Tovala’s Smart Oven Wants to Replace Your Microwave
The Tovala smart oven is not a microwave, but it kind of looks like one. An expensive one. A pretty one. One you might find in an upscale urban apartment building with all the amenities.
But it’s not a microwave. It’s a 26-pound robotic personal chef.
The first clue that this isn’t your average Amana is the KITT-like row of blue lights. They’re built into the face of its hinged pull-down door, glowing above a sleek stainless-steel handle. There’s also no number pad or digital clock. But the Tovala is roughly the same size and shape as that Cup-O-Noodles-making machine in your kitchen, and that’s the point. It wants to occupy that exact space.
Other than the bank of lights, which functions as a countdown timer that you can see from across the room, the interesting things about the Tovala are hidden inside. Within the 13-by-20-by-15-inch box, there’s a laser scanner. It’s made for reading bar codes on the lids of compatible meals. You can pop your own food inside the Tovala, but the reason to buy it involves prepared meals, which are packaged and sent to you. There’s a database with cooking instructions for those meals, as well as Wi-Fi connectivity so it can pull down new and newly perfected recipes from the cloud.
Embedded sensors detect whether the heat and humidity inside the oven is optimal, part of a feedback loop that can make necessary adjustments on the fly. And there’s also a tank of water, which makes the package more than just an expensive toaster oven. It steams, it broils, it bakes, and it convection-cooks—all by itself, based on instructions it follows from each meal’s barcode.
Those instructions can be fairly complex, as all the heating and steaming elements can be controlled independently. For example, you can scan the barcode on the lid of a chicken breast, and the oven will “know” to steam the chicken for a few minutes first, then broil it at a high temperature to make it nice and juicy. It will know that the path to a perfect pie crust is to hit it with heat from all sides for a while, then only from the bottom to crisp it up without burning the top of the crust. It’ll know to steam veggies, then broil them to add some charred zing.
One thing it doesn’t do—under any circumstances—is microwave.
“It’s more efficient and it’s healthier,” says David Rabie, Tovala’s founder and CEO. “There’s no microwave element, and we were very clear about not including that. But you can do things like reheat with steam. We have a simple reheat button on there that combines steam and dry heat. You put rice in, and it doesn’t dry it out.”
The oven itself is half of the product. Tovala is also planning a meal service that delivers prepped, chef-curated meals to your home, much like Blue Apron. They’ll come in a box, weekly, packed in ice, at $10 to $15 per meal. Rabie says they’ll also have subscription plans. Each meal will have a barcode on it, a recipe for cooking it to perfection in the Tovala oven. While Rabie is hoping the oven will someday be able to recognize and optimize the cooking instructions for anything with a barcode, for now that option is limited to Tovala’s own meal service.
Scaling that service nationally sounds like a logistical nightmare, but Rabie and his team say Blue Apron is a testament to how it could work. They’re able to deliver perishable, fresh food to customers coast to coast with just a few fulfillment centers. “Plug and play, same operation as us,” Rabie says. “We do a little more prep, is the only difference.”
The food, seasoning, and recipe prep will be honed in Tovala’s test kitchen. There, chefs will suggest their favorite recipes, and an internal team will “Tovala-fy” them, as Rabie puts it. That involves testing, tasting, retesting, and retasting to come up with the instructions and timing elements for each meal. If a chef makes a hit meal that’s added to Tovala’s weekly rotating menu, they’ll get paid royalties on each of those meals sold. At launch, Rabie says those meals won’t be modifiable from the original recipe, which is something to think about for those with allergies or aversions.
A Chicago-based startup that’s part of this year’s Y Combinator class, Tovala is already sitting on half a million dollars of seed funding. The company also just launched a Kickstarter campaign, which Rabie says is simply an additional sales and marketing channel for the first-generation product. They’ve already secured a manufacturer for the oven and gone through at least one design revision. On Kickstarter, an early-bird special gets a Tovala oven for $200; the expected retail price will be around $330 with a launch target of early next year.
Of course, you can’t have a smart oven without an app. The idea is to use Tovala’s app to order your meals each week. Through the app, users can also upload their own recipes and automated cooking instructions. The app is essential for manually entering temperature controls for your own freestyle meals, as there’s no temperature dial on the oven itself.
While the oven has built-in Wi-Fi, it doesn’t need to be connected all the time to work. Using a built-in database of favorites, as well as weekly over-the-air updates, the oven can work offline most of the time.
“Meals that you scan regularly, meals that we know you’ve bought, we could load those on with Wi-Fi while it is connected,” says lead software engineer Adam Brakhane. “It’s all stored locally.”
While the idea of fresh, home-cooked meals prepared by an algorithm is a mouth-watering one, Tovala has plenty of competition on its hands. There’s Innit, a system that can scan your food, suggest recipes, and automate the cooking. There’s also the June Intelligent Oven, a wider, camera-equipped countertop oven that purportedly knows what’s inside it due to a built-in camera. But it doesn’t have a food-delivery service, it doesn’t have a steamer, and it costs about $1,500 on preorder. Rabie says he isn’t worried about it as a competitor.
Stiffer competition may come from sheer convenience. In the fast-paced, small-apartment urban environments where Tovala wants to make a splash, quick food delivery is just an app-tap away. Rabie contends that Tovala’s food-and-oven combo simply makes better food. Over time, it also costs less than ordering Seamless every night.
“Delivery in particular tends to be more expensive,” Rabie says. “It tends to be unhealthy. And it’s not fresh-cooked. This thing comes out piping hot as though you made it yourself, but there’s no room for error and it doesn’t take much time.”
It does take more time than a microwave, though. Most of Tovala’s meals will take between 10 to 30 minutes to cook, although Rabie says those steam-powered reheat options will only take three or four minutes—about double the time of a microwave.
It also can’t replicate everything a microwave can do. In that capacity, it’s more like a toaster oven: Boiling water and making a Cup-O-Noodles aren’t in its bag of tricks. Putting paper containers in the oven is a fire hazard. It’ll make popcorn, but not microwave popcorn; Rabie says Tovala-friendly popcorn will be on the delivery menu.
As for what it can do, it can whip up a legitimately great meal in about 15 minutes. The Tovala team visited WIRED’s New York office to give us a taste test, and the main dishes engineered by in-house chef Forrest Mason were excellent. Dessert wasn’t as delicious.
We started with Beef Wellington and a side of carrots and roasted garlic—a 18-minute cook time—and it had the balance of juicy meat and crusty goodness down pat. The beef was cooked to medium, warm in the middle, juicy and flavorful and tasty. The pastry was flaky and sog-free, and the carrots were tender without being mushy. Nailed it.
Our second course of herb-stuffed chicken with a side of asparagus was a revelation: Juicy, delicious bird with great seasoning. Restaurant-quality good.
Alas, the snickerdoodle cookies for dessert were another story. They tasted steamed, but somehow a little dry. Needed a pinch more algorithm.
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