There are plenty of meal solutions out there to make home dining more convenient — microwave meals, meal kit subscription services, ready-to-cook meals from restaurants. However, with some exceptions, they tend to offer a tradeoff between convenience and quality. Microwave dinners sacrifice freshness for immediacy while cooking from meal kits can often be almost as difficult as cooking from scratch. Now there’s a company that seeks to provide consumers with both freshness and simplicity, and it’s about to get a whole lot bigger. Tovala, a hybrid kitchen tech and meal-kit subscription company that provides preassembled ingredient sets to be autocooked in its Wi-Fi-enabled smart oven, has just raised $30 million to grow its offerings.
“If you’ve got meal kits on one end, where you’re asking consumers to do all the work … and then you’ve got fully prepared food on the other end, where you’re just throwing a meal in a microwave … we sit in the middle of those two in an area that we feel like has the most opportunity,” co-founder and CEO David Rabie told PYMNTS in an interview.
Now the company can take full advantage of the opportunity. The $30 million Series C fundraise compounds funding from previous rounds, leaving the company with $50 million to expand and improve, per a company release. The startup plans to use this funding, according to Rabie, for “growing the business, increasing our capacity, [and] improving the product experience — everything from the first unboxing of meals to, to the oven itself.”
Kitchen Tech In The Connected Economy
In our increasingly connected economy, as the Internet of Things enables a wide range of relationships between humans and our machines — device to business, device to consumer, device to device — Tovala presents a future-minded solution to meal prep. The smart oven, which uses what the company refers to as “Scan-to-Cook” technology, cooks Tovala’s meals with preplanned settings. It can automatically steam, bake, broil, toast and/or reheat at the correct temperature for the correct amount of time per a prepared meal’s instructions.
Tovala’s meal kits include QR codes that the smart oven scans to cook, with no meal taking more than 20 minutes. “We kind of lucked into being ahead of our time with QR codes,” Rabie said. “It was just the best technological solution to the problem. And we needed a mechanism to communicate from a piece of packaging, to the cloud, and back to the oven.” He added that the QR code “has become a core part of our product offering.”
In addition to scanning QR codes from Tovala’s meal kits with their smart oven, consumers can also scan most common prepared food brands’ barcodes, and the oven will prepare the product according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (It can also function as a conventional toaster oven as needed.)
An All-In-One Business Model
This ultra-simplicity on the consumers’ side comes from a high degree of complexity on the business side. Rabie said, “We’re doing everything from R&D [research and development] in a test kitchen, to mass food production, to designing hardware, to building software that powers that hardware, to … building a consumer-facing brand and an eCommerce website to go with it. And all those things have to work in harmony.”
Tovala does everything that a typical meal subscription service does and everything that a smart tech company does. Given the amount of competition that already exists in the meal-kit space, the food needs to be as high quality as the tech and the concept to keep customers coming back.
Speaking to the culinary philosophy, Rabie reflected, “For us, it has been about, ‘How do we provide meals that are across that … wide culinary spectrum?’ So lots of different flavor profiles, pulling from lots of different types of cuisines — our chefs hailed from a pretty wide range of restaurants and culinary trainings.”
Rabie also specified that it is important that the meals be made with recognizable ingredients, that the recipes remain innovative, and that everything can be cooked in a short timeframe. Given all the proverbial balls in the air — the hardware, the software, and the culinary quality necessary to pull off the company’s ambitious mission — it will be interesting to see how Tovala expands with its new funding.
Building Relationships With Consumers
Right now, Tovala is primarily a direct-to-consumer company, selling both its meal subscription through its website and its smart oven through the site (though the oven is also available on Amazon and QVC). This makes it all the more important for the startup to communicate its compound business model to consumers as clearly and compellingly as possible.
“I think for us, what took us a while is, ‘How do we market all of those different features? How do we market the product in a way that is relatively easy to understand and gets to the core of the value proposition for consumers?’” Rabie explained. “Because it’s different. People are not used to buying a piece of hardware and a food subscription together.”
The pandemic has fueled demand for at-home meal solutions, predisposing consumers to try out more innovative models such as Tovala’s. However, Rabie points out, the company was growing quickly even before the pandemic, and he believes “the opportunity will still be there in whatever the post-COVID world looks like.”
He is hopeful for 2021, as any CEO who has just raised $50 million is likely to be. “We think this is potentially a year we cross a tipping point and really start to gain much broader awareness as a leading consumer brand in the country.”