combi oven made for your counter, meaning it can steam, in addition to baking and broiling. Using its app, you can cook preplanned menu items like chicken breast, or even program your own recipes that mix and match cooking techniques to produce crusty bread or dense steamed eggs.
But Tovala actually considers itself a food company, Rabie tells me. Its oven is likely sold for at or near cost, as Tovala’s business model revolves around a certain irony of selling you an oven that you not use as a traditional oven. Instead, Tovala ships you a subscription of $12 meals, formulated from fresh and clear ingredients, that can be popped in the oven and cooked properly every time.
The best analogy I can think of is a microwave dinner, if it was reimagined by Chipotle (and with an oven instead). Almost nothing is frozen. The ingredients all make sense. And, as I’d soon find out, many of the dishes are actually superb.
Tovala isn’t the only startup trying to disrupt cooking right now–and based on my experience with another high-profile entrant in this category, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. After all, for every Blue Apron and Keurig, there’s also a Juicero and a June.
“So you read my June review?” I ask Rabie–alluding to the $1,500 Valley darling smart oven that I’d tested, and thoroughly roasted, here on Co.Design recently.
“I did,” he says.
“And you still sent me a product?”
“I did,” he says again, this time with a smile. “I don’t think we’re really competition. We’re compared because we’re both smart ovens. But I view our competition more as like, Grubhub, Blue Apron, Munchery if they’re still around in six months–and you making your own food, as opposed to another oven.”
As I poke at the slice of diner pie I opt not to finish, I still don’t know exactly what he means. Luckily, I’ve saved room for my first Tovala lunch.
The oven thumps onto my dining room table, leaving a mark. I hate the thing already. I clear counter space in my cramped kitchen. I pair it with my Wi-Fi network and fill a small steam reservoir with water. And then I take my first meal out of the fridge, a sweet corn and mushroom pasta. On the pack, I find a QR code. Held up to the Tovala oven, a motion sensor triggers a red light–like a checkout scanner–that reads the coded recipe. It instantly downloads the cooking time and technique. Meanwhile, I pull the plastic away from the metal tray and slip it into the oven. I press the knob–one of the few buttons on the Tovala, along with toast, bake, and cancel–and it’s cooking.
I can’t help but watch this first time, and follow the progress on the iPhone app. First, I see the oven fill with steam. For those not keeping track, steam is one of the hottest features in high-end ($3,000+) ovens at the moment, for a lot of reasons: It keeps food moist, it transfers heat faster than dry air, and it can facilitate the sort of chemical magic that makes baked goods like bread get a deep-brown crust. After only a minute, it switches to 10 minutes of baking mode. And then, finally, it finishes with five minutes of broiling. For me, this is the most nerve-wracking part of the process. A broiler can burn food in seconds. I watch the top layer of cheese begin to bubble, then brown, then char that perfect amount on top. And then, the cooking is complete.
I pull the tray from the oven in minor disbelief. Tovala’s head chef has developed recipes for companies including Starbucks and Chipotle. He designs and tests recipes specifically around the oven’s singular hardware. And often that means par-cooking some ingredients, like sweet potatoes, to ensure that they finish at the same time and temperature as delicate proteins.
“My thought at the time was, we want to cook these different foods to different specs; let’s isolate them [in a complicated multi-chamber oven]. We moved away from that, and now the legwork is on us upfront to match ingredients and par-cook,” says Rabie. “We didn’t want a single purpose appliance. Yes, it’s designed for our meals, but the app works well on its own, too.”
As my fork cracks through the crust and I fish a bite of rigatoni that trails from the dish with a line of oozing cheese, I’m shocked that it all worked. And I’m more surprised when I taste it. It’s delicious. The pasta is delectably al dente. The corn-infused sauce is rich, complex, and addictive. So I close my eyes, imagining I just paid $12 for this at a restaurant. Was it worth it? Yes. And I also realize, Rabie was fundamentally right: This dish, made at home, is on my plate with all the subtle textures that are still intact–which would have been ruined by steaming away in someone’s backseat delivering a Grubhub order.
I try more dishes through the week. Salmon. Yellow curry. Mesquite chicken breast. They’re all good, and occasionally great. A BBQ farro, with a sweet and tangy bacon sauce, has me eating so fast that I need to slow the bites down. Only once is something botched. An asparagus that’s been par-cooked turns to mush during a long cooking cycle. Everything else is perfect. And more importantly, it’s mindless. It’s as easy as a TV dinner, but it tastes a lot better, and reading the nutritional facts doesn’t make me sick to my stomach.
The limitations, however, are more than mere price. The oven is really optimized to cook a meal for one person at a time. Two of the same meal can be squeezed in, but accommodating families is something that Rabie is still considering, using larger trays and, perhaps, another rack.
And since it’s inherently a bit sad to eat straight from the metal trays, Tovala users, on the whole, have devised their own solution. “What’s unexpected for us is, we expected people to treat them like TV dinners and eat them out of the trays. Nobody does. Everybody plates the food. We’ve surveyed enough customers now that we don’t need to ask anymore,” says Rabie. Indeed, I found myself doing the same thing to avoid being part of the laughing alone at salad meme. “They view it as an elevated experience. These meals are $12 each, the ingredients are great. They’re pretty gourmet. Some of these meals have 30-40 ingredients. So I think people are eating it with their spouses, they’re plating it.”
He also admits that Tovala can’t cook a decent steak in its current incarnation. So his company is developing a tray that will lift the steak above its own juices.
These are just some of the UX quirks that make Tovala the sort of thing that’s really designed for some people, rather than everyone. For a single person? A microapartment dweller? Or an Airbnb renter? The Tovala might make sense. For the Brady Bunch? Not so much.
But how does the Tovala fair as an oven for everything outside the company’s mandatory subscription plan? “I studied Keurig in business school and talked to a lot of Keurig users,” says Rabie, of the decision for the oven’s app to support custom programs, and even in the future, recipes shared via its mini social network. “People want to be able to use their appliances for their own stuff. That’s something that bothers a lot of people, rational or not.”
Its toast is just passable. Steamed and then browned with six minutes and 15 seconds of pomp and circumstance, via one of the oven’s only dedicated buttons, it was never fully crunchy on both sides. And convection cooking tends to favor items on the right side of the oven. But I made a tray of bacon with my own program through the app, steaming for five minutes and then baking at 400. It was crisp and wonderful, with plenty of fat rendered away. Scrambled eggs steamed at 350 degrees produced a sublime tamagoyaki. Whether or not I was sold on a Tovala, I’ve been left wanting my main oven to support easy steaming more than ever. In terms of its design, the oven is a bit small for most people who really love to bake. And hiding away controls in an app means the simplest task of setting the proper temperature requires pulling out your phone and programming a total cooking plan, instead. (Nice for repeating a recipe! Hard for setting one up!)
In the kitchen, where messy hands and micro-adjustments are always necessary, knobs and buttons are still wonderful. Being once removed by an app is often frustrating. It’s much as I said about June:
“. . . the June’s fussy interface is archetypal Silicon Valley solutionism. Most kitchen appliances are literally one button from their intended function. When you twist the knob of your stove, it fires up. Hit “pulse” on a food processor and it chops. The objects are simple, because the knowledge to use them correctly lives in the user. If you get the oven temperature wrong, or the blend speed off, you simply turn it off and try again.”
But I’ll admit to falling a bit for the Tovala. It’s a convenient product for many people that lives up to its admittedly odd value proposition. And unlike the June, I didn’t feel like the Tovala was constantly telling me how over-engineered and essential it was to my life, showing me night-vision time-lapse footage of my cauliflower baking all while using me as a test kitchen to fine-tune its own algorithms–learning how to cook on my dime. Tovala’s meals were good not because the oven is all that technologically advanced versus anything else on the market, but because its chefs prove out a recipe before mailing it out, every time.
Ultimately, I’d like to see a Tovala with less minimal hardware, relying on a purely digital back end, embrace all the knobs so it resembles a product made by Cuisineart or Breville–specially so it could be used more effectively by home cooks who run out of the meal plan. In fact, Tovala is open to these companies licensing its platform–along with finding food partners who might sell Tovala-compatible dinners of their own. A crazily ambitious idea for a food startup? Perhaps. But it’s also the sort of perfect storm of business arrangements that’s remotely capable of unseating the microwave dinner and other frozen ready-to-eat meals, which represent 30% of the $250 billion global frozen food industry.
Indeed, Tovala’s entire business plan would have looked absurd just five years ago. But now companies like Blue Apron–which just became a publicly traded company–ships meals to doors nationwide. Amazon just bought Whole Foods, at least in part to expand its infrastructure for same-day Amazon Fresh food deliveries. Tovala is hitting the market with an idea for what are essentially fresh microwave dinners right as the potential infrastructure of fresh food delivery to accommodate it is being born.
Will it succeed? Who knows. But dang, that pasta was good. And somehow, it arrived on my table tasting way fresher than that cold slice of diner pie served just down the street.