The fourth floor of the old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood smells like smoked fish. It's a freezing cold day in January, the kind of day I'd rather be at home ordering food delivery—instead, I’m standing in the middle of Munchery’s temporary R&D kitchen as the food startup gears up for its big New York launch. Chefs and cooks dart around like they're in football practice. The space is open and enormous, with long metal tables and fertilizer-sized bags of Whole Foods sugar crammed into odd corners. (The space belongs to a local popsicle maker that has closed shop for the winter.) It’s here that for the past few months, Munchery’s impressive team of chefs from Michelin-starred New York restaurants like Le Bernardin and Daniel have been cobbling together a delivery menu of 300+ dishes: Spice rubbed hanger steaks, lobster rolls, Cambodian pork burgers, butter chicken. Instead of a can of Coke, meal additions include Blue Bottle’s impossible-to-find iced coffees and Icelandic Glacial spring water.
Today Munchery officially, quietly launched in New York. Founded in San Francisco, Munchery is part of a new breed of food delivery startups that place a premium on locally sourced, high-end meals cooked up daily by real chefs and delivered to your doorstep. The menu items are pretty out there—but the average cost of an entree, delivered to your home or office just in time for dinner, is pretty reasonable: About $10 to $13 a dish. And every time a meal is ordered, a donation of equal value is made to local charities like City Harvest. Unfortunately, Munchery New York is not yet available for lunch. (The delivery window is 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.) Or on the weekends. Or outside of lower Manhattan.
While Munchery might be the table-less restaurant of the future, make no mistake: Behind the scenes it operates with the no-holds-barred intensity of a high-end restaurant kitchen. Customers can order from either the Munchery smartphone app or via the web. The menu refreshes daily, says Brian Young, Munchery’s culinary director, a burly and brusque chef with short military-cropped black hair and a multi-page resume that includes Tavern on the Green and Le Bernardin. "Our goal is to get to over 1,000 menu items before the end of the year," he says, a few decibel levels louder than necessary. "A thousand unique offerings! No day will repeat ever!"
If you were to plot the overpriced instant gratification of Seamless and the overpriced "let’s play kitchen!" aspect of Blue Apron on two distant poles, you could plot what Munchery offers somewhere in the middle. Munchery differs from its competition in that its dishes reach you cold; you complete the cooking process by heating up Munchery's compostable trays in your microwave or oven. Instructions are printed on an argyle orange sleeve, along with the name of the chef who made it. All of the dishes are designed to be heated—they’re 99% pre-cooked; the customer provides the final, gentle push into the oven. "When you deliver hot, you're actually cooling it and then reheating it again before the customers gets it," says Mike Blank, Munchery's even-keeled New York general manager. "[The meal] has a very finite shelf life at that point," says Young. "It's activated." In the lead-up to the launch, Munchery’s employees took a stack of boxed meals (more than 300 meals that made the cut, plus many more that didn't) home every night to test out how they heated up in different kitchens, and how the sauces held up during transport.
One thing Munchery has in common with competitors like SpoonRocket, Sprig, and a handful of others (most of which originated from San Francisco) is that it makes tasty food in big batches, sort of like a pop-up restaurant that delivers meals made with fresh, organic-y ingredients. Most of the time, anyway. "For us, it’s a pretty simple standard: At a bare minimum, everything must be all natural," cofounder Tri Tran, who founded the company in 2013 with Conrad Chu, tells me over the phone. Tran, a Silicon Valley software guy and his household's cook, started the company two years ago because he often found himself too tired on weekdays to whip up something healthy for himself and his wife. "Grass-fed beef. Cage-free chicken. No hormone antibiotics. It doesn’t have to be organic, but if it is we’ll call it out. People rightfully want to know where their food is coming from."
Munchery was cagey about many of its pre-launch details. Photographs weren’t allowed in the test space. (The company has since relocated to a permanent kitchen outpost in the West Village.) A veil of secrecy shrouded the rollout, especially regarding the particulars of its food transportation methods and the exact number of dinners Munchery delivers in other cities, like San Francisco (where the food delivery wars have been waging for some time). In general, Munchery is hesitant to provide any information that might help its competitors. "The competition is pretty fierce," laughs Tran. Although Blank had been with the company since June, for example, he has not updated his LinkedIn profile, which still lists his old job (and some of Munchery's chefs don’t list Munchery on their LinkedIn profiles, either).
Feeding busy Manhattanites is certainly an enormous opportunity to make serious money. Given the city’s workaholic DNA, the increasingly finite amount of time at the end of New Yorker's days, and the fundamental human desire to put pleasant-tasting things in our mouths, Munchery ticks off many of the same boxes that has made Seamless and GrubHub such a hit in the Big Apple. But New York presents its own unique challenges that prior Munchery rollouts in San Francisco and Seattle did not face: namely, narrow streets and city infrastructure that was not designed for delivery vehicles. You just can’t stack boxes upon boxes of food in the back of a refrigerated truck and zip around the city. You gotta use bikes.
"Right now we've got about 50 to 55 employees," says Blank as we sit at a makeshift counter and pick at a plate of smoked salmon sushi that tastes vaguely like a lox bagel. (This is a good thing.) "We've grown from one employee in June to 55 now. We're going to be growing significantly after that, because our bike messenger fleet is going to be substantial." When an order is nearby, Munchery customers get a message on their phone via SMS or through the app. Customers can also track their bike delivery person in real time on a map, Uber-style.
Another aspect that separates Munchery from its contemporaries is its chef-first emphasis, which is what drew Young to the opportunity in the first place back in August. "I enjoy training, hiring, and recruiting a team, and it was an opportunity to have very, very many talented executive chefs," says Young. "The amount of creative firepower that I could command is interesting in that way, like when we first opened up the Iraq war and bombed the shit out of Baghdad. The same amount of firepower I could bring to Munchery! Just bomb the fuck out of them!"
No two Munchery cities feature the same menus. After he was brought on last August, Young began hiring Munchery’s seven chefs, each of whom specializes in a different cuisine. (Each chef has a short bio on the Munchery website, and you can rate their menus like an Amazon product review. This user data helps Munchery refine its menu to figure out what’s working, and what’s not.) Chef Alex Zhang, who comes from Nobu and Blue Ribbon, is in charge of the daily sushi and sashimi menu. (According to Munchery, New Yorkers have an extra-special affinity for sushi, more than Seattle-ites and San Franciscans.) Chef Eddie Montalvo—an alum of Bouley, Jean Georges, and Blue Smoke—specializes in meat dishes, like smoked free-range chicken. Another characteristic of New York’s palate is its love of dessert: It’s the only Munchery city with its own pastry chef, Michal Shelkowitz (Dovetail, Jean Georges). Order her focaccia whenever it’s available.
The all important question, of course, is what does all the food actually taste like? I ordered a few dishes during a closed beta—grilled coriander flank steak, sun-dried tomato focaccia, an espresso crepe cake dessert, some other stuff—and asked my Fast Company colleagues to try them. Admittedly, we weren’t able to heat them all to the proper specifications as we don’t have an oven at the office. And since the meals were delivered at 6 p.m.—when many people had already gone home for the day—we saved the dishes for the next day's lunch, which was a bad decision. Our tiny office kitchen transforms into a violent Hunger Games map when you’re trying to use the microwaves.
Nevertheless, the overall verdict was: Pretty good!
"Great flavor," one colleague Slacked me. "And I liked the twists—taro instead of regular mashed potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes in the focaccia." Another co-worker said it was filling, but "really oily." The vegetarian in the group tried the focaccia and the coffee cake, both of which were "quite scrumptious." Another editor said, "At least you're getting something that's relatively fresh" for the price. "You could pay that much and get garbage."
As for what’s next, the company plans on expanding to Upper Manhattan, with a Brooklyn rollout on the horizon in the coming weeks. For people trying to eat a little better during the week—and who don’t have the time to deal with a messy kitchen—Munchery could be the non-Seamless option you’ve been waiting for.