In the arms race to capture the hearts and minds of the epicurean office drones, the trend has been for food-delivery services to continually up the speed-and-convenience ante: gourmet meals delivered to your doorstep ten minutes after a smartphone swipe, or dispensed from a vending machine, or shuttled over from your favorite high-end restaurant by a personal courier.
With most of these services, the underlying assumption seems to be that today's office workers (and tech workers, in particular) simply don't have the time or the inclination to cook for themselves. So it's interesting that Tomato Sherpa, a Berkeley-based company that launched last August, has gone in somewhat of the opposite direction. Instead of delivering pre-cooked meals, Tomato Sherpa creates carefully designed recipe "kits" — meats, vegetables, herbs, and spices divvied up into precise two- or four-serving portions, which are then packed into insulated tote bags designed to keep everything fresh until the customer is ready to cook. Each meat-based recipe kit is priced at $12 per serving, while vegetarian meals cost $10 per serving; subscribers get a slightly discounted rate.
While a handful of other companies (notably, Plated and Blue Apron) provide a similar service nationwide, for now Tomato Sherpa caters strictly to Bay Area customers, with a business model that relies heavily on partnerships with local companies (LinkedIn, Pandora, and URS, to name a few), delivering the recipe kits to customers' workplaces for no additional charge.
In fact, founder Stacey Waldspurger said she's in the process of finalizing an agreement with a benefits brokerage. In other words, a tech company near you might start offering a weekly supply of Tomato Sherpa recipe kits as an employee perk — right alongside one's health care package and 401(k).
Tomato Sherpa sent me a few recipe kits to try out, so on a recent weeknight I set about cooking the "Herbed Rock Cod Roasted Over Root Vegetables," which, like all of the recipes, fit on a single side of an 8.5-by-11-inch page and featured colorful photographs and easy-to-follow instructions. The idea, Waldspurger said, is for the recipes to be simple enough that even a complete novice would be able to prepare them.
As Waldspurger put it, "Part of our mission is education. We believe that the most healthy way to eat is to cook by yourself. We're really teaching people to cook."
What I liked about the kit was how organized the ingredients were — all of the aromatics and herbs (still pristine) in one bag, the potatoes and sunchokes in another, and the fish fillets kept cold in a separate insulated sleeve. And I loved how each ingredient was portioned out exactly right so that everything in the bag was used up. Infrequent cooks won't wind up, for instance, with a half-bunch of parsley that winds up sitting in the fridge for weeks until it rots. According to Waldspurger, portioning ingredients down to each individual serving also allows her to offer premium ingredients — a teaspoon of truffle salt, for instance — without having to overcharge.
Most of all, I was struck by how I really had to cook, down to the five or ten minutes I spent picking thyme leaves off the stalk. This wasn't some "semi-homemade" experience. Few ingredients were pre-prepped, and I got many of the sensory pleasures that I love about cooking — the smell of garlic on my fingers, and of the fresh herbs as they started to roast in the oven.
Of course, depending on your perspective, those advantages might be seen as drawbacks. I did, after all, spend nearly ten minutes picking herbs. For someone who actively dislikes cooking, that's not going to be a selling point. And, as with any recipe, there are opportunities for things to go wrong — as my wife discovered a few days later when the rice for a red-rice soup took much longer than expected to cook. (Likewise, if you're an ambitious home cook who enjoys planning out recipes and making weekly trips to the farmers' market, Tomato Sherpa probably won't appeal — except perhaps for nights when you're really pressed for time.)
Meanwhile, the kits clearly cater to the health-conscious and the sustainability-minded. Waldspurger estimates that about 75 percent of the ingredients are organic, and the meals all weigh in at less than 700 calories per serving.
In some ways, Tomato Sherpa is the other side of the coin to Google's well-known approach: One of the advantages of having a world-class cafeteria is that it's easy for employees to stay at the workplace around the clock. With Tomato Sherpa, the message seems to be, "Here are some healthy, tasty meals for you to cook. Now it's up to you carve out a little bit of time so you can enjoy them with your family."
Indeed, Waldspurger said that while her initial concept focused on the healthiness of Tomato Sherpa's meals, she has found that what repeat customers seem to like the most about the service is the hands-on, community-building aspect.
"What differentiates us is we're providing an experience in addition to a cooked meal," Waldspurger said. "People write in and say that they're making time to cook with their partners now, or involving their kids."