Tri Tran got the idea for Munchery back in 2010. He was tasked with cooking for his family — himself, his wife and his two sons — and found himself constantly looking for an answer to the question:
“What’s for dinner?”
“I had a neighbour who was a personal chef,” Tran tells Business Insider. “He goes into people’s homes, cooks up a storm, 6 or 10 dishes, and put it in their fridge, and the client can go home and enjoy the food over the next few days.”
But a personal chef like Tran’s neighbour charges a lot for that kind of service — $US700 or $US800 per engagement, Tran says. “I was like, gee, that’s a lot of food, but there’s no way I can afford that kind of service,” he says. “So I put on my engineering hat and decided, what does it take to make it work for me?”
From there, Munchery was born. For about the same as you’d pay for a Seamless order (roughly $US10-15), Munchery serves up a number of fresh-food entrees, sides, desserts, drinks, and kids’ meals made by chefs. Munchery does everything in-house, so it’s a full-stack operation; instead of outsourcing to third-parties, like restaurants or contracted chefs, the chefs work right inside Munchery’s facilities.
Munchery, which was founded in 2011, has raised $US39.9 million in venture funding, mostly recently raising a $US28 million Series B round last April from investors including Menlo Ventures, Tinder cofounder Justin Mateen, and Sherpa Ventures.
The chefs Munchery has recruited for its New York operation have worked for Daniel Boulud, at Blue Smoke with Danny Meyer, and at Tavern on The Greene. The average Munchery chef has 17 to 20 years of culinary experience.
“These chefs basically decided that when they cook at these famous restaurants, their own parents cannot afford to go there,” Tran says. “So if they want to have a bigger impact, reach more people with their food, it needs to be at a price point that is an everyday use price point. We have huge respect for those restaurants — they are fantastic. But they are not for every day. They’re for special occasions.”
Every time you order a meal on Munchery, the startup gives an equivalent donation to a local charity (in New York, that’s City Harvest). The one downside to Munchery, which surprised me when I first tried to place an order, is that if you’re looking for lunch, you’re going to find that it’s not quite on-demand. For now in New York, Munchery is only available for dinner (between about 4 pm and 10 pm).
That said, the process works pretty well within its current limitations in New York, where Munchery just launched last month (it’s been operating in San Francisco for a while now). You open up Munchery’s app and can look at all the offerings for that day (or schedule an order for the next day by looking at the menu).
Each dish shows the name of the chef who prepared the food, along with a photo and a description of what’s inside each dish. You can also look at reviews other customers have left about each meal. “The chefs we recruit for San Francisco and obviously for Seattle, New York — these are chefs who have extensive experience at fine dining facilities,” Tran tells us.
Once you’ve picked the food you want, you select an hour-long delivery window. I chose between 6:00 and 7:00 PM.
My food arrived promptly at 6:07 pm. I got a text and a phone call from my delivery guy, Mohammed, who said he was in the lobby of Business Insider’s office building. He had my meal ready for me in a Munchery-branded bag when I met him.
Part of what makes Munchery different from most food delivery startups is that your food arrives cold intentionally. When you’re ready to heat it up, you can put it in the microwave or the oven. Everything you order comes with heating and serving instructions, and they’re pretty hard to mess up.
As for the food itself, it’s really good. I ordered honey-roasted brussels sprouts along with steak. Everything was cooked perfectly — and it cost roughly the same as what I’d otherwise spend if I used Seamless or Grubhub to order dinner.
The startup’s limitations are what makes Munchery interesting and different. You have a limited number of options, a handful of meals each day. And when a certain item is sold out, that’s it — you can’t order it that day. But if you’re tired of the restaurants around your office or your apartment on Seamless, Munchery might be perfect for you.
Initially, Tran and his co-founder, Conrad Chu set up Munchery sort of like eBay: the chefs were the sellers, and people would go online and look at the menus and buy the food. But there was a lot of room for error with that model. “The chefs even did delivery, which is horrible, as we found out,” Tran says. “They’re not good at delivery. They took poor pictures.”
Today, chefs cook their food in Munchery’s kitchen facilities, and the company has its own photography team to make the food pictures look appealing.
Munchery’s chefs are able to hand-make large, scalable batches of food in Munchery’s kitchens. “Instead of a typical oven that might make 20 pieces of salmon at once, we have one that can make a couple hundred pieces at once,” Tran says. “There’s technology we have that allows us to do this very efficiently, but the quality is better than if a company did it one by one, by hand.”
These days, there are a lot of online food services to choose from. There’s Blue Apron and Plated, which deliver recipes and ingredients to your door. Instacart is a billion-dollar company that does grocery shopping for you. Seamless and Grubhub send you meals from local restaurants. KitchenSurfing lets you rent an on-demand chef for a night. Then there’s Munchery an its closest competitor, Sprig, which have chefs make home-cooked meals for you.
It’s still unclear if these are “UNI” businesses — startups with business models that make a lot of sense for users, but aren’t sustainable enough for investors.
Unlike Sprig, which typically offers a couple entrees, desserts and sides, Munchery emphasises that it caters to families and offers a variety of kids’ meals too. Munchery aims to be a service people can use daily to get food for themselves and their families — which, Tran says, sets Munchery apart. “We have tons of respect for those guys, but their issue is different. They serve the individual person who maybe doesn’t care as much about variety. For us, that’s hard to serve a family with.”