Months after graduating with his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, David Rabie had a problem. His packaged chicken pozole stew was leaking. “It’s a beautiful and delicious dish,” Rabie says of one of the first meal kits his company, Tovala, will begin delivering to the masses at the end of this year. “But it’s got sauce in it. And our trays would leak because we’re delivering them in cars. The bags would get wet, the lids would get wet, it was really gross and it was a problem.”
The solution for the problem would be buying a machine that seals plastic to aluminum. But that wasn’t an option for a fledgling venture running on the fumes, to the tune of $100K from Booth’s new venture competition and other investments. According to Rabie, the machine would be “tens of thousands of dollars.” So Rabie asked the company that produced the machines if they could buy the sealant from them to create their own makeshift sealer. Soon Rabie and his co-founder, Bryan Wilcox, were ironing plastic tops to aluminum containers. “Bryan became a master at sealing three or four meals in under a minute,” laughs Rabie.
THE ‘KEURIG FOR FOOD’
Fast-forward six months later and Tovala, which describes itself as the “Keurig for food,” has raised a $500K seed round, been accepted into Y Combinator, and launched a Kickstarter campaign for the first sales of its futuristic oven and food delivery. And in the age of food innovation and delivery, Rabie and Wilcox’s product might be the Star Trek-iest yet.
Tovala is a counter-top combination oven that draws on technology from high-end commercial kitchens. In less than 30 minutes, raw food is zapped into tasty meals using a combination of dry oven heat and wet steamer heat. It can perfectly cook anything from popcorn to chicken to bread and cookies. Once these smart ovens, which have an estimated retail tag of $329, make it to consumer’s homes in early December, home chefs can choose from a subscription of the raw food meal kits or use the oven to prepare their own recipes. The oven also comes with an app for users to make adjustments and monitor from a distance.
JOINS A GROWING LIST OF MBA-FOUNDED FOOD STARTUPS
“No one’s doing what we’re doing,” insists Rabie as he munches on sea bass and asparagus prepared in a space age-looking, fully recyclable dish, that’s made of aluminum and polypropylene. Rabie, Wilcox and a few others have recently moved from Chicago to Sunnyvale, California to rid themselves of distractions and participate in the Y Combinator. “It’s a big pie,” continues Rabie. “There’s Munchery, there’s Sprig, there’s GrubHub, there’s Blue Apron, there’s Plated. But they’re all different. We think there’s room for all of those. We also think we’re going to create a new section of the pie.”
Indeed, Rabie, 29, joins a growing list of MBA food entrepreneurs. MBAs from elite B-schools are behind ingredient delivery platform Blue Apron; healthy school lunch delivery service, Revolution Foods; and seemingly everywhere in-between. And Rabie believes Tovala, which was launched about nine months ago, will be next to tap into a changing American market and pallet. If their Kickstarter campaign, launched yesterday (March 8) morning, is any indicator, they’re in for some fast success. It took less than 12 hours from campaign launch to meet their $100K fundraising goal and at the time of publication about 36 hours after launch, the amount has ballooned to nearly $160K.
Rabie invited Poets&Quants to his makeshift home office in Sunnyvale to try out the product. The setup is eerily similar to an episode of Silicon Valley with 20- and 30-somethings hunkered around a dinner table full of laptops as Rabie scans the barcode of packages of sea bass and asparagus. The “smart oven” reads the barcode and begins to cook the food.
“Our meals often will come with garnishes,” Rabie explains after the food is prepared. “This one would probably not come with an avocado but I want an avocado with my lunch. That’s what you get for coming to the house–the localized version.”