The smartphone has become something of a talisman for just about everything to do with food – cooking, eating, counting calories, finding restaurants, making reservations and getting home safely if you’ve been drinking.
But the future of phone apps is uncertain. As much as we like them for their functionality and convenience, there are questions about whether they are cost-effective for developers, given the upfront investment and the time and cost to retool every time there’s a software update.
At least one developer of some of the best cooking apps, including the eminently user-friendly Joy of Cooking and How To Cook Everything, says his company, Culinate, has slammed the brakes on creating new content.
“Apple, as much as we love them, they are a nightmare because every six months there’s a new device and every 10 to 12 months there’s an update to the system,” said Mark Douglas, co-founder of Portland-based Culinate.
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He said a detailed and multifeatured app like Joy of Cooking – with its built-in timers for each recipe, user-generated grocery lists, the ability to create favorites lists and instantly convert recipes to metric measures – cost $300,000 to develop and another $150,000 worth of updating and tinkering when there’s a major iPhone update.
“We’re not making any new apps. We’re out of the business. It’s too expensive,” Douglas said. “Right now, our sales are pretty stable and, if we manage things well, will continue to be that way.”
What might be most surprising about apps is the price – and the consumer’s attitude toward prices in the digital realm. While the 1,152-page print version of “Joy of Cooking” remains a classic and continues to sell briskly at its $35 list price, the app does not do nearly as well, even though it includes the contents of the book and additional tech features, including a search function, that make it a pleasure to use. And the cost? $7.99.
“We saw the potential for the app to open up content of the book to our readers. The book is overwhelming. We want to make it easier for people to connect the reference material to the recipes,” said Megan Scott, who, with husband John Becker, runs the Joy of Cooking brand, including a website, social media and the updated version of the book due out in 2019.
But many balk at the app’s price, she said.
“That’s part of the problem with digital content. People expect it to be cheap or free,” Scott said.
“There was definitely a time when we were a little frustrated,” added Becker, who is the great-grandson of the late Irma Rombauer, who created the first “Joy of Cooking” in 1931.
While apps tend to be embraced by the younger generation, “I think there are a lot of older folks who have discovered their iPad and have seen how awesome it can be. But there seems to be a reluctance to move to digital in general when it comes to cookbooks.”
Yes, people love, love their cookbooks. Many avid cooks have dozens, even hundreds, and wouldn’t think to bring a shiny digital device into the equation. But more and more, apps are seen as just another tool.
For instance, if you’re at the grocery store and want to buy ingredients for a specific recipe, it’s unlikely you would have “Joy of Cooking” or “Larousse Gastronomique” tucked under your arm. But your phone? You don’t go anywhere without it.
Convenience is what appeals to most of us when it comes to apps. In this age of instant access, we’re used to getting information – in this case, tracking down recipes – whenever we want.
“My son got all excited about making beef chow fun out of the blue. Over at Compton’s Market, we can pull the recipe up, get all the ingredients, go home and watch the video and then start cooking. It’s phenomenal,” said Sonny Mayugba, a Sacramento entrepreneur who is a partner in The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar and founder of a new app called Requested that allows consumers to get restaurant discounts at nonpeak hours.
“If you came to my house, you’d see a hundred paper cookbooks, but I hardly ever use them anymore.”
Mayugba says YouTube, with all of its tutorials, happens to be a great food app. He also uses Allrecipes, a free app with access to 50,000 recipes; and likes Epicurious, which curates the recipes from Bon Appetit magazine; along with the Food Network app, which are also free.
The best apps for cooking are significantly different than e-book versions of cookbooks. They tend to give the user more control to personalize the content. For instance, the “Joy of Cooking” has hundreds of recipes, but you might use 10 of them for 90 percent of your cooking. Instead of searching every time – or placing numerous Post-It notes in your printed and bound version – you can create a list of your favorites available in a separate file on the app.
More and more, home cooks are getting information wherever they can. Nate Simon, a physician and accomplished home cook, uses books, e-books, websites and apps. His biggest issue is finding authoritative sources. A simple Google search, for instance, can bring up information from renowned Michelin-starred chefs and misinformed amateurs alike. Books, apps and respected websites tend to have high standards.
His most used e-book is also the most expensive, the “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” which costs $105 in hardcover and a bit less in digital format. In addition to the text of the print edition, the e-book includes features like video tutorials, hyperlinks and the ability to scale recipes.
He’s also a fan of Ratio, a $4.99 app from cookbook author and blogger Michael Ruhlman.
“It’s beautiful because it gives you tried-and-true formulas for a lot of cooking techniques and you can scale recipes,” Simon said. “You can enter the amount of an ingredient that you have and it will scale the recipe for you. Of course, you have to have a digital scale – which everybody should have.”
For eating out, which he does often, Simon uses Yelp, as does Mayugba, especially when out of town.
“A lot of people don’t like Yelp, but I travel a lot and I use it,” Mayugba said. “It’s not even the ratings. It’s more about the directory.”
Whether he’s in the kitchen at home or thinking about dining at a restaurant, Simon says his phone is always at the ready to make life more convenient. The OpenTable app, for instance, “allows me to make a reservation on the fly.” The free app tends to focus on fine dining. Users look up where they want go, pick a time, see if there’s a table and make a reservation.
“When I show up at a restaurant, I don’t have to hear that it will be a 45-minute wait for a table,” Simon said.
Here are some suggestions for food apps:
Joy of Cooking, $7.99: With the information of the esteemed printed book, along with easy-to-use digital features like recipe timers, searches, grocery lists and a favorites list, this is a near-perfect app. The only surprise is that some people balk at the price. For what it offers, it’s a steal.
Ratio, $4.99: Based on the best-selling book of the same name, the app has a profound premise – understanding ratios of ingredients will “free yourself from recipes.” There are 32 key ratios for everything from doughs to sauces.
Forks Over Knives, $4.99: If you’re looking for healthy cooking options, this is among the best apps going. All of the recipes are plant-based, nutritious and tasty. There are new recipes added regularly at no extra charge. The only downside is the recipes tend to be complex and time-consuming.
Epicurious, free: If you’re going to dip your toe into the world of food apps, this is the place to start. With scores of recipes in numerous categories, you could cook every day for the rest of your life with this app and never make the same meal twice.
Whole Foods Market, free: The app sometimes promotes products available at Whole Foods, but the recipes are diverse and of high quality. Just browsing the app will get you thinking about cooking new and exciting dishes.
Siri, comes with the iPhone: Yes, Siri can do more than tell you the population of Rio de Janeiro (6.5 million). If you’re cooking, tell Siri to “set my timer for...” and you won’t overcook that pot roast.
Yelp, free: Love it or loathe it, you have to use it if you want to find addresses, hours, and, if you’re out of town, a quick take on what people think about a restaurant.
OpenTable, free: This is for restaurants that take reservations. Sure, you can pick up your phone and call, but who does that anymore? Select a place, pick a time and, if there’s a table, it’s yours.
Requested, free: Based in Sacramento, this app is up and running at 80 restaurants here and in Baton Rouge, La. More cities are coming. The idea benefits both sides of the dining equation. Customers can get discounts on meals during off-peak hours; restaurants fill seats that would otherwise be empty. Requested’s Sonny Mayugba says focus groups show that the top use for the app is to not necessarily for the bargains but to discover new dining options.
Uber, free: Whether you’ve been out drinking or simply don’t want to bother looking for parking, Uber makes your life easier. Use your phone to find a ride and see when the car is near your location. Just don’t try to use it in China!
Lyft, free: It’s like Uber but with a pink mustache stuck to the front of the vehicle.
Postmates, free: Food and restaurant delivery at your fingertips. Many popular restaurants are participating.