It’s a familiar story. Man (or woman) spends day at the office. He works hard, analyzing data, forecasting trends, spinning code from the calculated movements of his fingers on the keyboard. He commutes home–an hour in traffic–and because he spent an extra hour ensuring his programming hit perfection before the project deadline, by the time he arrives it’s late. He’s faced with only two options: the convenient but poorly executed fast-food fodder or the laborious but nutritional home-cooked meal. Munchery intends to provide one more.
“Our dream is to add that third option to the world,” co-founder Tri Tran tells me over the phone. “People are used to cooking for themselves or buying it … now they can get [a meal] from a chef who is an independent local chef who does a great job.”
Tran and co-founders Van Tran and Conrad Chu first conceived of Munchery because they lived that story true to too many working professionals.
“Munchery is a start-up, founded by a bunch of tech guys or tech dads who didn’t have time to cook dinner for their families,” Tran said, explaining how he and Chu, who worked for the same software building start-up prior to starting Munchery, were tired of having the same meals over and over and didn’t like the choices for take-out or delivery.
The nearly one-year-old San Francisco start-up thus offers busy working professionals this alternative: freshly prepared fare from a professional chef delivered to doorsteps in the city’s zip code between 5 and 9 p.m. during the workweek. The first meal is on the house, and for start-ups with five employees or less, dinner is comped.
“We are a start-up; so we figure that we start to have a bunch of customers who actually work in the office, and four or five companies get food [from Munchery] for the office every day. They already like it, and we get more word-of-mouth referrals, and that’s great, so why stop there? Why not just offer it to everybody?” Tran explains. “The first meal is complimentary anyway, and we want them to try it … literally the proof is in the pudding!”
He goes on to say the free dinner option is extended to larger companies, with five complimentary meals included per order.
“… If we run out, we run out. There’s always the next day, so we give the offer to everyone. We want to contribute our part to the start-up community, which we’re proud to be a part of anyway,” Tran said.
Ordering is simple. Every night, three meals from three unique chefs out of Munchery’s network are offered on the website’s homepage. For these meals, Munchery sets a few, loose guidelines: each meal must contain six to eight ounces of animal protein and a few sides of starches or vegetables; in essence, enough to feed the “average individual adult.” One of the three meals is always vegetarian. Then the chefs are free to experiment.
“We want our chefs to be very creative and do what they’re best at,” Tran explains.
Dessert from a specialized pastry chef caps every dinner, and appetizers are increasingly being added to the nightly menu. Often, meals are gluten-free. But there’s two guidelines on which Munchery refuses leniency: the health standards by which the meals are prepared in the company’s sub-leased commercial kitchen in the Mission and the quality of the ingredients used.
“We firmly believe in a professional doing the cooking. There’s no city ordinance that lets you cook from home and sell anything–there’s no way to control sanitization or health codes. We don’t agree with peer to peer; we agree with a professional to peer business from the food side of things,” he said.
This matches Munchery’s insistence on providing quality meals.
“Ingredients make a big difference. It’s not like these chefs are using recipes you will never find anywhere else. You or a person with culinary experience could make a similar meal,” he said. “But the ingredients are top notch, from local farms, and that makes a huge difference. Most restaurants ship ingredients from wherever it’s cheapest … or the ones that use local ingredients are too expensive … Our strong point is really good ingredients and a high quality meal … that’s affordable.”
Tran notes that an average meal costs $14, passionately stating that for the aforementioned characteristics and portion size, “We think that you cannot find that anywhere!”
Of those qualities not found elsewhere, Munchery also boasts an impressive network of 50 professional chefs. Initially accrued from personal friendships and cold-calling those listed on Yelp– Tran would not select anyone without a four or five star rating–Munchery now receives calls from chefs asking to become a part of the company.
“I want each and every chef to come in knowing it’s worth their time,” Tran declares firmly. “When a chef comes in to cook for us that day, he’s guaranteed to sell 20 to 30 meals, and most often it’s 40 to 50.”
The entrepreneur explains the Munchery model–which, through cutting down a chef’s overhead expenses often allows them to make the equivalent of $30 per hour– that gives up-and-coming professionals an attractive option upon graduating culinary school.
“Most commonly, [after graduating culinary school], if you’re lucky, you get to be a line cook in the back of some mediocre restaurant. That’s the average kid … [Munchery] offers something completely different. We basically allow each chef to have a virtual storefront and display their food, sell their food, and have a following. People rate the meals they like and say what meals they like and offer constructive criticism. Now [chefs] can point anyone who asks them about their skills to Munchery and say, ‘here’s what people think about it,’” Tran said.
Within this model, friendship is fostered in place of competition. It is an unspoken rule that whoever lists their menu items first gets “first dibs,” so no two dishes will have the same main emphasis; but this policy does not lead to confrontation.
“We’re a friendly bunch and we respect each other,” Tran said. “If you cook a good meal, it sells well, and there’s no animosity among the chefs.” This is good, he adds jokingly, because, “you don’t want to upset a chef.”
In this spirit, Tran claims he doesn’t pick favorites when it comes to meals, though he does enjoy one chef’s grilled steak and another’s galettes (which, for those unfamiliar, is similar to a pizza with butter, vegetables, and cheese).
Still, “it’s really hard to narrow down!” he laughs.
Munchery plans to expand its offerings nationally and globally, beginning with neighboring Marin.
“It’s easy to go to the rest of the Peninsula and the Easy Bay also; that’s our initial trial run to expand. We also have a top 20 city list of outside places: Manhattan, Boston, Austin, Atlanta, Denver. These are all cities that spend more than the national average on food,” Tran explains.
With these physical expansions, Munchery also wants to enlarge its services by offering a subscription plan for repeat customers; subscribing will still allow them to choose their meal each night.
“Food is very tricky,” he chuckled. “People like to choose. Now, having said that, we don’t like the idea of having a 30-line item menu where choosing becomes a pain. We want to limit choices but have them changing every day.”
Ultimately, Tran hopes Munchery will spark a paradigm shift in the way working professionals view meal options.
“Food is such an easy thing to get jazzed about because it’s an everyday product. It’s so personal–once you like a certain chef’s cooking, you relate to them really quickly,” he said. “We feel like … people are getting busier and busier and don’t have time to make great food for themselves or their families. Munchery provides that third option.”
See: Munchery’s third options
Photos from Munchery