Silicon Chef: A Half-Baked Guide to Food Startups

[Updated 12/06/12 with additional listings] When the ex-CEO of Pure Digital, maker of the famous Flip pocket camcorder, wins funding from Sequoia Capital to open a chain of grilled cheese sandwich shops, it may be time to abandon your own enterprise-cloud-marketing-analytics-automation venture or your social-mobile-deals-gamification startup and think about getting into the food business.

I was already planning to compile a list of food-related startups for my column this week when I read about Pure founder Jonathan Kaplan’s surprise announcement. I happen to love grilled cheese, so I’m hoping that his new restaurants, to be called The Melt, fare better than the Flip camcorder, which Cisco recently discontinued after spending $590 million to buy Pure in 2009. The fact that Kaplan’s customers will be able to order and pay for their cheddar melts and tomato soup using their mobile phones is a nice twist. But the real message behind his move (and Sequoia’s investment) may be that food is back in fashion as an arena for startup founders.

Food-delivery startups such as Kozmo and Webvan were among the venture-backed companies caught up in the wave of dot-com failures around 2001, and years went by before technology entrepreneurs dared to venture back into the kitchen. But now they’re cooking with gas. Few urban-dwellers these days make a restaurant reservation without consulting a site like Yelp, Urbanspoon, or OpenTable. Smartphone and tablet owners can choose from hundreds of cooking, nutrition, and shopping apps. And there’s nary a venture incubator program without at least one food startup in its pantry (500 Startups has Spoondate, StartX has Kitchit, TechStars has Foodzie, and Y Combinator has Anyleaf, E la Carte, and Grubwithus, among others).

Here in San Francisco, a chocolate tasting organized by health-food search site Foodia last week attracted more than 400 young entrepreneurs—I know because I was elbowing them out of the way. There’s also a monthly meetup for hackers building food-related apps, and even tech publisher O’Reilly Media has come out with a cookbook. (It’s called Cooking for Geeks, and it’s really well done.)

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise—at a time when farmer’s markets are popping up in every town square, cooking and celebrity-chef shows keep multiplying on TV, and concern over the health impact of poor nutrition is growing—that startup types are trying to turn their food obsessions into businesses. With their usual ardor, these entrepreneurs are finding and fixing previously undiscovered inefficiencies in every part of the food business, from managing recipes and making grocery lists to reserving restaurant tables, reading nutrition labels, and figuring out which wine to buy.

But there are so many new food-related companies on the scene that it’s impossible not to wonder whether the market’s getting a bit frothy. Quick, can you tell me the difference between Foodbuzz, Foodia, Foodily, Foodista, Foodler, Foodori, Foodspotting, Foodtree, Fooducopia, and Foodzie? In the end, I suspect that there isn’t really room for three companies that page restaurant guests when their table is ready (No Wait, Textaurant, and ReadyPing), three marketplaces for artisanal food products (Foodoro, Fooducopia, and Foodzie), two members-only restaurant deals services (TipCity and VillageVines), and dozens of recipe search apps and sites. If DARPA were funding all this activity, it would simply hold a bake-off to find the top competitors. We’ll have to wait longer to see which of these startup soufflés get some lift, and which ones collapse.

Meanwhile, here’s today’s main dish: a list of all the notable food-related startups I could find in one afternoon of research. I tried to restrict this list to companies that are making significant use of software, mobile technology, or the Web (if only as a marketing and distribution channel). I focused my search mainly on companies in Xconomy’s home cities, especially San Francisco, and I deliberately didn’t hunt down the names of every maker of every food-related iPhone or Android app. So I know the list is incomplete. But if you know of a name that deserves to be added, please let me know in the comment section.

AgLocal—A service that “makes it easy and convenient for anyone to buy and sell locally raised meats.”

AllRecipes—Large online catalog of user-contributed recipes.

Anyleaf—Listings of local supermarket discounts; a replacement for Sunday coupon circulars.

Back to the Roots—Home mushroom growing kits using recycled coffee grounds.

BigOven—Web and mobile recipe organizer and shopping list maker.

BlackboardEats—Members get e-mails with 30 percent discount offers for select restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.—Group and event catering that connects companies with the local food scene in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Chow—Food-related news, entertainment, and instruction. Owned by CBS Interactive.

Cocomama Foods—Online vendor of gluten-free foods such as quinoa cereals.

Consmr—A social network that allows users to “check in” to the grocery products they’re eating.

Cookooree—Community recipe sharing “for the rest of us.”

Cookstr—Recipes from leading chefs and cookbook authors.

Daily Gourmet—E-mail newsletter offering daily deals on artisanal foods.

Daily Grape—Daily wine review videos from Gary Vaynerchuk, formerly of

DeliciousKarma—Members-only discount site site for artisanal and gourmet foods.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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15 responses to “Silicon Chef: A Half-Baked Guide to Food Startups”

  1. Josh Bob says:

    Interesting stuff, Wade, but I disagree with your assessment that there isn’t enough space for multiple players in the restaurant market.

    Just looking at casual restaurants alone, there are over 150,000 potential customers – only about 25% of which are part of the top 200 largest chains. So unless one victor emerges by being able to acquire a huge number of independent / small group restaurants, there will be plenty of space in the market for multiple players.

    Not to say that we wouldn’t prefer for Textaurant to be the only player. :)

  2. Owen Wright says:

    Checkout Nice use of the daily-deal model to introduce foodies to new foods.

  3. Tim says:

    This is quite a list. You mentioned that the market is getting a little ‘frothy’. I’ll respectively disagree and say it is great consumers have a variety of food related resources.

  4. Joe says: has a much more full-featured app for paging guests when their table is ready than any of the 3 you listed.

  5. Sunil says:

    Great article Wade. There are definitely a lot of players in this space but I think its great to see innovation in the restaurant industry that has for a long time had very traditional and outdated methods.

    I’d like to throw our hat in there as well as a new discovery engine for urban diners. Our focus is on the details around dishes so you can find dishes by cuisine, price, meal type and lifestyle like vegetarian or gluten free.

    TopDish for Iphone

  6. Conrad Chu says:

    You missed one:

    The only food startup that actually serves up food … and not send you to a restaurant :)

    It’s a marketplace that connects personal chefs to individuals, delivering healthy, locally-source gourmet meals on-demand with an hour’s notice.

  7. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Conrad Chu: Actually, Munchery is already on the list – near the bottom of page 2.

  8. Marco Flavio says:

    For those interested in continuing the conversation, I did start a Linkedin Group: Food Startups – USA. Do come and join us.

  9. Please include DeliciousNutritious in your list. We sell fresh, healthy food online in partnership with employers, with delivery directly into break room refrigerators before the start of each work day. Thanks!

  10. Rajesh K says:

    How can be the largest ordering service (with 7,500 menus) when GrubHub has 13,000?

  11. If you were to update this article, what would you write? Curious how food tech has changed – I feel like I’m just now hearing about food tech startups.

  12. Wade Roush says:

    Hey Kevin. This article boils down to a big list, and I do try to keep it up to date by adding a listing whenever I hear about new food startups. I think the trend I was highlighting has only expanded since this piece first appeared. The FoodStartups group in San Francisco, for example, keeps growing — it seems like every meetup they have attractes about 50% more people than the one before.