While he was in business school, Caleb Merkl got to thinking about opening a restaurant. Everyone told him he was nuts, because restaurants are crazy expensive to run and mostly doomed to fail. Merkl knew they were right, of course. But now, he’s gone and done it anyway. Well, sort of.
Technically, Maple, which launched in downtown Manhattan today, is an app. But in almost every other way, it operates more like a restaurant. It’s got a kitchen staff of 22 who cook up a rotating daily menu of fresh meals, curated by co-founder and chief culinary officer David Chang of Momofuku fame, as well as executive chef Soa Davies, formerly of the Michelin starred restaurant Le Bernardin. On any given day, the team is whipping up dishes like arctic char with dill on a bed of olive relish or green chile enchiladas with locally sourced tortillas and home-made green sauce.
Maple is going after something altogether different. It’s the answer to the question: What would a restaurant be like, if you couldn't actually go to the restaurant?
The difference is, you can’t actually go to a Maple restaurant. In fact, they don’t even exist. Instead, the only way to enjoy Maple’s food is to order it through the app. Maple is using technology to eliminate one of the trickiest—and most costly—parts of running a restaurant, which is, well, running a restaurant.
This approach distinguishes Maple from the dozens of startups trying to eke out a space in the food industry without actually having to get their hands dirty making and serving the food. There are restaurant delivery services like Seamless and Delivery.com that simply connect you with existing restaurants, and companies like Blue Apron and Plated that send you all the pre-portioned ingredients you need to cook your own meal at home. There are messenger apps like Postmates that let you order delivery from restaurants that don’t offer it themselves. There’s even Uber’s new food delivery service.
Maple is going after something altogether different. It’s the answer to the question: What would a restaurant be like, if you couldn’t actually go to the restaurant? For Maple’s founders, coming up with that answer means thinking as thoroughly about what makes for a good delivery experience as traditional restaurateurs think about furniture, plating, location, and decor.
“Restaurants aren’t set up to do delivery well. They don’t have the budget or time to think about packaging or putting technology together to route the orders intelligently,” Merkl says. “For us, everything we do is about how to make some part of delivery better.”
It all starts in the kitchen. On any given day, Maple offers just three options for lunch, which costs $12 with tip and delivery included, and three options for dinner, which costs $15 all-in. Limiting variety allows the kitchen staff to focus on quality and speed, says Maple co-founder and chief operating officer, Ashkay Navle. Maple plans to open a kitchen in every neighborhood it serves, which Merkl says minimizes the time it takes to go from Maple’s oven to your door. For now, Maple runs just one kitchen, which exclusively serves Manhattan’s densely populated Financial District, but that will change with time. “It’s about building as much density as we can, which is why our delivery zones are so tight,” Navle says.
But while limiting Maple’s geographic footprint helps, what really makes its model work is the technology that runs it. That’s also what helped Maple raise $22 million from tech investors like Thrive Capital and Greenoaks Capital Management. The team has redesigned virtually every piece of technology that runs a traditional restaurant from scratch. As orders come in through the Maple app, the kitchen staff doesn’t simply cook them on a first come-first served basis, and send them out in that order. Instead, the technology prioritizes the orders based on what other orders are coming in to ensure its delivery team is traveling the most efficient route.
While limiting Maple’s geographic footprint helps, what really makes its model work is the technology that runs it.
When the delivery team is actually on the road, Maple’s delivery app tracks them all the way, measuring their velocity to determine how much time they spend on the bike, how long it takes them to walk to the person’s door, which streets have the most traffic, and which buildings take longer to deliver to than others. The app processes all of this information and uses it to inform future routes. “The system gets better at making these decisions over time,” Navle says.
It’s this technology that Will Gaybrick, who is both a Maple co-founder and a partner at Thrive Capital, says makes Maple a smart investment. “In general, food service is really not leveraging technology to scale,” he says. “But it’s technology that lets us serve better food, faster, fresher, and at a better price.”
The Complete Package
There’s a sophisticated science to Maple’s method, but of course, there’s an art to it as well. Not satisfied with tossing your meticulously delivered meal at you in a grease stained brown bag, Maple’s founders also went to great lengths to ensure the packaging itself is optimized for delivery. That means they tested nearly every off the shelf package to find the one that can withstand heat and condensation the best and minimize the amount of space the food has to shift around. They also hired one of the Museum of Modern Art’s former assistant creative directors to design their subtle yet sophisticated branding.
“Restaurants have that asset, but it rarely travels with delivery,” Merkl says. “We think it’s especially important to recreate some emotion around food, when we don’t have a physical space.”
What’s more critical to Maple’s success than any of this, though, is the fact that the food is actually incredibly good. With Chang as a co-founder, Maple has access to one of the world’s most celebrated chefs. That’s an asset no amount of technology could replace. According to Merkl, who was introduced to the Momofuku founder through a connection at Thrive Capital, Chang was receptive to the idea of Maple from the start. “He’s already playing at the highest level, and now he’s more interested in where food is going than he is in how much farther he can push fine dining,” Merkl says.
‘Not a Technology Company’
But while there are obvious advantages to forgoing a physical restaurant, including minimizing overhead and making it much easier to scale, there are also substantial obstacles to delivering on the promise of perfect delivery. For starters, Maple’s business model still requires a huge staff, only instead of waiters and waitresses, it’s a delivery team. Right now, the company has 32 delivery people, and that’s just for one neighborhood. Navle expects it will grow with time.
Then there’s the fact that in order for Maple’s technology to be worthwhile, Maple needs densely packed routes. That means that Maple may never be a practical solution outside of big cities, and even in those cities it will need a large volume of orders in any given area to make the delivery-only model economically efficient. That’s why Maple is only going to expand geographically once it has built a substantial user base in the Financial District.
But while Maple may not scale as quickly as the average tech company, Merkl says it will scale much more quickly and efficiently than the average food company. And that, he says, is what Maple is, first and foremost. “I know it’d be super in vogue to say, ‘We’re building a platform that will deliver you anything,’ but we’re actually just trying to build a food company,” he says. “We’re not a technology company or a logistics company or a growth for growth sake’s company. We’re a food company, and we’re by nature going to grow more slowly, because it’s about building trust over time.”