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Can Quality Food Be Made at Tech Scale?

CEO Gagan Biyani says his Sprig delivery service is now the largest restaurant in San Francisco.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Some of the best shrimp I ever ate in my life came out of my own kitchen. It was tender and garlicky and juicy. It was set off by the contrasting but also complementary flavors and textures of brussels sprouts, heirloom cannellini beans and red frill mustard greens. And it went from stovetop to plate to my mouth in maybe three minutes.

 The Gramercy Tavern shrimp dish I recreated at home with Forage
The Gramercy Tavern shrimp dish I recreated at home with Forage
Forage

But let’s be clear: I may live in food-obsessed Northern California, but I am no fine-dining chef. My interest in hands-on preparation of food goes about as far as watching old episodes of “Chopped” on Netflix.

There was a trick to my sudden culinary prowess.

The shrimp were high-quality, sourced from a local, sustainable and traceable seafood distributor named Royal Hawaiian. They had arrived earlier that evening on my doorstep in an insulated bag, after being poached and marinated for a day in a mix of paprika, thyme, rosemary, parsley and garlic.

I was instructed exactly how to cook them: Three minutes simmered on the stovetop over medium heat with liquid from white beans, then combined with quickly broiled brussels sprouts.

The reason the shrimp dish tasted like it was out of a restaurant is that the recipe came from Gramercy Tavern in New York City. It was translated — and partially executed — in the kitchen of a San Francisco Internet startup named Forage, which sent me the supplies and recipe. (Update May 4: Due to conflict with restaurants of the same name, Forage has changed its name to Din.) On my end, the whole preparation process took 20 minutes, a skillet and a sheet pan. Including delivery, it cost $15 per plate.

“In a way, the customers are the chefs and we’re their sous chef,” said Forage executive chef Stephen Beaumier, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants such as Cyrus in Sonoma wine country and Quince in San Francisco.

More than a delivery business, Beaumier sees Forage as a teaching opportunity that gets away from “the general over-glorification of the business of food” — a way to clue people in to how to make high-quality and well-sourced food, and learn how to do things like blanch snow peas and supreme a grapefruit (both of which I have now done as part of Forage recipes, and much to my surprise).

 Shelled peas are pre-portioned into packets for inclusion in Forage’s home-delivered meals.
Shelled peas are pre-portioned into packets for inclusion in Forage’s home-delivered meals.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Living in San Francisco, I try a lot of new tech startup apps. Many things — on-demand car washing! proximity-based social networking! independent private commuter shuttle buses! — will die on the vine in our little venture-capital-fueled early-adopter enclave.

But every so often I try something and enjoy it enough that I hope that this will be the one that makes it out of the ceaseless echo chamber.

Most recently, I have been impressed by a couple of services that bring you good food, fast: Forage and Sprig. They are quicker than their competitors, they use nicer-quality ingredients, and they’re not terribly expensive.

Beyond the now-popular idea of just about everything being available for delivery at the tap of a smartphone button (dry cleaning! valet parking! Chipotle!), the reason I think Sprig and Forage are interesting is that they are trying to be both fast and good — and it’s actually starting to work.

 Sprig hand-delivers meals in compostable boxes to people who order them from its mobile app.
Sprig hand-delivers meals in compostable boxes to people who order them from its mobile app.
Sprig

Sure, there are other startups doing similar things. But it’s the little tweaks that matter, especially to your taste buds. As compared to the more popular home-cooking subscription startup Blue Apron, which already ships nationwide and sends out raw ingredients that take about 45 minutes to prepare, Beaumier’s team at Forage will puree, marinate (such as my shrimp), roast and make excellent salad dressings — anything that takes more than 20 minutes. That prep work enables a level of sophistication and developed flavors that would be way out of range for this newbie chef.

Forage is currently available in California and Nevada, while Sprig services San Francisco and Palo Alto, with plans to expand to Chicago next. They’re not direct competitors: Forage sends ingredients to make restaurant-inspired meals at home, while Sprig cooks its own meals fully and delivers them around the city.

But they are two of the generation of online startups whose primary products are very much offline in the physical world. They have many venture-capital-backed competitors, including Blue Apron and Plated for Forage, and Munchery and SpoonRocket for Sprig. Technology allows them to run their businesses: Newfangled kitchen equipment to cook consistently in large quantities, mobile apps to intake and deploy orders, subscription billing and automated emails, machine learning to predict what customers will order, and where and when. But essentially, they’re both restaurants without dining rooms.

Both startups are San Francisco-based — in fact, at one time they both rented space from the same woman, who runs her kimchi business out of a kitchen in an industrial part of the city. Forage is still there.

While neither company would disclose user numbers, they both have thousands of customers and are expanding quickly. Forage’s founders told me that the company recently bought up every last pea tendril in the San Francisco area to supply that week’s recipe. Sprig, which now orders 1,000 pounds of carrots and 2,000 pounds of bunched greens every week, has delivered half a million meals in San Francisco in a year and a half.

 Forage pre-makes sauces and dressings and seals them to send out to its at-home chefs.
Forage pre-makes sauces and dressings and seals them to send out to its at-home chefs.
Vjeran Pavic/Recode.net

CEO Gagan Biyani said he believes Sprig is now the largest restaurant in San Francisco, if you go by number of servings per meal. (Reached for comment, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association said it couldn’t confirm that claim.) Sprig was recently valued at more than $150 million in a new $45 million funding round from investors including Greylock Partners and the Social+Capital Partnership, according to sources familiar with the deal.

“If it turned out technology didn’t matter and this were just a restaurant, that would not feel like an investment for venture capital,” said Simon Rothman of Greylock Partners, which has invested in each of Sprig’s three funding rounds. “It can feel deceivingly ops-focused. But you know you’ve got tech when you have a team as young and small as Sprig and you have data scientists.”

Forage, which is smaller and younger than Sprig, has seed investment from people including Medium CEO Evan Williams. The founders, who sold their previous startup Foodzie to Joyus in a small transaction, are expected to announce additional funding for Forage soon, sources said. Neither startup would disclose sales figures.

Granted, the two startups are working out the kinks — and as a customer I have had bad experiences with both, whether it’s Forage’s fatty lamb sliders that mostly ended up in my dog’s bowl, or Sprig’s occasionally poorly estimated delivery times.

But I have to wonder, will Sprig and Forage be able to maintain quality of food and experience as they try to scale beyond Silicon Valley?

 Nate Keller is executive chef at delivery service Sprig, which may be the largest restaurant in San Francisco, if you go by number of servings per meal.
Nate Keller is executive chef at delivery service Sprig, which may be the largest restaurant in San Francisco, if you go by number of servings per meal.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The trick to cooking at scale in San Francisco and beyond, said Sprig executive chef Nate Keller, is “figuring out what’s your end goal, and working backward from there.”

For instance, Sprig wanted to offer a steak salad. To do so, it needed 200 pounds of beef, and it only uses meat that is hormone-free, pesticide-free and free-range.

“We wouldn’t serve a New York strip,” said Keller. “There are only two per cow. That’s 12 pounds of a 1,200-pound animal.”

Instead, Keller chose bavette steaks, the tough but flavorful cut of beef often used by taquerias for carne asada. “This is normally a cut you would not eat medium rare,” said Keller, who was previously a chef at Google while its culinary operation scaled from a single trailer to 28 cafes.

To get the effect Keller wanted, his team marinated the 200 pounds of steak, and then cooked it in vacuum-sealed packages at 56 degrees celsius for 12 hours, in the sous-vide style that until recently was reserved for the gourmet echelons of experimental cooking.

At the end, the steaks were tender enough to be cut with a fork, and flavorful enough to serve at room temperature, Keller said. (I’m no food critic, but I tried the meal and his description held up.)

For this steak salad, Sprig charged $12.


It’ll be a long time before Sprig is as affordable and cheap as McDonald’s,” said Biyani in an interview at the renovated Chevy’s Tex-Mex chain restaurant where Sprig’s office and kitchen are now co-located, directly across the street from a McDonald’s. “But you could never get a meal like this for less than $15 in San Francisco.”

When it works, Sprig is fast. Unlike food preparation, food-delivery logistics naturally get better at scale. San Francisco residents who ordered the sous-vide steak salad as one of the day’s choices via its mobile app could expect their meal to be delivered within 20 minutes.

That window will soon be 15 minutes, according to Sprig head of product Angela Wise, who formerly worked on surge pricing at Uber.

“We consider anything above 35 minutes to be a horrible experience,” Wise told me. “And we have 1 percent horribles.”

Both Sprig and Forage say the trick to matching supply and demand is twofold: Constraints and creativity. Sprig generally offers three dishes per meal for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Forage offers six dishes per week. Forage asks customers to sign up for a weekly subscription and order two days in advance (although they are allowed to skip as many weeks as they like).

Sprig has worked to trim costs while growing — for instance, it recently stopped including complimentary chocolate truffles with its meals, and it changed its delivery employees to contract status. Forage used to have eight weekly options before it shrank down to six. But there’s still a lot yet to know about how these companies will try to grow. Neither company has a clear answer yet on how autonomous the local operations and relationships would be in new markets.

 Forage executive chef Stephen Beaumier shows off his new unifiller, which will take the hand measuring out of liquid portions sent to subscribers.
Forage executive chef Stephen Beaumier shows off his new unifiller, which will take the hand measuring out of liquid portions sent to subscribers.
Vjeran Pavic/Recode.net

Industrial cooking gadgets play a big role, and will continue to. You won’t find a fryer in either the Forage or Sprig kitchen — instead, there is massive machinery that helps measure, mix, chill and cook ingredients in consistent amounts and at consistent temperatures. There’s a lot of sous vide going on. The day I visited the Forage kitchen, the fresh new device was a “unifiller,” so workers won’t have to individually measure and fill liquids like tamari sauce and salad dressings into Forage’s recipe packs.

Like Sprig’s bavette steaks, Forage values quality of ingredients over specificity. And it’s these ingenious tricks of the trade that have me thinking that scaling these businesses might actually work. So, for instance, a recent Baja tacos dish that required a white fish included yellowtail jack, said Forage co-founder and chief creative officer Emily LaFave. The fish is lesser known, so people might have missed it at the grocery store — but once it’s in their kitchen and part of a nicely printed recipe card, it fits right into the dish.

LaFave explained, “We’re always having conversations with our farmers like, ‘Oh, hey, are you long on something? Is there something you need to get rid of? We can buy it all.’ It’s a very real-time process of editorial testing. Food is constantly changing, and it’s so perishable, so we create a system that reacts to that.” For example, LaFave said, the California drought is expected to take asparagus out of future menus.

 Cilantro and jalapeño peppers will add a jolt of color and flavor to Forage recipes.
Cilantro and jalapeño peppers will add a jolt of color and flavor to Forage recipes.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Some on the more traditional side of the quality-sourced food industry are skeptical of their new food-tech compatriots. San Francisco-based Veritable Vegetable is a produce distributor to many of these startups, including both Sprig and Forage, as well as online grocery store Good Eggs. Marketing director Daria Colner told me that even though they are becoming a regular component of Veritable Vegetable’s business, she’s skeptical of these tech darlings taking on food.

“They’re trying to apply a tech mentality to something that is not a tech-based endeavor,” Colner said, noting that her company’s 40-year-old business is funded on profits and grows at 7 percent per year. “When we hear how much money pours in, it kind of baffles us.”

But Veritable Vegetable co-owner and director of sales Karen Salinger had a different take. Sprig accounted for $57,000 worth of her company’s organic food sales in March 2015, up from $17,000 in March 2014 (the latter number includes all those tons — literally — of carrots and greens). That’s still a single-digit percent of Veritable Vegetable’s sales, but it’s more than five times bigger than any restaurant customer in the city. And it’s growing much, much faster.

For Silicon Valley, exporting technology to the rest of the world has become commonplace. Changing how people eat? That would be a much bigger leap.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.