With more of us spending significant amounts of time at home because of COVID-19, our attention has turned increasingly to how and what we eat. Even for those who like to cook, but especially for those who might not have the time or inclination, it can be a challenge to come up with tasty, nutritious and new things to eat all the time. Today, one of the startups that has seen a lift in its business as a result of that is announcing a round of funding to expand its operations.
Tovala, the smart oven and meal kit service, has closed a Series C of $30 million. David Rabie, the Chicago startup’s co-founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that it plans to use the funding in large part to open a second facility, most likely in Utah, to help with fresh food distribution to the western half of the U.S. Other investments will include improving customer service and bringing in more talent.
It will also slowly start to bring in more options for pre-made meals and recipes: Rabie said it is working on a service with leading restaurants and chefs to create meals to sell and cook in the Tovala oven.
“We think we can come closer to the restaurant experience because of the oven,” said Rabie. “By pre-making food rather than just reheating, we think we can open up reach for a local restaurant.”
The funding is being led by Left Lane Capital, with Finistere Ventures, Comcast Ventures, OurCrowd, Origin Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capital and Joe Mansueto — all previous backers — also participating.
Originally incubated at Y Combinator, Tovala has attracted other interesting investors in the company, including poultry giant Tyson. Notably, this is the second round of funding for the startup in the space of six months, after it picked up $20 million in a Series B last June.
As with that previous round, the valuation is not being disclosed today. However, the company has hit some significant numbers, evidenced by this funding, which point to how its value may well be on the rise.
Annualized revenue grew tenfold in the last 18 months (that is, including growth before COVID-19); employee count for the year is up 40%; the company has passed 3 million meals shipped; and the company says that its ovens are being used 32 times on average each month by their owners (a stat it can track because those devices are connected).
But it is still not disclosing total user numbers, Rabie said.
Tovala’s oven sells for $299, but the company usually knocks off $100 if you also commit to six of its $11.99 meals (each meal feeds one person) over the next six months. Right now — possibly to tap into the wave of people who are rethinking how they eat in the wake of restaurant closures and simply spending more time at home — it seems Tovala is offering discounts of up to $130 to those buying the oven without the meal obligation, dropping the oven price down to about $170.
In addition to the company’s own pre-made trays that you pop in the oven and then garnish when complete (garnishes are included), Tovala’s oven can also cook hundreds of pre-made dishes and meals sold in stores by way of scanning package barcodes; and recipes that it devises and you can make yourself and program the oven to cook by way of the Tovala app. You can also use the Tovala in the same way that you might use any countertop oven, to toast, steam, bake and broil whatever you choose, independent of all that.
A profusion of meal kit and food delivery businesses, which let you order things to eat at the tap of a finger, have changed how a lot of people think about food at home.
All of them are built in aid of making the process of eating easier. But in that wider selection of options, Tovala has been building out its business in the hopes that it can cover a specific niche: people who want to eat fresh food they cook at home, but who don’t have time or interest in putting those meals together — not even when they come with items precut and measured by meal kit companies.
However, that is just one side of the business: Tovala’s ovens, Rabie said, are a central part of the vertical integration that the company has built, and even with the stories you might hear about how “hardware is hard”, they are here to stay as part of the proposition.
“We are in the business of getting high-quality meals to people, and the oven is our vehicle for doing that,” he said. “We are both a tech and food company, and at no point do I see us getting out of the oven business.”
Having said that, the company is also expanding with partnerships with others that produce ovens, too.
Specifically, Tovala has a deal with LG to embed its software in LG ovens, to enable them to cook Tovala’s meals and the other dishes that can be programmed with its app and barcode scanning system. Rabie said the deal made sense since the kinds of full-sized LG ovens that will run Tovala’s software are “not the kind of product line that we will get into.”
It appears that LG is not an investor, and it’s not clear when these new devices will be rolled out: The deal between the two was announced back in 2019.
Still, that partnership is a mark of how the hardware companies that are building connected appliances, and services around them, are knitting together more closely with incumbents to take their next scaling steps.
In at least two instances that has led to would-be competitors getting acquired: BBQ giant Weber snapped up smart oven startup June (which it had also invested in previously) in January. And back in 2017, Electrolux acquired sous vide startup Anova for $250 million.
An exit of that kind may or may not be on the menu for Tovala, but it’s a signal of the options that the startup has for moving from appetiser to main course in the future.
For now, the idea is to stay independent and grow, though. Rabie had told me that Left Lane’s interest was based on how it saw Tovala as a “Peloton”-like category definer for smart food preparation at home, in part because of how it could become part of a person’s daily habits and routines.
“The pairing of a meal subscription with a connected device has enabled Tovala to achieve a customer retention rate that is a step-function better than anything else we’ve seen in food delivery — in many ways similar to what Peloton achieved in a traditionally low-retention fitness industry,” said Jason Fiedler, co-founder and managing partner at Left Lane Capital, in a statement. “Our team brings a proven track record of investing in category-defining consumer subscription businesses, and we’re excited about Tovala’s potential to be the next major food tech company.” Fiedler is joining the board with this round.