By Claire Donnelly
Your microwave is about to get very jealous.
Chicago startup company Tovala has designed a new smart oven that cooks meals to perfection by simply reading a barcode.
The company launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign with a $100,000 goal Tuesday to help fund production costs and raised $90,957 by 6:42 p.m.
The Tovala oven is not a microwave, but rather a scaled-down version of a combination oven with four cooking functions: baking, broiling, steaming and convection heating.
To cook at home with the Tovala, a user scans the barcode on fresh, pre-packaged meals, places the meal in the oven and then presses the start button.
The oven is pre-programmed to switch between the four functions depending on the barcode. One of Tovala’s meals —a chicken breast stuffed with cheese, mushrooms and spinach—is steamed for eight minutes, then baked and broiled for another nine – a total cooking time of 17 minutes. The steaming keeps the chicken from losing moisture, while the baking and broiling browns and crisps the skin.
“The idea is to switch between these different cooking methods … to accomplish different culinary goals,” said Alex Solomon, Tovala’s marketing director.
Tovala plans to manufacture the compact smart ovens in coming months. The company is developing a menu of fresh meals designed for preparation in its ovens. Choices will include black pepper and coriander crusted salmon, stuffed chicken breast, honey-roasted acorn squash and miso-glazed sea bass.
These meals, created in collaboration with chefs across the country, would be assembled at a Tovala production facility from fresh, uncooked ingredients, packaged in “food pods,” and then delivered to consumers on a weekly basis, emulating meal delivery services like Blue Apron.
“We’re going to be … shipping these meals to people’s doorsteps,” Solomon said. So all [consumers] have to do is take these meals out, scan the barcode, put it in and press start.”
Tovala is still determining the logistics of how it will deliver food pods to consumers. According to Solomon, the company is considering a range of options, from partnerships with existing food delivery services to shipping with cold packs.
The start-up is also creating an application for smartphones that would enable more adventurous cooks to control the smart oven’s cooking functions on their own and expand beyond Tovala’s packaged meals. Solomon said the team plans to build a community on the product website where users can share recipes for their home-cooked Tovala creations.
“We [want] to encourage people to experiment and try out new ways of cooking on their own,” Solomon said.
David Rabie, Tovala’s CEO, had the idea for the oven while still an MBA student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Rabie, “a huge foodie [who] puts avocados on everything,” was frustrated because his busy student schedule made it difficult for him to prepare healthy meals, Solomon said.
“He really wanted to create a business that would enable other people to reach their health goals more easily,” said Starr Marcello, who works at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago.
Waverly Deutsch, a clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Booth met Rabie when Tovala was just an idea. Initially, she thought his idea was so ambitious it bordered on impossible.
“I was pretty sure he couldn’t do it,” Deutsch said. “But I have a policy where I don’t say that to entrepreneurs. I want to see what [they] do before I make my judgment.”
Deutsch said she admires what Rabie has achieved with his business idea and can see herself becoming one of Tovala’s customers.
“I think what is so powerful about Tovala is that [it is] such an effort of belief and passion and persistence and networking,” Deutsch said.
A year ago, Rabie’s business, then known as Maestro, won first place in the New Venture Challenge, a startup launch program run by the Polsky Center that provides promising companies with seed funding. Tovala was awarded $70,000. Previous challenge winners include GrubHub, an online food ordering and delivery service, and Stylisted, an online platform for booking hairstyling appointments.
Today, the Tovala staff includes four full-time members and four part-time members, mostly engineers, and is split between offices in Chicago and San Francisco.
Marcello said she has confidence in Rabie’s team and is excited to see where Tovala is headed. She said she thinks this is the perfect time for a product like the company’s smart oven to launch, based on recent trends she’s observed in entrepreneurship and in the food industry.
“I think that more and more people are seeking and experimenting with … solutions to convenient, fresh, healthy eating that’s not boring,” Marcello said. She pointed to the success of food delivery companies like Sprig and Blue Apron as evidence.
The Tovala smart ovens is estimated to retail at $329. But consumers have the option to access early bird prices by contributing to the company’s Kickstarter.
Solomon said Tovala is hoping to build its own production facilities so the company will have complete control over the ingredients that go in each meal. The startup also hopes to create a test kitchen in Chicago to develop new recipes.
“Knowing [Rabie] and his team, I really think they’ll be able to achieve what they want to achieve,” Marcello said.
Plus, as Deutsch added, Tovala’s food is “pretty darn good.”