Meal kits have become one of the biggest trends in food retail in recent years, with dozens of new companies cropping up and even traditional retailers jumping on the bandwagon, hoping to cash in on time-strapped consumers who are seeking easy, healthy meals.
Tovala, a gourmet meal-kit service that uses a smart oven, is hoping to swoop in and woo these customers on the assumption that they still crave good food and convenience.
The Tovala oven is a countertop machine that combines four types of appliances: a broiler, a steamer, an oven, and a toaster. The oven is Wi-Fi-enabled and connects to an app with hundreds of recipes. The user simply needs to select a recipe on the app or scan the barcode on one of the service's prepared meals, and the oven will then do all of the work.
In February, Tovala received an undisclosed amount of funding from the food giant Tyson Foods. The capital raised was to be used to support Tovala's growth, including adding staff across all departments, geographic expansion, and investment in product, operations, technology, and marketing, Tovala said in a press release at the time.
In November, Tovala launched its new and improved second-generation machine, which is lighter than its predecessor and has a new function that enables users to cook without using the app. The first machine was rolled out in 2017.
Find out how it works below:
The new oven works in the same way as the original version. There are two options: to cook independently using the machine or to subscribe to its prepared meal kits.
If you opt for the meal kits, you have the choice between three, four, six, eight, nine, or 12 meals a week.
The oven itself costs $349 and comes with a 180-day return policy.
Each meal costs $12 and is meant to feed one person. If you're ordering as a couple or feeding a family, you'd need to order more of each variety.
Customers are required to pick which meals they want on a Wednesday for the following Monday.
There are eight meals to choose from each week.
The dishes are made with fresh ingredients, which are locally sourced when possible.
While the premise of these meal kits is similar to other companies' such as Blue Apron, Tovala meals require almost no preparation time.
The food arrives chopped in trays that look a lot like airplane meals and are ready to be cooked right away.
The only thing you need to do is season the dishes.
"Spreading a glaze is one of the more involved steps," Alexander Plotkin, the company's chief culinary officer, told Business Insider.
In some cases, you'll be doing no more than opening the box and peeling away the plastic.
Each meal has a unique barcode.
This barcode stores the data that instructs the machine how to cook the dish.
Recipe instructions can be updated remotely from the company's headquarters.
It takes 18 to 20 minutes to cook each meal, with minimal preparation.
You can track the cooking progress using the Tovala app.
The team says one of customers' biggest complaints with the first version of the oven was that it could be used only with the app. That limit has been removed in the new version.
Plotkin has created about 250 recipes for food that can be cooked together using the same sequence of steam, convection bake, and broil.
Twenty minutes later, the meal is ready to be plated.
Tasting the food was probably the most surprising part of this test. While the machine is impressive, it's the high quality of the food that's the real game changer.
We tried two other meals ...
... which were just as easy to cook and equally delicious.
Disclaimer: These were voted as some of Tovala's most popular dishes, so we were sampling the best of the best.
The meals contain 400 to 800 calories.
Plotkin said that because of the low calorie count and portion control, some customers said they had lost weight while cooking with the Tovala oven.
At least two vegetarian meals are offered each week ...
... as are various nut-, dairy-, or gluten-free options.
Tovala is also thinking about developing meals that would fit into diet plans such as Whole30.
One of the biggest downsides of the meal kits is the cost, especially if you're feeding a family. The bonus here, however, is that you can opt out of the meal kits and simply use the oven to cook your own recipes.
You can either use it like a regular oven or with the app.
We tested one of the simplest tasks around, which can still be hard to get right: boiling an egg.
The app allows you to select how you want your egg cooked. We sought to replicate a soft- and a hard-boiled egg, and both were cooked to perfection.
Tovala is more convenient than a meal kit and healthier than a microwave meal. It's an efficient solution to healthy cooking at home.
But you need to be prepared to fork up for these dishes. While the economics might make sense if you live in a city where groceries prices are high, it is harder to justify elsewhere.
That said, if it can give you back your evenings and even save your marriage, maybe it's worth taking the hit.