Why you should care
Because maybe there’s a better way to get your veggies.
Tri Tran will never forget the stench of puke that filled the belly of the fishing boat. Or the feeling of elation when he saw trash floating in the water — it meant he was near land. Tran, then 11 years old, along with his brother and grandmother and a hundred or so others, was nearing the shores of Indonesia six days after escaping from his homeland of Vietnam. Tran would later find out his parents didn’t board the vessel in a different group, as he had thought, but had stayed in Vietnam. He would never see his mother again.
I meet Tran a long way from the Indonesian refugee camp where he lived after landing. Now in an industrial area of San Francisco’s trendy Mission District, he’s all smiles. Small wonder — venture capitalists reportedly value Munchery, the meal-delivery company he co-founded only a few years ago, at $300 million. (Munchery says that figure is inaccurate but declined to give an accurate one.)
With a decades-long background as an engineer, Tran brings more than a pinch of experience in tech to the table. It’s a good thing, given that Munchery is pretty much a massive restaurant that’s been re-engineered specifically for delivery orders. So instead of you traipsing to the grocery store and cooking for yourself (God forbid) or ordering greasy takeout, Tran — who admittedly isn’t much of a cook or foodie himself — wants you to order gourmet dishes, whipped up by Munchery chefs, that start at $10 excluding delivery. Of course, the startup launched in San Francisco, where even dinner isn’t safe from “disruption.” It eventually expanded to New York City, Seattle and, most recently, Los Angeles.
Munchery is doing its best to stand out from the crowd, although Tran looks like he could work at any other Silicon Valley startup. He sports a fitted, dull gray patterned shirt that’s tucked into blue jeans, and a pair of worn sneakers. He has a jovial and childlike smile, but a streak of gray through his hair hints at his 40 years. He brings lunch — from Munchery, natch — to the interview but doesn’t touch it. The dish of salmon and broccolini sits on the table like a prop as Tran explains how millions will be eating a variation of the meal cooling before us.
The big question is whether Munchery can be a standout dish on a menu crowded with food startups.
Here’s how he does it. Munchery chefs cook a massive amount of food every day and then cool it in a way that maintains freshness, says Tran. That means Munchery can make more food, of greater variety, and hold on to it a bit longer. But meals you need to nuke are still more convenient than shopping and cooking from scratch, Tran says — and arguably cheaper, too. Munchery’s meals used to cost $25 apiece, but bulk buying and new equipment, like a $50,000 oven that can serve up 500 salmon at once, have cut prices by more than half for some meals.
The big question is whether Munchery can be a standout dish on a menu crowded with food startups like Instacart, Sprig, Spoonrocket, Blue Apron and GrubHub. Overall, the sector is looking increasingly risky as investors shovel cash into companies at extraordinarily high valuations, says Robyn Metcalfe, director of the Food Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a really unstable base but a lot of opportunity,” she says. But partisans such as Pravin Vazirani, a managing director at Munchery investor Menlo Ventures, believe that first-time CEOs like Tran are more likely to succeed in consumer-facing industries such as food because of their fresh perspective.
An admittedly delicious mushroom risotto with asparagus and a side of roasted tomato soup costs about $20 after everything is said and done, which Tran admits is still too high for many families every night of the week, even with just the cheapest food. Nightly dinner for one person at Munchery would cost almost $300 more than the entire monthly food budget for a parent and a child living in San Francisco (and that’s breakfast, lunch and dinner), as calculated by the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s an even bigger step up from Tran’s childhood diet. Even white rice was a luxury in Ba Ria, a town some 50 miles from what is now Ho Chi Minh City along the southern coast of Vietnam. When Tran first arrived in San Jose, California, speaking only a few words of English, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Popular, at least among his peers. With teachers for parents, Tran was always a bookworm, and thus more comfortable burying his head in schoolwork than navigating American social mores.
To Tran’s own amazement, he’d soon drawn even in advanced literature and excelled in science, which is why MIT picked him up. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering, Tran made his way to the legendary company Silicon Graphics, which provided the hardware for Pixar’s early animated films. As a technology officer in other companies, Tran was always playing with ideas for his own business. While struggling to find time to make dinner for his family, he came up with the idea that spawned Munchery. The food-delivery market isn’t a bad place to be — the industry has received some $800 million in funding so far in 2015, up from $182 million the year before, according to Crunchbase. In other words: Tran is striking while the iron’s hot.
An earlier version of this story failed to note that Munchery says its reported valuation is “inaccurate.”