Bob Shallit

Bay Area meal delivery firm moves into Sacramento market

Munchery entrees, like this steak dish, typically cost between $8 and $12.
Munchery entrees, like this steak dish, typically cost between $8 and $12. Munchery

Bay Area-based Munchery is making its debut in Sacramento next week, bringing a new twist to the growing business of delivering prepared meals to people’s doors.

Unlike many of its competitors, the 5-year-old venture-backed company drops off entrees and side dishes that have been precooked by Munchery’s chefs, then quickly chilled, so customers can reheat them when they’re ready to eat.

The result: Food that tastes “exactly as the chefs intended,” said Tri Tran, Munchery’s 41-year-old co-founder and CEO.

In contrast, he said, food that is prepared off site and then delivered hot to customers ends up being overcooked and dry. “Bad things happen,” he said.

Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, started the business with partner Conrad Chu on what Tran called a “personal impetus.”

He was working long hours as a software engineer in the Bay Area and doing all the cooking for himself, his wife and their two kids.

“At the end of each day, we’d text each other and say, ‘What’s for dinner?’ 

“I felt a lot of pressure” to make wholesome meals in a relatively short time, he said.

That led to the creation of a business that had Tran contracting with chefs, then personally delivering meals – costing as much as $25 – to a small group of customers.

“Who can afford that? I can’t,” Tran said of the early model.

That eventually led to the current structure, with cooking done by experienced chefs in a large industrial kitchen, the food being quickly chilled to 38 degrees and then delivered by Munchery employees in cars equipped with coolers. The costs: Between $8 and $12 for fresh-food entrees that change each day and range from flank steak tostadas to buttermilk fried chicken, spring pea lasagnette and lamb with root vegetables.

The company also provides side dishes, desserts, kid’s meals, and even beer and wine. Also available are meal kits, similar to those offered by fast-growing Blue Apron, that provide customers with all the ingredients and sauces to make a quick meal.

“It takes you only about 15 minutes to cook it,” Tran said of the kits, adding that lots of people like to make meals but don’t want to spend an hour or more going to a grocery store, chopping up ingredients and cooking them.

Backed with $117 million from investors including Menlo Ventures, Munchery first expanded into Seattle, then New York, and last May into Southern California.

Local service – which starts Tuesday in select neighborhoods in Sacramento, Fair Oaks, Orangevale, Carmichael, Rancho Cordova and Folsom – is the first expansion since then. The food for the Sacramento-area dinners-only operation will be prepared in South San Francisco and transported here in refrigerated trucks.

Local staff then will make deliveries to people who have made orders – through a mobile app or on the company’s website, – before 10 a.m. that day.

One drawback of the new operation: deliveries will be made during two-hour windows – 3 to 5 p.m. or 4 to 6 p.m.. Not exactly ideal for working couples who may not be home at those times.

Tran’s imperfect solution is an option to drop off food in coolers left out by customers.

There also are some added charges for the service. After a free 30-day trial, customers need to pay a membership fee of $8.95 a month or $85 for a year. And the company charges a $2.95 delivery fee on every order.

But Tran said the prices still are low enough to meet the company mission of making “real food accessible to everyone anywhere.”

For example, he said Munchery sells a chicken pesto pasta dish for $7.95.

“If you were to go to your neighborhood Italian restaurant, it would cost $14 or $15,” he said.

Or, he said, the company offers a char-grilled Atlantic salmon dish for about $10.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said of the price, adding that the company keeps costs down by controlling virtually every step of the food delivery system, from procurement of raw ingredients, to cooking and shipping.

“That,” he said of the firm’s vertical integration, “is the power of Munchery.”