Blue Apron, the industry-leading meal kit company that went public earlier this summer, hires brand-name chefs to craft its recipes, includes hard-to-find heirloom ingredients in its meals, and claims to do its utmost to help its farmer-suppliers make a living. That’s all very nice, of course, but everyone knows the company really built its name on convenience. By now, the formula is familiar: the week’s meals are home delivered with recipes and all the ingredients included, right down to the single-serve decanter of olive oil and dimebag of pre-chopped parsley. For Americans too busy, lazy, or downright incompetent to cook, it’s been a perfect solution—8 million harried customers and counting.
So what happens when a company comes along that streamlines the process even further?
Enter Tovala, a convection steam oven that sits on your countertop. (The word—a made-up name that combines the Italian word for table, tavola, and the Hebrew word for good, tov—refers both to the company and the contraption.) Once you’ve purchased your Tovala oven ($399), the Tovala company will happily send you an endless supply of meals in aluminum foil takeout containers ($12 bucks a pop). Some entrees require a little hand-poured dressing to be added on site, and you do have to pull back a plastic seal yourself, but that’s really the extent of it. The oven scans a QR code on the package, recognizes the meal, and cooks it to perfection. It’s even easier than microwaving a pizza, and people are already calling it a “Keurig for food.”
If Tovala makes other meal kits look pretty demanding by comparison, that’s by design. The company has explicitly styled itself as a Blue Apron killer.
“Anyone who has tried Blue Apron and stopped using it is our target customer,” David Rabie, the company’s CEO told the Washington Post. “The meal kits, they pitch themselves as convenient, but at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t want to spend 45 minutes cooking.”
Is he right? I’m not sure. But I’ll be watching closely, because if Tovala does make real inroads into Blue Apron’s business it will tell us a lot about how Americans really feel about food.
The companies epitomize two different American attitudes towards cooking, one that’s apparent in their very names. “Blue Apron” is crunchy and homey, a name that implies hard work and sensory delight, one that puts the consumer in the driver’s seat and implicates them in the cooking process. Tovala, on the other hand, is purely utilitarian—and the name doesn’t call to mind the kitchen so much as a sleek robot concubine from the future.
As much as Blue Apron has always been a convenience play, as much as people have celebrated—or bemoaned—its pre-measured, pre-chopped ingredients, the company has tried to be about far more than sheer ease. Visit the BA homepage, and you immediately see the claim “We Support the Highest Standards,” with a list of attributes—”sustainable seafood,” “grass-fed,” “antibiotic-free.” The homepage name-drops specific farmers and their speciality products. In other words, Blue Apron promotes a vision of food as more than just what’s for dinner. It continually reminds us that culinary ingredients come with economic, environmental, and ethical considerations.
Does Blue Apron really follow through on its vision? I don’t know. A few years ago, I did a bunch of reporting on a story I’d hoped to run for this magazine: I wanted to know whether Blue Apron was as good a deal for its farmers as it claimed to be. In the end, I couldn’t get the company to connect me to any farmers without a bunch of PR people and corporate brass also on the line. The whole thing felt really controlled. It rubbed me the wrong way, and I didn’t feel I’d be able to write a good piece. But one thing is clear. The company is convinced that its top-down structure (it determines which ingredients are on the menu, not the customer) is a good thing for American agriculture. Blue Apron seems to really believe it can use its market muscle to encourage people to try new foods and varietals they might not otherwise, diversifying farming in this country. I applaud it for trying, though wish I’d been able to get an honest answer about whether farmers agree it’s working.
Tovala, on the other hand, doesn’t even attempt to talk about larger issues. Though the current menus feel “gourmet” and healthy-ish—salmon, farro, tofu steaks coated with sesame seeds—its sourcing is completely opaque. There is no language to speak of about standards or farmer relationships. The only specific nod to ingredients is in the company bios, where staff members each show themselves posing with a favorite food: avocado, ginger, bacon. Don’t miss Tovala’s computer engineer Adam Brakhane guzzling his personal favorite, chocolate syrup.
Maybe Tovala cares deeply about its ingredients, though we can’t tell from the site. Maybe it’s just making the perfectly reasonable assumption that people who want to steam food packages don’t give enough of a shit to read little treatises on welfare standards or agricultural economics. And it’s probably right.
Still, the marketing makes it clear: these two companies embody two culinary worldviews that are diametrically opposed. Blue Apron styles its food as about relationships, and exists as a portal into a larger universe of complex considerations. Tovala styles its food as about stuffing your face with something basically nourishing so you can finish up that presentation after you get the kids to bed. (Both companies are pitched at families that are poor in time only—both pricing models compare to ordering in, but neither is cheaper than cooking from scratch.)
If Tovala does start to rapidly eat into Blue Apron’s customer base, that will be one sign people don’t care about sourcing as much as BA hopes they do. People who signed up for the convenience, not the appeal to values, will jump ship the minute something easier comes along.