A hypothetical question: What do you do for a second act after spending a good chunk of your teens and twenties building one of the leading product review sites in the US?
You start a company to reinvent one of those product categories you used to review.
At least that’s what you do if you’re Robin Liss, cofounder of Suvie, a Boston based startup that is creating a next-gen cooking appliance. Liss, who started what would become Reviewed.com in her basement at the tender age of 13, sold her company to USA Today in 2011 and managed and grow the site as part of Gannett until she left in 2015.
While she didn’t leave Reviewed with plans to create a cooking appliance startup, it didn’t take long before Liss and her cofounder, Kevin Incorvia, conceived of what eventually became Suvie.
“When I was leaving Reviewed.com, I thought I was going to enjoy my time on the beach,” said Liss when I sat down with her this week to talk about her new company. “But when I was at Reviewed I was really into sous vide cooking, and I thought how can I take this to the next level?”
That next-level cooking idea rolling around Liss’s head eventually crystallized into the Suvie, an ambitious new take at a countertop cooking appliance that includes multiple zones for each staple of a typical dinner: proteins, vegetables, starch, and sauces. Put simply, the Suvie cooks each staple separately using optimized processes for each (sous vide for the protein, steam for veggies, a water dispenser/chamber for starches) but syncs the process across the different cooking chambers so they are finished at the same time.
To top it off, Liss and Incorvia insisted on creating an appliance that enabled “cool to cook”, which means the Suvie would keep food chilled all day and initiate a cook remotely via an app. To do that, they started looking into adding refrigeration.
After looking at a variety of cooling methods like thermoelectric cooling (the cooling technology used in wine coolers and, somewhat notoriously after this Wired review, the Mellow), they decided the Suvie would use a compressor. Compressors are standard in most refrigerators, but the problem was they couldn’t find a compressor small enough for their countertop cooking appliance.
Eventually, they worked with a large appliance maker to have a custom compressor made for the Suvie.
“We have a custom, small compressor, which is one of the key parts that make this work,” said Liss.
But unlike a fridge, which cools by forcing coolant into coils and absorbing heat, the Suvie team decided to use water to cool the food. They came up with a novel water-routing concept that takes cold water from a water chamber and distributes it to water jackets in each of the four zones and chills the food until its ready to cook.
When Liss started thinking about her new company, there were a few underlying trends she felt made it the right time to try and reinvent cooking. One was the ubiquity of mobile phones. She saw mobile was becoming more important in people’s lives as a way to not only discover food but would also become they way control their cooking appliances.
She also saw the growth of precision cooking techniques like sous vide and connected appliances as a signal that things would change drastically in the consumer kitchen in coming years.
The last trend she focused on was the rise of meal kits, as she watched the emergence of first generation meal kit companies like Blue Apron and started to think about how they could incorporate meal delivery into their offering.
And it was this last trend that led to her other big idea. Unlike meal kit providers like Blue Apron that have their own warehouses and pack food for shipment, Liss wanted to create a product that they could open to a variety of food packers and distributors as a way to sell their products as part of a meal kit. In short, she saw the beginning of what could become a new distribution platform.
“[Meal kits] are the first step of what will eventually become a platform,” said Liss. “What we’re trying to do is build an appliance that can bridge the technology gap between existing food suppliers and the appliance that can cook it intelligently.”
This early focus on using a variety of food packers and distributors forced the company to make an open approach integral to the design of the Suvie appliance.
“There were some restrictive rules I put on our engineering team at the beginning,” said Liss. “One was we don’t want us packing our own food. The reason we did that is we wanted to make sure the existing food supply chain could easily pack for their device using the equipment on their floors.”
In a way, Suvie is emblematic of a new trend in the smart kitchen space where startups are looking to pair recurring meal subscriptions with smart cooking hardware. Tovala, Nomiku, and ChefSteps are other examples of companies going down this route but, according to Liss, Suvie has a bigger vision.
“That’s really important when you think about the business and platform because that way if new food brands want to pack for Suvie, they don’t have to build new cooking methods, they don’t have to precook stuff. The raw veggie guys don’t have to think about how long it takes to cook the chicken. They can just pack their raw vegetables like their doing now because of this platform.”
To assemble the final meal kits, Suvie has partnered with a local mission-driven organization in the Dorchester area of Boston that employs economically disadvantaged workers.
Liss said the company plans to launch a Kickstarter in February and plan to ship the product by the end of this year. If successful, the campaign will add to already $3.75 million in seed funding that the company has raised. Pricing for the Suvie will be announced next week when they unveil the Kickstarter campaign.
After more than two years working in stealth, Liss is excited to get what she unabashedly calls her “robot multizone cooking appliance” into the world.
“It’s so exciting and so much fun,” she said. “I do wish we got as much attention as the robot cars. I think it’s just as important a category as self-driving cars.”
You can listen to my full conversation with Robin Liss, founder of Suvie, below (or through Apple podcasts).