Tyson invests in smart cooker; startup produces oven, its meal kits

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, file photo, a Tyson Foods, Inc., truck is parked at a food warehouse in Little Rock.
FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, file photo, a Tyson Foods, Inc., truck is parked at a food warehouse in Little Rock.

Tyson Foods announced Tuesday it invested in a startup company that brings consumers one step closer to preparing meals as they did in the animated television series The Jetsons.

By scanning a code on the box, Tovala's smart oven can steam, bake and broil in minutes, for instance, a miso-glazed salmon for two. No recipes or meal preparation are required.

Chicago-based Tovala's "smart countertop steam oven" and accompanying ready-to-cook meals set the company apart from others in the meal kit industry in that the company develops its own food, software and hardware for cooking.

Tyson, through its venture capital group, said its investment in Tovala, established in 2015, opens the door to new ways of meeting consumer demand.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed Tuesday.

Tyson's investment will be used to support the startup's growth across the board, funding a bigger staff, a general expansion, and product and technology development, according to the Springdale company. Other Tovala investors include the founder of Morningstar Inc. and Chicago restaurant entrepreneur Larry Levy.

Last week, Tyson Ventures announced its minority stake in Memphis Meats, which grows meat from animal cells. Before that, Tyson placed a larger bet on Beyond Meat, a company that makes vegetable-based "meat" patties and has plans to grow its research center sevenfold for further product development.

Ken Shea, Bloomberg Intelligence's senior food and beverage food analyst, said Tyson's interest in Tovala stems from the growing meal kit trend, but Tovala's smart oven makes it more like a Keurig coffee maker. In 2016 Forbes compared the smart oven to something seen in The Jetsons.

It takes the convenience factor one step further because conventional "meal kits do require a little bit of work -- chopping and dicing," Shea said. "It could be considered an encroachment on the 'away-from-home' dining market, as opposed to packaged foods."

According to the Chicago-based company, its glazed salmon and charred broccoli dish steams at 400 degrees for 90 seconds, convection-bakes at 400 degrees for more than five minutes, then broils at 500 degrees for another four minutes. The countertop Tovala oven costs $399, but the price drops when meal purchases are added.

Tyson's investment doesn't change Tovala's short-term growth plans, Tovala spokesman Lauren Funk said in an email Tuesday.

"It aligns incentives for Tyson and Tovala to explore mutually-beneficial ways to work together," Funk wrote. "We believe the Tyson investment validates our long-term vision of making it easier for people to eat better, through not only Tovala-branded Meals but other brands that consumers know and love, like Tyson."

Alan Ellstrand, associate dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said Tyson's interest in Tovala goes well beyond the product itself.

"I'm sure if this took off, there'd be opportunity for Tyson to sell some of its products and incorporate Tovala's product delivery into [Tyson's] core," Ellstrand said.

Tyson's Tastemakers Meal Kits, developed in 2016, are sold online and in grocery stores.

Ellstrand said this development in the meal-kit industry is attractive for those with little time and who don't consider cost a major factor, but remarked that the Tovala oven "doesn't leave a lot of the art of cooking to the user."

"I don't see it having real broad, major-market implications," he said. "But who knows 20 years from now? Some probably said the same thing about microwaves -- now look where we are."

Business on 02/07/2018