Taste, convenience, health: choose two, but not all three. That's what Tovala co-founder and CEO David Rabie discovered when he was in grad school: He didn't have the time to cook, but his other options always sacrificed one or even two of the three qualities he wanted in his meals. It was then that Rabie first conceived of the idea for Tovala, a multifunctional smart oven that pairs with a no-prep meal subscription service that's launching to the public on July 11. "It's like Blue Apron except there's no prep, there's no cooking and there's no room for error," says Rabie.

It also doesn't have the $193.8 million in funding that Blue Apron pulled in, though Tovala raised $2.1 million in two rounds led by Origin Ventures. Investors included the Pritzker Group Venture Capital and Crate & Barrel founder Gordon Segal. And while participating in Y Combinator's startup accelerator in 2016, Tovala began a Kickstarter campaign that raised $255,000 from more than 1,000 backers.

What interested investors? The smart oven is part of it. It can steam, broil, and bake, in combination or separately, and the user can also control the temperature and time through a connected smartphone app. Although the oven can be used for separate functions--it can supplant a user's existing toaster oven, for instance--it was designed specifically for the company's meal service.

Meals, which cost $36 for three weekly meals and $72 for double portions of the three meals, come already prepared. All customers have to do is scan the barcode attached to the delivered meal. The oven downloads the recipe, then starts cooking based on the specifications Tovala's Chief Culinary Officer, Chef Alexander Plotkin, programmed back at Tovala's headquarters in Chicago.

Hardware, a hard sell?

As for Rabie's hope users will switch from the giants in the meal-kit business like Blue Apron, Plated, and HelloFresh, that part is likely to prove harder. While Tovala meals on balance cost less than its competitors', the company also asks users to shell out for the smart oven, which costs a whopping $399.

But to persuade new customers to give Tovala a shot, the company offers a generous return policy: Customers have 180 days to try the oven, and can return it for a complete refund if they decide they don't like it. Still, Rabie thinks that customers will prefer Tovala. "Our oven allows you to enjoy a meal that only takes our customers 30 seconds to prepare and still consistently tastes better," Rabie says.

To this point, Patrice Samuels, a senior analyst at Parks Associates, a marketing research and consulting company, says that Tovala has to prove the food tastes good enough to offset the cost of purchasing the oven and the meal plan.

Tovala is working on that: It is relying on word-of-mouth from its initial Kickstarter backers, who received their ovens in April after a shipping delay due to Tovala's desire to make sure both the hardware and the meals were ready, and a food truck in Chicago that will allow people to sample the meals and the oven. It's hoping foodies will give it a try.

Published on: Jul 11, 2017