For years, 590 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco was home to a restaurant in the Chevy's Fresh Mex chain, and therefore full of food that was starchy, salty, served in overwhelming portions, and generally prepared without apparent regard to its impact on anyone's health.
Chevy's closed in 2012. Signs of the space's former life are still everywhere, from the bar (with helpful giant neon BAR sign) to the oversized portraits of happy Mexican people on the walls. But this particular ex-Chevy's is now the kitchen of Sprig, a startup devoted to speedy delivery of meals that are tasty, but also good for you. (In the Bay Area, the service is currently up in running in San Francisco and Palo Alto; it's also available in Chicago.)
From DoorDash to Postmates to to GrubHub to Yelp's Eat24 to Uber's UberEats, there's no shortage of companies tackling the challenge of meal delivery. Rather than simply picking up dishes from local restaurants, Sprig is one of several startups—others include Maple, Munchery, and Spoonrocket—that prepare their own dishes. Which means that the challenge it's taken up is not only logistical, but also culinary.
The company was founded by veterans of the tech business, not by restauranteurs. In the parlance of tech, it's created, tested, and shipped 1,274 products—dishes—since it began service in San Francisco a little over two years ago. And the person in charge of that effort is its executive R&D chef, Jessica Entzel.
When Entzel joined Sprig in September 2012 as its first employee, she had spent time working for celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay. (More recently, she became a bit of a celeb herself when she won the Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen reality show.) But restaurant experience goes only so far toward helping Entzel in her current gig. Designing meals for delivery introduces all sorts of factors that aren't issues if you're just plopping a plate down in front of a diner in an eatery.
"The biggest part of what we do here is making sure meals deliver well," Entzel says. "So there's a lot of thought that goes behind it." It's not enough for a Sprig dish to be delicious, healthy, and cost-conscious; it must also be able to withstand transport without falling apart, leaking, or getting soggy.
Sprig R&D isn't just really about such mundane matters, though, The whole concept behind the company, CEO Gagan Biyani says, springs from the fact that its founders had "an incredible amount of naïveté about food. We approached the problem with some non-standard expectations. Those expectations have allowed us to innovate in ways that we didn't even realize until more recently. R&D is one of the best examples of that."
A fast-casual restaurant chain might invest years of effort and millions of dollars in a concept before it's clear whether enough people care to make it into a viable business. And concepts that once thrived often get out of whack with evolving consumer preferences. (Exhibit A: Chevy's, which has been shuttering locations for years.) Sprig's emphasis on high-volume, high-speed R&D means that it can adapt itself to its customers' tastes, dietary trends, and other factors without even pausing to catch its breath.
And if Sprig lives up to its vision, its approach to R&D will also help it scale up without losing its way. "People often think of food and big as inherently bad," Biyani says. "Our view is that it isn't inherent, it's only coincidental. Big food companies with big market sizes have found that cheating and reducing quality has improved their profit margins. But as the modern consumer is wising up to this, as the population of people who don't want processed food is becoming the majority of people, all of a sudden we think there's an opportunity to do big food that actually improves the quality."
The creation of a new Sprig recipe typically begins during Monday brainstorming sessions among Entzel's R&D team members. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and sometimes sparks their creativity in unexpected ways. "No one owns any idea," Entzel says.
For instance, one staffer used to cook for vegan yoga retreats for women: A vegetable salad with pad thai-style peanut sauce had been a hit. It sounded tasty. But by the time the Sprig dish it inspired emerged from R&D, it wasn't vegan and didn't involve peanuts. (It featured grilled chicken, shredded zucchini, peppers, carrots, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, Thai basil, toasted cashews, and coconut-cashew dressing.)
From the moment the team begins devising a new dish, it's thinking about factors which will matter in the end, such as the calorie count and cost of ingredients. And everything is shaped by the need to withstand the 15-minute delivery journey. "We do a lot of braised meats," Entzel explains. "A lot of vegetables that are cooked in a way that will transport a little bit better." If a dish involves veggies and rice, the veggies go on top, which helps prevent the rice from drying out. "It looks aesthetically nice and it delivers better," she says.
The goal is never to pop out a cookie-cutter version of a popular dish. Oftentimes, what Sprig does is to take something that's popular but not terribly good for you, and reimagine it in more healthful fashion.
"All of the dishes are our own takes," Entzel says. "We don't try to make anything authentic. We dig into 'What is enjoyable about this? Is it that it's a pot pie, or it the texture, the creaminess, the warmth?' You close your eyes and it's the flavor profile you're tasting. That's what we try to redo." In the case of pot pie, that led to a version which replaced the starchy crust with quinoa.
Early in the process, Entzel and her colleagues might produce a dish in batches of 20 or 30 just to get a sense of how easy it is to prepare. But they also take the time to experiment. "We taste it, change, taste it, change, taste it, change," she says.
Once they're generally happy with a work in progress, they pass it on to the company's two recipe testers. Their job is to judge a recipe on its merits, particularly when it's used to mass produce dishes assembly-line style. So they're intentionally cut out of the process of invention in its earliest stages. "They're a fresh pair of eyes on a recipe, making it from start to finish," Entzel says. "They work on the other side of the kitchen so they don't even see what we're doing."
If cranking out a dish in batches of a hundred reveals any issues—like a step that's unexpectedly time-consuming—the recipe may undergo further tweaking. Once it's in good shape, the company shoots photos that will help the kitchen produce it consistently. And within a couple of weeks, Sprig customers may be eating it.
The mere fact that a Sprig dish has emerged from R&D and arrived on the menu doesn't mean that Entzel and her team are finished with it. The bottom line is always whether customers like it, and thanks to the Sprig app's review feature, the company gets plenty of feedback. "Every time we make a dish, we're like, OK, let's look at the comments and see how it did and how we can iterate on it," Entzel says.
When the company offered a version of beef Bolognese made with butternut squash noodles, for instance, the consensus among people who commented on it was that it wasn't hearty enough. Furthermore, the noodles tended to leech water and dry out. When I visited the kitchen, the R&D chefs had just finished work on version 2.0 of the recipe, which ditches the noodles in favor of chunks of butternut squash and sweet potatoes, and adds tomato paste. End result: a dish which is even further removed from traditional beef Bolognese, but more Sprig-y.
Some dishes also get revised to reflect the changing seasons. Panzanella salad is a Sprig staple, but the heirloom tomatoes it includes during the summer get replaced with butternut squash in the fall.
The more dishes that the R&D team creates, the deeper its understanding of what makes for an ideal Sprig dish—and what can go wrong. "Now we have all this data from the past few years that we can go back to," Entzel says. "Once someone said, 'What if we do a carrot mash?' I said, 'I think we did that before, and we had a problem with it. Can you go back and see if we have notes on that?'"
Sprig's focus on healthy eating impacts its R&D efforts in ways that are sometimes obvious, like its tendency to avoid reflexively dowsing anything in sugar or salt. But the company isn't creating recipes with a single type of healthy eater in mind, which is one reason why it needs to produce them in such large quantities.
"However you define healthy, there should be something in the app for everyone," Entzel says. "How do we make sure that that small woman who wants a very light dish—maybe she's fasting after the holidays—she gets what she needs, and someone who's doing Crossfit and burning all these calories is getting all their calories and also being healthy?"
Part of the answer to that question is a new feature in Sprig's app that divvies dishes into personas: Clean, Balance, and Fuel. Clean dishes such as Chicken Confit Salad with Grilled Onions feature lots of veggies and are 550 calories or less. Balance dishes, including Lemon and Thyme Roasted Chicken with Polenta, aim for a happy medium of calories and protein. And Fuel dishes like Ginger-Tamari Braised Beef with Cauliflower Rice offer the more generous portions and sizable quantities of protein that you might want after a workout.
As Entzel and her fellow chefs are in the kitchen experimenting, you can bet they'll keep these three personas in mind—along with all the other ingredients that add up to an ideal Sprig dish. "A lot of people order us for convenience, but there's this whole aspect of delicious food that you don't feel bad about," she says. "We need to double down on that."