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Q & A with Maple’s Founder Caleb Merkl

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Delivered meals, according to the Restaurant Marketing and Delivery Association, account for a sizeable 7% share of American food spending, with 26% of consumers ordering takeout at least once a week.  Which is why, in just the last year or so, highly innovative young companies have flooded the once stagnant space, hoping to push the boundaries of food delivery well beyond cheap and greasy pepperoni pizza and chicken chow fun.  And chief amongst them is Maple, partially financed by none other than Momofuku’s David Chang.  Instead of merely acting as conduit between restaurants and patrons, the game-changing service actually makes, packages, and delivers their very own meals, prepared by Soa Davies, the longtime menu developer at Le Bernardin. 

“I’ve always cared about what I eat, but had a problem finding something that felt balanced, didn’t cost a fortune, arrived in a reliable window and was presented in a state that made me excited to eat; all problems that plague food delivery,” explains Maple co-founder, Caleb Merkl, of his decision to enter the takeout arena.  “We’re building a business from the ground up with the goal of making delivery exceptional at every touch point.  We’re setting out to build a brand people trust, serve food people love and layer in a consistent experience for them to depend on.”

We also spoke with Merkl about Maple’s process for developing dishes that stand up to delivery, the company’s relationship with food luminaries, like Brooks Headley, Mark Ladner, Dan Kluger and of course, David Chang, and how subscribers can receive a restaurant quality meal, with just a simple press of a button.

How did you and your partner, Akshay Navle, meet?
Primary Venture Partners was kind enough to let me join the firm as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence in early 2014.  Akshay, Maple’s co-founder and COO, was a Venture Partner there, and on track to become a full-time venture capitalist.  Slowly but surely, I convinced him that the idea of Maple was too exciting to pass up on.  We we’re also very lucky to have Will Gaybrick of Thrive Capital involved from the earliest of days.  Akshay and I started working out of my apartment and out of Thrive’s offices in June 2014 and were able to launch Maple publicly in April 2015.

There’s been an explosion of innovation within the food delivery world recently; why do you think that is?
We’ve been going through an almost decade-long wave of innovation fueled by technology advances, leaving no industry untouched.  Some industries were affected earlier than others and I think we’re just seeing the start of this sort of innovation in the food space. The way consumers transact and the opportunities for innovation change pretty dramatically when everyone has constant, cheap access to the internet and a super-computer in their pocket.

Can you talk about your concept for Maple and how it works?
The premise behind Maple was to build a company with the singular focus of making food delivery exceptional in all the ways that it currently isn’t.  It’s a very complex set of problems to solve, but consumers mainly care about simplicity.  Our menu rotates daily and currently features three options for lunch and three options for dinner.  You order in a few taps and a balanced meal, made from the highest quality ingredients, arrives freshly made and piping hot at your door in under 30 minutes.  We’re eliminating the overwhelming choice that typically comes with ordering food and instead focusing on thoughtfully executing a few dishes for accessible prices – $12 for lunch and $15 for dinner, tax, tip and delivery included.

How does it differ from other services on the market right now?
We felt strongly that the only way to really solve the problem was to own the entire process all the way from ingredient sourcing and menu development to delivery.  A lot of businesses across industries look similar on the surface, but it’s the guts of a business – what it invests in and how it prioritizes the needs of it’s customers – that set it apart and that allow it to build defensibly and enjoy margin over the long haul.  We’re building a company with depth and we’re unwavering in our focus on food and experience.

You’re a self-described full-stack restaurant concept.  What does this mean, exactly? 
We own every single step in the process.  We aren’t operating our own farms (yet), but we believe really that if you want to build a company where every step of the process is executed well, you have to have control each of those steps.  This means sourcing our own ingredients, developing our own menu items, cooking our own meals, building our own technology and owning delivery operations.

How have you streamlined and optimized the Maple experience on every level, to provide healthy, affordable, consistent, fast, and above all, tasty food?
There’s something great about the opportunity to build a company from the ground up.   We’ve got a lot of processes that are similar to other companies in the food space, but we’ve also been given the opportunity to rethink everything we do.  Having that blank slate really allows for innovation to flourish.  Technology is a huge part of our business.  For customers, this plays itself out most directly with our routing algorithms and dispatching technology that gets smarter with every order, while still delivering food in 30 minutes or less.  We’re strategically placing our kitchens in areas that allow us to keep a very tight delivery zone and minimize the time from oven to your table.  More broadly, we’re building almost everything we use – from vendor and inventory management software to process flow technology – entirely from scratch.

What are the specific challenges inherent in designing meals that will hold up to being shoved in boxes and shuttled throughout the city, and how have you gone about addressing them?
It’s really simple from the customer’s perspective, but incredibly complex when you pull back the curtain.  We’re building a supply chain from field to a customer’s table that simply hasn’t been done before.  There’s no silver bullet in delivering food well, but rather a whole host of elements that we have to continuously be considering and refining.  This starts with the ingredients we source and the recipes we develop.  It includes efforts from our R&D team as well as our QA process.  We’re still learning and we’ve still got a lot to improve on, but dishes are tested extensively before ever leaving the kitchen.  This means evaluating how food travels (what can withstand bikes traveling over cobblestone streets) and how different ingredients interact and change with temperature over time.  We looked at over 200 different types of packaging and continue to look for ways to have packaging improve the presentation and resilience of a dish.  In the end we’re trying to minimize the time from our oven to your table which means our locally based kitchens are important as is the technology we have built to ensure that food is routed to customers in the most efficient and timely manner possible.  Our team is building technology that you’d never see in a restaurant up until now.

What foods, ingredients and dishes have you discovered work especially well within Maple’s constraints, and what, in particular, does not?
With the right amount of testing and some tweaking in approach and technique, we’re able to make a pretty broad spectrum of deliverable dishes.  One of the biggest challenges is the trade-off between presentation and taste.  We’ve developed some dishes that rate incredibly well on taste but that look messy.  Taste rules at the end of the day, but we are especially mindful that, unlike a restaurant, we don’t have the opportunity to plate in the same way.

How often do you rotate in new dishes, and what have you found to be some of your most popular?
We’re trying to offer simple balanced meals with a thoughtful approach to flavor and ingredients.  This means our R&D team is constantly exploring and introducing new dishes.   For lunch you might find a smoked trout sandwich on toasted rye, a black bean, avocado and quinoa salad or ginger grilled chicken on sesame brown rice.  Our dinners feature an entree with two sides and includes dishes, such as pepper-crusted heritage pork tenderloin, baked arctic char or Moroccan spiced chicken.  We’ve been really happy to see a positive response to our menu across the board, but people tend to get excited by dishes that highlight shrimp.

How did David Chang come to be involved in Maple, and what does his role as chief culinary officer entail?  How does your culinary board of directors contribute to the Maple concept?
We met David before we even had a name and he was really excited about the idea of food outside the restaurant.  We were very lucky to get him on board and have been even luckier to have him so involved.  He helped us convince Soa Davies (former head of Menu R&D at Le Bernardin) to join as Executive Chef and has been an incredible sounding board for her and for the rest of the culinary team as we’ve worked through the menu development process.  David also helped us assemble Maple’s Culinary Board of Advisors, which includes Mark Ladner (Executive Chef of Del Posto, and founder of Pasta Flyer), Brooks Headley (former Executive Pastry Chef of Del Posto and founder of Superiority Burger), and Dan Kluger (former Executive Chef of ABC Kitchen).  The general premise of the Culinary Board was to ensure that we had a strong network of advisers involved who all had incredibly high standards.  We were also drawn to this particular group because they have all shown a tendency to go really deep in the pursuit of perfecting something – essentially exactly what we’re trying to do with Maple.

Why did you settle on FiDi as your first delivery zone, and what are your short and long-term expansion plans?
The Financial District has a bit of everything and a really nice mix of residential and commercial activity.  Right now, we’re serving roughly below Chambers Street in FiDi, Battery Park City and parts of Tribeca.  Ultimately, we want to be in as many places as possible, but will grow when we’re confident we can do so without making sacrifices in our food and experiences.  We’re making enormous progress and couldn’t be more excited for Maple to reach a wider group of customers.

For more information, visit maple.com

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