Imagine you have to engineer the perfect burger in Los Angeles--the country's quintessential burger town. It has to look good, taste great, and trump In-n-Out. The real kicker: It has to be microwaveable.
This is the R&D challenge Munchery took on last year when it realized that to keep its L.A. customers satiated, it needed to get in on the city's estimated $4 billion burger market. Unlike other food startups, the company doesn't deliver hot dishes or raw ingredients. Instead, the San Francisco upstart--backed by $117 million in funding--sends chilled chef-prepared meals that customers finish cooking at home. In other words, each entrée has to travel well in a box and then taste like a chef made it, despite being left in the hands of a culinary novice. If co-founders Tri Tran and Conrad Chu can't nail a classic dish better than their local competitors, they nix it from the menu.
Ever since Munchery performed the ultimate burger hack, the dish has become its L.A. market's top seller. Seattle soon followed (it's a top seller there, too) and soon it will debut in New York City and San Francisco.
1. Remove the possibility of error.
Creating a burger patty that tastes freshly grilled and cooks consistently in one of the most notoriously inconsistent cooking devices is nearly impossible. "Microwaves beat the crap out of food," says Warren Schwartz, Munchery's head of L.A. culinary operations. After a month of experimenting, sous-vide training in New York City, and about 80 burger patties, Schwartz hit the first goal: Flash-grill the meat for authentic taste and char, steam it in the oven, and then vacuum-seal it for its final cook in the microwave. But the burger still wasn't consistent. So Schwartz deconstructed the process and discovered that every step along the way needed to be strictly controlled for temperature.
2. Keep it simple.
As Schwartz's team started experimenting in an industrial microwave and a low-end consumer model, they quickly learned that the vacuum-sealed burger packages tended to do a very consumer-unfriendly thing: blow up. They first considered asking customers to use only 50 percent power. Then someone came up with a much simpler idea: Affix a sticker that directs the customer to poke a hole in the box before cooking. "Sometimes you just have to ask yourself, 'What did [frozen meals brand] Marie Callender's say on the box?' " Schwartz says.
3. Put yourself in the customer's kitchen.
At first, 10 people in Munchery's kitchen would take home the final dish, stash it in their fridge for six hours, prepare it the way a customer would, and then write up a review. But, explains Schwartz, chefs don't take kindly to peer evaluations. "If you smash a chef, they'll stop being creative," Schwartz says, so initial feedback tended to be sugarcoated. Now, Schwartz directs the chefs to prepare their own recipes at home. This way, the chefs themselves identify all the problems they need to fix--with their egos intact.