In Munchery’s main production kitchen — a space in San Francisco’s Mission District that the company is rapidly outgrowing — a group of cooks are gathered near the entrance, quietly chatting among themselves as they portion sauces into little clear plastic containers familiar to anyone who has ever requested "dressing on the side" when they’ve ordered takeout. Each sauce is just one component in one meal destined for a Bay Area diner opting out of cooking dinner.
Munchery was founded in 2010 with a basic idea — allowing users to order meals online as many as 10 days in advance, then delivering them right to customers' doors, ready to heat and eat. Today, the brand has amassed $117.2 million in investor funds and operates in 12 states and Washington, DC. Robert Cubberly, Munchery's culinary head, notes a fundamental shift that’s taken place as the company has grown: Where once there were multiple chefs creating different menu items and overseeing the production, it’s now more unified.
In SF, Munchery operates out of one central kitchen, where it takes 80 employees to make the meals.
"It really didn't become scalable," he says of the original concept. "We broke the kitchen down into hot line stations, cold line stations, plating stations, to get more efficiencies… [We operate as] one big restaurant kitchen instead of five little restaurant kitchens. With less labor, we could do more work and get more consistency." Efficiency is at the heart of Munchery's promise (and the promise of other services like it): The idea that by pre-ordering dinner through its website or app (and by getting your meals from a food company that's "also a tech company"), your life will be easier, happier, and more productive.
Today, Munchery customers can also order food "on-demand," which functions more like standard restaurant delivery (the cut-off time is 8:30 p.m.). New customers must become members, with either a $8.95 monthly fee or an $85 yearly fee. Menu options vary by location, but generally skew towards the simple, looking a bit more like what a typical city-dweller could conceivably cook for herself than what a restaurant might offer.
"A great dish to ‘Muncherize’ is a dish that’s simple, that’s easy for the customer to reheat and maintain the same integrity you’d have in a restaurant dish," says Steven Levine, Munchery's R&D chef. Even with past order data, the service routinely sells out of dishes like grain bowls, steamed salmon, and chicken dishes.
In San Francisco, where the company got its start, it takes some 80 kitchen employees to make tens of thousands of meals daily — that number creeps up to 100 when including the workers assembling cooking kits. While there is some proprietary technology in Munchery's ordering, fulfillment, and recipe organization systems, getting a meal from the kitchen to the diner's table is by and large a human endeavor — utilizing human cooks (full-time employees with benefits, no doubt contributing to San Francisco's restaurant cook shortage), drivers, and bike couriers (also on staff). The commissary is open for nearly 24 hours a day (5:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week besides holidays), and not surprisingly, the company is actively transitioning production to a much larger facility in South San Francisco, leaving the Mission space free for more R&D work.
Below, the two-day process of making (and delivering) a popular dish on the San Francisco menu, Argentinian steak and papas bravas, from start to finish:
Levine explains that a Munchery recipe, most of all, needs to take into account the fact that customers will reheat the dish at a later time. "We have to reverse engineer it so that the meat gets cooked a little bit less, the fish gets cooked a little bit less, the vegetables get cooked a little bit less [so] they withstand those last 10 minutes in the oven" or quick zap in the microwave. There are some dishes that might never be "Muncherized," he says wistfully. (He's had no luck yet with scallops, which in his experience just wind up rubbery.)
Another major component of a Munchery recipe is that the individual components are multi-taskers. The salsa that's served as an accompaniment to the steak and papas bravas might well be used for a fish dish later down the road: The idea is not to constantly invent new recipes (or "formulas," as the Munchery crew sometimes calls them) for every new menu item. The team conducts tastings nearly every day, checking in on new dishes and spot-checking current dishes on the menu.
"We have to reverse engineer it so the meals withstand the last 10 minutes in the oven."
"Plating" is a group effort, assembly-line style — about 40 percent of the kitchen staff is dedicated to packing, roughly equal to the number of cooks. Munchery's volume, while impressive, still doesn't reach the number needed that would necessitate a machine for tasks like filling two-ounce plastic containers with sauce. Final plating generally happens in the evening, and then the finished meals are taken to the fulfillment center the following day for delivery.
The Fulfillment Center
At the Utah Street fulfillment center, a large refrigerated room serves as a combination storage facility/staging zone, and here, employees are tasked with assembling the individual orders. (It's one of four such centers in San Francisco.) In the morning, a truck drives the meals from the kitchen to the fulfillment center (these meals were, for the most part, assembled the night before). Orders are printed on stickers affixed to paper bags along with a scannable code that displays the orders on smartphones strapped to employee's wrist, providing an additional check to make sure the order is correct. (The scanning system is proprietary.) Eventually, Munchery wants to have enough space to house both the fulfillment center and kitchen under one roof, eliminating the need to drive the meals from point A to point B.
Meals processed through the Utah Street fulfillment center are only handed off to Munchery's team of 300 drivers, but on Sansome Street in downtown San Francisco, there's a center dedicated to putting orders together and sending them out by bike — there are roughly 40 cyclists on staff. Like the other fulfillment center employees, the bike couriers have scanners on their smartphones — scanning the order when they receive it (and noting when they drop it off) is a built-in check to make sure the right orders are being taken to right customer.