FOOD AND TECH

Austin’s Snap Kitchen looks to stay ‘craveable’ as it pushes meal business into new digital realms 

Posted February 6th, 2017

David Kirchhoff, chief executive officer of Austin’s Snap Kitchen, has a voice that booms confidently when he talks about the company he’s been leading since 2015. 

The company’s meals, he says, are “legitimately craveable” and “weirdly good for you.” The company’s presence in Austin and its other Texas markets are currently “on fire.” And a new team of employees brought on to beef up Snap Kitchen’s app and online efforts is a “really sharp, fast-moving team, and they just do beautiful work.”

Kirchhoff, who in his 14 years at Weight Watchers led that company’s move to the web, is passionate and knowledgeable about what goes on at Snap Kitchen and where the company is headed next.

But he’s not omnipotent. Even Kirchhoff can be surprised by what Snap Kitchen is working on, as in a recent interview when it was revealed that a hackathon project yielded a Snap Kitchen skill for Amazon’s popular Amazon Echo device.

“Alexa?” he asked, referring to the name used to activate the Echo’s voice assistant. “I didn’t even know about this.” 

The “no-bosses allowed without bringing pizza” hackathon is just one of multiple efforts from a digital-focused team that has been revamping the company’s iOS app, web presence and emerging delivery service.

Rather than outsourcing the work to a digital design firm, Snap Kitchen has put together a 15-person digital and software development team led by Live Nation veteran Jon Carter and CTO Scott Brittain that includes eight engineers. Kirchhoff says it’s allowing the company to more speedily ramp up projects such as curated meal plans and more eye-catching photos and ingredient lists.

“When I came to Snap, I was a little bit worried,” Kirchhoff said. “The company didn’t have much in the way of a technology orientation.”

Snap Kitchen, he said, had great recipes that happen to be healthy, but was not in line with a growing trend of delivery-focused meal companies emerging such as Blue Apron, Sprig and Munchery. “It’s zero-friction living,” he said. “A lot of tech companies sort of upped the ante on the convenience dimension.”

App-based food delivery services and meal kit companies  have been booming in towns including Austin with the arrival of everything from UberEATS and Favor in recent years to the push to make grocery and restaurant delivery a less-expensive proposition for customers. In a Morgan Stanley research report published last summer, it was clear to see why: the financial firm projects “the total U.S. food delivery market could grow to as much as $210 billion over the long term, from around $11 billion today.”

That is if these companies can make food delivery as easy (or “zero-friction,” to use Kirchhoff’s term) as ordering pizza, what Morgan Stanley playfully calls, “The Pizza Paradigm.”

Delivery, pickup and AI

Snap Kitchen started in 2010 with a location at The Triangle development in Austin and has since expanded to 44 locations in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Chicago and its newest market, Philadelphia.

ContributedA screenshot of Snap Kitchen's app, which provides detailed nutrition and ingredient information for all of its offerings. The company is making a big push into expanding its digital offerings and expanding its delivery options.

The company has begun offering delivery from all seven of its Chicago stores and has begun delivery in Austin from its Triangle and Clarksville (W. 6th Street) locations. The plan is to extend the four-mile range of those delivery locations and to go citywide to all six Austin Snap Kitchen locations by early March.

For Houston and Dallas, Snap Kitchen will partner with Austin-based Favor, for food delivery, and will continue to offer to sell meals through services such as UberEATS, Amazon Prime Now and Instacart.

But the company’s iOS app and mobile-friendly website (which is what Android users access instead of a dedicated app) is also enhancing the pickup experience. Customers are now able to see what items are out of stock at specific locations, such as Snap Kitchen’s popular Bison Quinoa Hash. Nutritional information for food is detailed and separated by meal size. And new options will allow adherents to certain diets such as Paleo and Whole30 to plan their eating using playlists not unlike curated music lists on the streaming service Spotify.

Sushma Patel Zoellner, director of digital products at Snap Kitchen, said, “We really tried to take an omnichannel approach to our app.” The app works whether you’re looking to pick up a meal, have it delivered, or you want to get an update on Snap Funds, the company’s loyalty program.

Customers can easily find out whether Snap Kitchen food is gluten-free, how many calories something contains or whether there are any allergens to worry about.

“We made it more visually appealing. All the images are photographed in-house. We really took a lot of care with that,” Zoellner said.

The app and delivery options aren’t intended to replace the retail locations or an in-person experience. Kirchhoff says that Amazon’s move to a plan for thousands of retail locations and Wal-Mart’s purchase of Jet.com signals a strong future for brick-and-mortar stores. He says all Snap Kitchen locations will serve as distribution centers. A meal-serving “pod” trailer is also scheduled to debut on Third Street and Congress Avenue in Austin this month. 

In addition to a visual branding makeover that began last year and continues to evolve, the team is working on ways to use artificial intelligence (including Amazon’s Alexa) not only to help customers more easily order meals, but to get nutritional information and lifestyle support. 

For those who count calories or steps, Snap Kitchen will be able to integrate health data from Fitbit devices to help better customize meal plans, a kind of digital coach for healthy eaters. In that way, Snap Kitchen is looking to be not only a retail food distributor, but a fitness and lifestyle brand.

Last year, the company sold 5 million meals and had raised $50 million in funding. The company does not disclose additional financial information.

Kirchhoff says bringing on a digital team, which brings the company’s total number of employees to about 750, with about 70 at its Austin headquarters, was partly inspired by the success of companies including Starbucks, Dominos and Panera Bread, who have had success with well-designed apps and services built by in-house staff. The team includes veterans from Austin companies such as HomeAway, RetailMeNot and Frog Design.

It’s not an accident that Kirchhoff is betting on Austin-bred talent to propel the company forward. He says Austin is becoming a hub for food startups and that he hopes Snap Kitchen will sit at the intersection of several industry trends.

“It’s all convening in one place,” he said. “We’re a great example of what this city is producing in terms of innovation.”

 

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