It's not something that Tri Tran likes to think about. But he can't help it when his two kids are being picky, or when they leave a lot of food on a plate, proclaiming they are "finished." 

When he was their age, food was scarce. And, for six days in 1986, when he was 11 years old, life-sustaining drinking water was scarce, too. That was the truly terrifying time. The time on the crowded boat. 

His parents had put him and his brother on board, sending them away from their oppressive home, as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who became known as "boat people," had before them over the last decade. His parents had made previous attempts with the boys to flee. This time only the boys and their grandmother would make it out to sea.

"You could pay me all the money in the world and I would not have that experience again," Tran says.

They made it to Indonesia, where a crowded refugee camp became their temporary home. And later they moved on to San Jose, California, where they would cram along with their cousins into a little home through the rest of Tran's childhood. At least in San Jose, they had good schools and enough fresh food, which grandma would cook for the family.

It would be 11 years before Tran was reunited with his parents. In that time, he'd learned English and excelled in school enough to gain acceptance to MIT. Soon, he'd started working at a company that was a sort of proto-AngelList. He subsequently worked in tech positions at three other startups, and eventually a company at which he led the engineering team, GetActive, was acquired by Convio. That company had a nice IPO. By then Tran had decided he was ready to start his own company. So in 2010, along with co-founder Conrad Chu, a former colleague of his from GetActive, he created Munchery

The mother of invention

The idea's genesis was in a pain point in his now-comfortable Silicon Valley life. Tran and his wife have two children, and she also works long hours, and sometimes getting a healthy dinner ready before bedtime was simply impossible. Delivery rarely seemed healthy enough to feed kids. So Tran decided in 2010 to try to take what makes a meal at home or at a good restaurant special, and recreate it in a way that made sense to his engineering-trained brain: at scale.

Munchery is a dinner-delivery company that sits at the juncture of several promising trends that have made competing companies quite successful. Like Seamless, it makes dinner-delivery a couple-button-tap operation. Like Fresh Direct, it allows for advance meal planning with an option to order ahead and schedule a delivery. Like a farm-to-table restaurant, menus skew local and sustainable. But unlike almost everything before it--save for the cooking-heavy likes of Plated or Blue Apron--it can deliver a steak or fillet of fish--and be confident it won't show up to the customer rubbery.

That's because the food will show up cooked, but cold. It's on the customer to pop dinner in the oven or microwave and give it a final heating. This strategy may seem odd at first, and Tran admits that plenty of first-time customers are bewildered when their roast chicken arrives icebox-cold. But it's a differentiating factor that enables Munchery to offer a diverse delivery menu that quality restaurants won't attempt (again, that risk of rubbery fish that's been kept warm and continues to cook for a half hour).

Investors hunger for a piece

Plenty of venture capitalists are big believers in Tran's vision: Munchery is backed by three rounds of funding for a total of $117 million. It's not only professional investors, including Greycroft Partners and SherpaVentures, who have placed a bet on the company: notable chefs, including food-truck entrepreneur Roy Choi, have invested, as has actor Jon Favreau. You can anticipate that the company's valuation is in the hundreds of millions.

There's some good reason for all  the interest among investors. Munchery has the potential to scale in a way brick-and-mortar restaurants don't. "Unlike a Chipotle or McDonalds or whatever, where you need a whole bunch of stores, our delivery team can reach the whole city, every night," Tran says. "So to me that's a lot more interesting."

Tran is making hay while the sun shines. The food-delivery market is smoking right now, having racked up some $800 million this year in funding. The success of Munchery may hinge on whether customers prefer his hybrid model of so many other existing companies.

Another factor that can't be discounted is on his side: the lessons he's taken with him from those terrible days of meager food in his early childhood in Vietnam, and those treacherous six days aboard the boat.

"Now that I look back, I am like, 'Whoa, how did I deal with that!?' Looking at it that way makes startups look a lot more manageable," he says. "The primary thing is I don't give up. The perseverance will always be there for me--and with that, an ability to be adaptable to changing conditions, changing environments."

Those are the key attributes to carry along, and that makes all the difference," he says.

Published on: Oct 6, 2015