At a loft in Manhattan’s Financial District, a deep cut from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky plays softly on the Jambox while programmers and UX specialists bang away at a table lined with glowing MacBooks. There’s a business-ops guy and a customer-ops guy huddling in the corner, and a slick publicist quietly taking notes as I ask a chef a few questions. “Terrified,” says the chef of her restaurant’s imminent launch. If the Silicon Valley extras call before us doesn’t hint at it already, this is not your typical restaurant opening.
In the year 2015, one that has seen an unprecedented flood of mobile applications and web-based tools geared toward helping people eat better (also: cheaper, faster, Heat Map-ier), Maple is one the most funded (a $22 million Series A round was announced in March, on the heels of a $4 million seed round in the fall) of them all. Also one of the most secretive.
But after meeting with the company’s easygoing cofounder Caleb Merkl and executive chef Soa Davies, more is finally known about the ambitious food-delivery concept that promises to bring a restaurant-quality meal to your doorstep for $12 to $15 (tax and delivery included) in under 30 minutes. Yowzahs. Maple, which launches today, will feature seasonal, zeitgeist-tapping cooking that is ostensibly approved by the company’s bold-faced backer — a notorious perfectionist and QA-obsessed guy named David Chang. Soggy quesadillas? No bueno.
“His initial response was, ‘This sounds insane, but by the way, I like things that are insane,’” says Merkl of his initial pitch to Chang. The Momofuku boss, who is described as Maple’s chief culinary officer, would later introduce the cofounders to Davies, a seasoned culinary pro who most recently served for six years as head of menu development and research for Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. Chang would also line up a board of directors including NYC chefs Brooks Headley, Mark Ladner and Dan Kluger. “We had no idea what Chang was going to say, but we got pretty lucky in that he’s thinking a lot about where food is going outside the restaurant right now, so it lined up with stuff that he’s curious about,” says Merkl.
The key distinction between Maple and other delivery companies, like Seamless, Caviar and Served by Stadium (the “insane” factor that interested Chang early on), is that instead of relying on restaurant partners to prepare the food — those typically serving as a middleman or glorified messenger service — the startup controls every aspect of the process: menu planning, sourcing, cooking and, finally, the delivery using specially designed insulated containers made specifically for the dish. Similar services like Savory and Munchery have launched with modest, but growing, success. But none with quite the culinary ammo of Maple. As of today, only three meals are offered for lunch and three for dinner, and delivery is promised in under the running time of an Iron Chef episode.
During a brief demo of the app, the founders showed me how they intend Maple’s ordering process to be as “frictionless” as possible. The app loads to reveal splashy photos of baked arctic char with green-olive relish and Bon Appétit cover-worthy roasted chicken. Meals, which are broken into ingredients and will often be dairy or gluten-free, can be added to a cart and checked out with a click. The final “sale” sets in motion the container of roasted fennel and broccoli rabe speeding toward your home address.
Merkl and Davies both openly admit that the operation is starting very small, launching today in the Financial District only, below Chambers Street, and a five-minute bike ride from their kitchen in the neighborhood. The company relies on a hub-and-spoke model, with a central commissary kitchen located in East Williamsburg supporting the small neighborhood kitchens (there is only one confirmed now). While the partners would not provide specific expansion plans, they did assert that the company can scale quickly, and they hope to launch in more neighborhoods in both Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“Being everywhere isn’t going to cost us as much, because the brick-and-mortar part will be much more streamlined,” says Davies, smiling, of avoiding the NYC commercial real estate hustle. Merkl adds that the company’s model eliminates the need to worry about who is physically sitting in a restaurant and training servers. “So we can spend more attention on food and food costs,” he says before taking a bite of green chili enchilada with a radish and lime salad that was presented with a burst of steam from a small container emblazoned with the company’s trademark yellow — Pantone 106U 70 percent, to be exact.
A deliveryman, one of the company’s 71 current employees, had arrived five minutes earlier with tidy boxes holding our lunch. There are roasted potatoes (perfectly seasoned) and sautéed spinach to go with a very good lemon rosemary chicken. While a piece of baked arctic char did not change my opinion about never ordering cooked fish for delivery unless required by religion or health fanaticism (it was very dry), the excellent enchilada did restore faith that Mexican food can indeed travel past the taqueria parking lot.
Maple’s impressive funding round, overall simplicity and us-vs.-them disruptor ethic reminds a bit of home-cooking delivery service Blue Apron, which sends whole ingredients for three meals to your doorstep each day. It’s no coincidence. Apron’s founder and CEO Matt Salzberg is a Maple investor.
“We want to make it so that people trust us to handle their seafood, because so many people are afraid to order fish and seafood for delivery,” says Davies. “And that’s what makes us different — the delivery methods, the packaging, all those details.” She then lists a number of local farms she’s working with and tells a story about sourcing 300 gallons of Portuguese olive oil. (“Not as easy as you might think.”) If Maple is to succeed in a very crowded market, it’s paying close attention to these details, which will set the startup apart. And hoping this golden era of television we’re currently living in doesn’t stop.
“Honestly, my ideal Friday night with my wife is staying in, watching House of Cards and ordering in,” admits Merkl. “But the ordering in almost never turns out well.”