Joule Ready meals.

This week Mike and I got invited to the ChefSteps headquarters for that most elusive meal: a free lunch. What we got was free lunches, plural, plus a sneak peek at the newest product from ChefSteps. No, it’s not a new update on the Joule, their sous vide machine. It’s much saucier.

Joule Ready is a line of sous vide-ready bags pre-filled with sauces in flavors like Thai Green Curry, Salsa Chamoy and Roasted Red Pepper Walnut Muhammara. Here’s how it works:

You can scan the code on the Joule Ready packaging through the ChefSteps app, which will give you the option to select your protein: chicken, fish, tofu, etc. Once you make your choice and add your meat (or veg) to the Joule Ready bag, the app will automatically start your Joule and instruct you on how to cook the rest of the dish, which may include pan-searing or grilling to finish. (Joule Ready can be used with other sous vide appliances, though obviously the app won’t be able to start and stop cook-time in the same way.) Each sauce also comes with one featured recipe — basically a complete meal of protein + side + garnish — which you can access by scanning the Joule Ready code in the ChefSteps app.

Joule Ready has been in beta since the beginning of 2018, and will launch with 8,000 ChefSteps community members later this month. After that, they’ll aim to hit a 15% week over week growth rate.

The bags are all shelf stable without refrigeration for one year, and each one feeds 2 – 4 people. A key appeal of the Joule Ready packs is their variety of flavors — no cooking ennui here. ChefSteps CEO Chris Young told us that they’ll offer 12 initial Joule Ready flavors at launch, and already have 12 more queued up and ready to go. Options will change weekly: sauces that perform well will stay, while those that don’t, go.

ChefSteps hopes that Joule Ready’s constantly rotating lineup of sauce flavors will push consumers to use their Joule more frequently, and with less forethought. “Customers would get into a rut,” explained Young. They would master sous vide-ing steaks or pork chops, but they would get bored of the same preparation every time. The premade sauces also help save time and energy, so home cooks don’t have to do anything more than plop in some protein and make a side of rice. “We want to help people actually cook on a busy Wednesday night,” he said.

Joule Ready featured recipe with Salsa Chamoy.

For ChefSteps, the beauty of this undertaking — as well as their decision to bring everything but printing and laminating the sous vide bags in-house — is its agility. Young told us that they could produce a new sauce within 3 – 5 weeks. That means they can easily capitalize off of new trends on cooking sites or social media, upcoming holidays, as well as feedback from their consumers.

There are three reasons ChefSteps can do this so quickly. The first is size: by making, say, 500 bags of Truffle Jus Gras instead of 500,000, which are the type of numbers in which Big Food has to deal with, the company can be flexible and take risks with their sauces. It also means they can make holiday or limited-time Joule Ready bags without being stuck with a ton of leftover inventory.

The second reason is their manufacturing practice: namely, that it’s almost all in-house. Everything but printing and laminating the sous vide bags is done by ChefSteps, from recipe testing to production to packaging design. The company ultimately built their own facility in order to build a filling machine that would work at their comparatively low volume. That gives the ability to pivot and develop new sauces super-quickly, and have complete control from end-to-end.

Lastly, there’s ChefSteps’ not-so-secret weapon: its data. Whenever any of its community cook with a Joule Ready bag, the company registers it and can ask them through the app how their experience went. ChefSteps can then leverage all this data to see how their users are liking each sauce, and make adjustments accordingly. “We’re 100% connected to our customers,” said Young.

Though they’re still testing prices, Young said that the Joule Ready bags wouldn’t have across-the-board pricing. For example, a truffle one might be cost in the double-digits, while most other bags would set you back around $6.95. If you buy a four-pack, the price would go down to around $4.95, and the company will eventually add a Subscribe & Save feature.

Young said that Joule Ready would be in retail stores by 2019. However, he was very clear that retail is more of a customer acquisition channel than the end goal — their focus will be on direct sales through the ChefSteps site. Which makes sense: the company can ship sauces cheaply, since the pack flat and don’t require ice or other refrigeration. That gives them a big advantage over direct-ship full and pre-cooked meals.

ChefSteps has been working to diversify into food sales since 2014. Last year the company beta-tested a new line of business selling locally raised meat and fish to Joule users (a move not that different from other Seattle food tech startup Crowd Cow). A few months later, also dabbled with frozen pre-cooked meals and teamed up with PostMates to enable delivery.

While neither of those products were rolled out beyond their initial beta test phase, Young said the company learned a lot from both efforts which they incorporated when creating the Joule Ready lineup. One obvious lesson was that by focusing on long-shelf life sauces where the consumer adds their own protein, the company is able to sidestep all the logistical expense and complications that go along with shipping meat across the country.

ChefSteps is not the only smart kitchen company getting into the food business. Tovala made food delivery a core part of their offering, paired with their countertop smart cooking device, and First Chop ships frozen proteins in various sauces pre-packed in sous vide bags. Sous vide pioneer Nomiku has also expanded pretty aggressively into food delivery.

Michael Wolf wrote about this phenomenon for the Spoon: 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.

Neither Nomiku nor ChefSteps is immune to the challenges of growing an audience for a smart kitchen “luxury” gadget. According to Young, there are three main challenges that face widespread consumer acceptance of sous vide. The first, price, is already being solved with the $99 sous vide wand. The second, convenience, is solved by the Joule Ready sauces. The third, time, has thus been elusive — but Young hinted that it could be solvable with AI.

With a glint in his eye, he said that ChefSteps would be unveiling tech by the end of the year that would enable Joule Ready meals to cook in 30 minutes, making them competitive with Nomiku’s pre-cooked meals — only customizable. “These sauces are meant to help first-time sous vide users,” said Young.

Soon, we’ll put it to the test. Keep an eye out for later this week, when a sous vide virgin (me!) tries her hand at making a Joule Ready meal for the very first time, with her very first sous vide wand. Will it be a tasty success? Tune in to find out.

If you want to hear ChefSteps CEO Chris Young talk about why the company created Joule Ready, make sure to come to the Smart Kitchen Summit where he’ll be discussing new business models in the era of the connected kitchen. 

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