Take tabletop steam oven technology, add smart technology linking the oven to your smartphone and combine all of this with a subscription meal kit business and what do you get? The ‘Netflix of food’, according to a smart-oven startup called Tovala that has just secured an investment from Tyson Foods’ new Tyson Ventures investment arm.

Founded in 2015, Tovala is a vertically-integrated subscription meal kit company offering a complete soup-to-nuts meal experience. The key is a convection steam oven the size of a microwave oven that sits on a countertop.

The oven is a technological wonder as it can bake, broil, convection heat, or steam heat aluminum foil tray packaged meals in between 13 and 20 minutes, depending upon the meal. To use the oven, a consumer must scan a meal’s barcode on their smartphone’s Tovala app. The oven then obtains data from the cloud on how to cook the meal properly and works from there, even switching modes (from bake to steam heat, etc.) when necessary. When finished, the smart oven will send your smartphone a notification.

A Blue Apron killer?

Tovala is a bet that Americans want to spend less time on meal preparation. Meal kit services like Blue Apron sound great, but require too much food preparation time and skill.

Tovala CEO David Rabie has referred to his company as the “Blue Apron killer”. In a recent Washington Post article, Rabie said: “Anyone who has tried Blue Apron and stopped using it is our target customer. The meal kits, they position themselves as convenient, but at the end of the day, a lot of people don’t want to spend 45 minutes cooking.”

Consumers don’t even want to spend that much time eating. According to GlobalData’s Q4 2016 survey, just 30% of Americans said they spend more than 30 minutes on the average weekday eating dinner. Younger consumers are even more rushed. 25% of 18-24 year olds say they spend less than 15 minutes eating dinner on the average weekday.

Tyson’s recent investment is a bet that there is a generation that could care less about cooking. They would rather click a couple of links on a smartphone and be done with it. But that’s not necessarily how Tovala works and this mismatch could sink the entire concept. Cooking the meals is the easy part; ordering them requires more planning and patience.

Meals must be selected by Sunday afternoon so that they may be shipped – not the following week – but the week after that. Tovala meals arrive on the consumer’s doorstep nine to ten days after they are ordered, an eternity to a generation raised on Amazon Prime.

The good news is that meals will stay fresh in their packaging until midnight of the day they are received, great for millennials who cannot retrieve a meal delivery during the work day.  The meals themselves last four to seven days in the refrigerator and should be used within that timetable. Meals can be frozen, but must be fully thawed before cooking.

Clean, lean ingredients – for a price

Tovala’s menu reflects growing interest in ‘clean’ eating. All meals use clean and fresh ingredients of the type your grandmother would recognise. The chicken used in Tovala meals is antibiotic and hormone-free while the beef is grass-fed.

Calorie counts for sample meals on the Tovala website range from 390 for the Cantonese Tofu Stir-Fry meal up to 820 calories for the BBQ Chicken Pasta. Tovala offers single-serving and double-serving meal plans; with the single-serving plan, one chooses three meals and receives one portion of each. The Double Serving plan doubles this amount. Tovala is clearly aimed at singles and smaller households.

But whether those smaller households can afford to fork over $12 on a single meal on a regular basis remains to be seen. Tovala does have a pricing structure that rewards volume purchases, but the entire concept is expensive.

Just the steam oven can be purchased for $399. By doing so, the consumer has no minimum ‘Meal Box’ (one serving of three total meals for $36) purchase requirement. Agreeing to buy a fixed number of meals over time triggers a price discount for the oven.

The ‘Taste of Tovala’ plan discounts the oven to $299 by agreeing to buy a minimum of four Meal Boxes (12 total meals) within six months of the steam oven purchase.  The ‘Dinner is Solved’ plan discounts the steam oven to $199 by agreeing to purchase a minimum of 24 Meal Boxes (72 total meals) within 12 months of the steam oven purchase date.

Tyson’s involvement may help bring these prices down and broaden the target market, but Tovala will have to overcome the kitchen real estate space crunch issue to succeed. Countertop space is often limited, and consumers only have so much room for a microwave oven, Keurig single-cup coffee maker, slow cooker, etc. Is there room for one more?

These space issues tend to be especially pertinent for younger consumers living in small apartments – the presumed target for Tovala. Unless Tyson and Tovala can solve these issues, the smart oven/direct-to-consumer meal kit marriage may end in divorce.