Tovala cooking device seeks to provide fresh, healthy meals in minutes

By Emily Scott

About two years ago, David Rabie was having a normal day in his kitchen when he had an idea.

It started with a problem. As a student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Rabie found that he no longer had the time or energy to make his own meals anymore. But he was used to eating healthy and controlling what he ate.

As he used his digital steamer, an appliance that can cook several items at once, he thought about how it might work better. What if there was an appliance that could cook multiple items at once, with multiple cooking functionalities, and that produced high-quality, healthy food in a short amount of time?

Today, this idea that started in Rabie’s kitchen has turned into a product that he hopes will one day be in every home kitchen. It’s called Tovala, a “smart” kitchen appliance that cooks pre-made, fresh meals prepared by a companion food service. The creators aim to appeal to young professionals who want a healthy meal, but are not willing to sacrifice convenience or quality.

Tovala has evolved into a startup company, based out of Chicago and Champaign, that recently received $500,000 in seed funding and launched a Kickstarter campaign on March 8. They also recently began participating in Y Combinator, an early-stage startup fund.

But before it was Tovala, the company was called Maestro. Rabie and his team entered Maestro into the 2015 New Venture Challenge at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and won. Rabie said the win gave him momentum to start to build out the company and make contacts. One of these contacts, introduced to him by a mutual friend, was Bryan Wilcox, a University alumnus who earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

Wilcox, who owns a product development firm in Urbana, brought to the company the technical engineering skills that Rabie had been looking for.

“We found that we shared a lot of the same values, same work ethic, same aspirations,” Rabie said.

Then, in September 2015, Wilcox and Rabie hired their first employee, Peter Fiflis, a graduate student in nuclear engineering at the University. Fiflis had previously been working on an idea similar to Maestro, so he said the transition to become their lead engineer was seamless.

“I’ve been at development every step of the way, which has been pretty fun,” Fiflis said.

But a name change was in order for a variety of reasons—one of which was differentiating themselves from other companies with similar names. They went with Tovala, a play on the Italian word for table, “tavola,” and the Hebrew word for good, “tov.”

“We love the idea of people sitting around a table, enjoying these meals with their family,” Rabie said.

From there, it was a matter of making a working device and convincing investors that they had a valid idea.

“It’s a novel enough idea that people are skeptical at first . . . to an investor it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting idea, but I’ve never heard of that before,’” Fiflis said. “Whereas you talk to somebody who’s in our target market, and they’re like, ‘I want one right now.’”

The device is meant to be used with the provided pre-made, fresh meals that range from $10 to $15 each and are delivered through a subscription service. Users scan a barcode on the meals and the device automatically detects how they should be cooked. The meals are then ready in 15 to 30 minutes.

The device can be controlled with a smartphone app that allows the user to regulate each individual heating element, something that Fiflis said makes Tovala fit into the landscape of the “smart” kitchen.

“We’re kind of bridging that gap between novelty and actually being functional,” Fiflis said. “So it’s not just a gimmick that you have in your kitchen, it’s a fully-functioning, really cool device that is able to do a lot of stuff as well.”

According to Fiflis, Tovala is different from other smart cookers because it can cook a variety of foods at the push of a button.

“People have described us as the Keurig for food. I would say that it’s a little bit of a misnomer, but the idea is that we’re trying to bring you a device that can cook you really high-quality meals in your own home,” he said.

The meals — which include entrees such as ginger pork and chicken farrotto — are designed by chefs, prepared in Tovala’s kitchens and then shipped directly to the customer.

Additionally, the team wants to make it so home chefs can put their own spin on meals they make with the device. They plan to make it so users can submit their own recipes and possibly have them redistributed at a large scale, then get paid royalties for their idea.

The idea, which primarily was Wilcox’s, came from his interest in helping people connect through food. He said he was inspired by a comment that his friend George Emmert once made while making dinner: “We should spend more time feeding one another. I think it would make the world a better place.”

“I agree with him,” Wilcox said. “We’re going to make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to create and share recipes that work with the Tovala smart-oven.” 

The team launched a beta program with 25 functioning units, which Rabie said has been successful and has allowed them to get feedback from customers.

Though Tovala is still in its early stages, Rabie said assistance from several people and a strong vision have made the company successful so far.

“People in the startup community are very, very generous,” Rabie said. “We’ve probably had multiple hundreds of people play some role in where we are today . . . We feel like, between Chicago and Champaign, there are a lot of those people that are, if not financially invested, emotionally invested in our success.”

The team is currently working to produce a market-ready product that they hope to launch by the end of 2016. Until then, Rabie hopes they make the progress that will help them achieve Tovala’s ultimate goal.

“In five years, I hope we’ve changed the way people eat, to be honest. I hope we’ve made it easier for people to eat better,” he said. “When I say easier, I mean less time, less hassle, less work; and when I say better, I mean more delicious, fresher and healthier.”

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