“When I first saw these machines in Michelin-starred restaurants,” said the CEO, book author, and mother of two, “I was like ‘Woah, this is it.'”
By ‘it,’ Fetterman is referring to the technique employed by the world’s top chefs and how it was responsible for some of the best food she’d ever tasted. She figured if consumers had a way to cook sous vide that didn’t involve expensive equipment made exclusively for professional chefs, they would.
It wasn’t long before Fetterman (then Lisa Qiu) and her soon-to-be-husband Abe Fetterman decided to make a consumer-friendly sous vide appliance themselves. The result was the immersion sous vide circulator, something they would later patent and build a company around after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
At first, she thought that would be enough.
“How hard would it be to convince people to put food inside a bag and put it in the water, especially when the results are so amazing?”
They did eventually convince people, but it wasn’t as easy as she’d anticipated.
“They didn’t know the time and temperature, they needed help with recipes,” Fetterman said of her initial customers. “They treated it as a totally new way of cooking.”
Which it was. To help, Nomiku built another sous vide appliance which was smaller and more powerful than the company’s first product. Another difference from the first generation product was this one had Wi-Fi.
“I made the Wi-Fi Nomiku so you can send recipes directly to the machine,” she said.
“There was still friction,” said Fetterman. “People kept asking me, ‘Hey is this the right bag?’ and ‘Can you make me a vacuum sealer next?'”
The reality was that for a generation who grew up on frozen food and microwave ovens, the idea of vacuum sealing food in a bag, submerging it in water for hours and then searing it seems like a lot of steps. The problem was they need more help, and Nomiku’s CEO now knew that she couldn’t solve it by simply building a new sous vide appliance.
What she did know was that consumers liked the quality of the food cooked with the precision heating technique, but it wasn’t enough to convince them to commit to cooking sous vide. What they wanted, she realized, was more convenience.
So Fetterman started to rethink her company; not just the hardware that heats the food, but the entire experience of cooking sous vide. She knew by now that for most consumers, asking them to bag, sous vide and sear their food was too much. She also knew that while the quality of microwave food wasn’t as good, it did have one major advantage: the experience was super easy. That’s because not only does the microwave heat food up fast, but it also has an entire ecosystem around to deliver a streamlined cooking experience that goes something like this: pop in a frozen meal, zap it, eat.
Eventually, Fetterman decided to recreate the entire experience for her consumers, one which included not only a sous vide circulator, but the food itself. She had decided that Nomiku would make the act of creating a meal easier by offering pre-packaged, pre-portioned, and pre-cooked sous vide meals. All the consumer would need to do is scan the RFID tag on each component of a meal – usually a main course and a couple of sides — and drop them into the water. In thirty minutes, food is ready to eat.
The shift was a big one. Not only did Fetterman develop a new Nomiku with an RFID scanner to recognize the meals and set the timer on the circulator, but she also had to set up an entire supply and delivery chain around food.
That do that, Nomiku would not only need more funding (which they got from Samsung) but would also need to start working with copackers and logistics companies to create an end-to-end food delivery business.
She decided to start small, initially shipping products in beta to just 100 customers in May of last year, and expand from there.
So where has this new direction taken Fetterman and Nomiku?
In short, it’s completely changed the company. Nomiku has gone from primarily selling hardware to offering a complete food solution for consumers. All one has to do is go to the company’s website and try to buy a sous vide circulator to see the shift in focus: If you enter in a zip code that’s not within the area where Nomiku sells their meals, you’re told to check back later. In other words, they’ve become a meal-first company — that also sells a sous vide circulator to help make it all possible.
The good news is if you don’t live in one of the eight western states where Nomiku sells their meals, there’s a good chance they’ll get to you soon. According to Fetterman, they plan to hit profitability in their current region over the next two months and to ship nationwide by the end of the year.
While the shift for Nomiku was something Fetterman saw as necessary to expand the addressable market for sous vide cooking, it just so happened to also align well with the current thinking in Silicon Valley, where nowadays a VC’s first piece of advice for hardware startup founders is usually about the necessity of creating a recurring revenue business model.
All you have to do is look at the early returns on Nomiku’s new food efforts to see why: In the company’s early days, they’d make the business work by selling a $300 device and snagging whatever margin they could walk away with after parting with hardware costs, retail margin, and ongoing support expenses. With their new business, Fetterman says the company now has a $144 average food order and a retention rate of 81% for food customers who order their third box of food from Nomiku.
All that adds up to what is perhaps the biggest sign of change for the company: According to Fetterman, just a year after launching the food business, Nomiku now derives the majority of its revenue from food, not hardware.
Nomiku isn’t alone in trying to pair cooking hardware with food delivery. Tovala, a smart kitchen startup from Chicago, sells a smart oven with a food delivery service. Suvie, a Boston-based kitchen startup started by Reviewed.com founder Robin Liss, also plans to offer food delivery with its “kitchen robot.”. Belgium’s Mealhero has created a steamer to go with its frozen food delivery services. Chefsteps, another startup selling a sous vide circulator, has experimented with food delivery in the past and has hinted it will do more in the future.
However, despite Nomiku’s early success in the shift towards food delivery, it’s probably too soon to say how things will shake for them out in the long term. Meal delivery business models are still in the early stages, consumers are notoriously fickle when it comes to committing for the long term, and the big guys like Amazon continue to expand the types of food they’re bringing to consumers.
That said, Lisa Fetterman remains committed to the same goal today that she had when she first started Nomiku.
“We are here to eradicate every obstacle between a person and a delicious plate of food.”