It’s hard to know, at first, what problem the Brava smart oven is supposed to solve. Its value proposition—to use the Silicon Valley parlance—is a bit diluted. Is it supposed to heat up more quickly than your current oven? Is it designed to distribute heat in an innovative way? Is it supposed to be more energy efficient? Is it compatible with an app—and does that make it better? Will it be smarter than your current oven?
The short answer, according to the entrepreneurs at Brava, is all of the above. You will want to spend $995 on Brava’s Wi-Fi-connected countertop oven, the pitch goes, because it will make your insanely busy life better.
While Brava is launching with a piece of hardware, the company is selling more than just an oven.
The long answer is more complex than that. Brava may indeed be a beautifully made oven packed with time-saving tech. But it’s not just the oven you’ll pay for; you’ll need some accessories to get the most out of it. And, as part of Brava’s launch this fall, the company plans to offer a food delivery service that drops ready-to-cook items onto your doorstep. Sure, you can buy your own groceries and make stuff with the Brava, but the company will try to convince you its produce options are superior. So while Brava is launching with a piece of hardware, the company is selling more than just an oven.
The company’s business models mirrors that of other startups offering hardware with a service attached. Most famously, Peloton sells pricey exercise equipment—$2,000 for its stationary bike, $4,000 for its new treadmill—that you use while livestreaming workout classes through its $39-a-month subscription service.
Brava is, in a bizarre way, the Peloton of ovens.
That makes a lot of sense when you consider that Brava CEO John Pleasants is the brother-in-law of John Foley, the CEO of Peloton, which has taken the fitness world by storm. Pleasants joined Brava as CEO in August 2016, having previously worked as an executive at Disney and Samsung. But the idea for Brava started percolating back in 2013, during the holidays.
As Pleasants and chief technology officer Thomas Cheng tell it, their co-founder Dan Yue was enjoying a holiday meal with his family when he noticed that his mother, who was prepping the food, wasn’t really an active participant in the dinner. She was too stressed out to talk, running back and forth between the kitchen and dining room. “What if the oven knew what was inside of it, and knew when to start and stop? That was the very basic thought. What if she could have more time at the dining room table?” Pleasants said. (Yue wasn’t there the day I visited Brava’s office, so I didn’t hear this story from him firsthand.)
Two years later, in 2015, Yue and Cheng connected and decided to make something together. They had actually gone to high school together in Palo Alto in the late 1990s, so it was a reunion of sorts. By June of that year, they had come up with the first Brava oven prototype, made from the parts of off-the-shelf countertop ovens. The following year was when Pleasants joined as CEO.
The team ended up making 15 prototypes in Cheng’s garage, some of which are now on display in Brava’s Redwood City offices. These include small countertop ovens, large countertop ovens, units with only one heating element, some with three heating elements, a copper-coated prototype, an oven with a removable magnetic knob, and another oven with a slot for a smartphone on top, which is where a display would eventually be built in.
“We wanted to make sure we could do a 12-inch pizza and a 6-pound chicken,” Pleasants said. “Those were the two thresholds we felt were really important. After we figured out the sizing, we got fancy.”
Three years and $25 million in venture-capital funding later, Brava is finally launching its debut product. Its run up to launch wasn’t completely stealthy; funding rounds were made public, and thanks to a trademark filing, some details about the oven had had leaked in advance. A report last year from The Spoon noted that the upcoming smart oven would have “a number of interesting features.”
A Brava oven weighs 34 pounds. Inside the anodized aluminum case is a stainless steel interior cooking chamber. It’s 11.3 inches tall, 14.1 inches wide and 16.7 inches deep, which means it’s large enough that you should measure your countertop space before you buy one. Its top is covered in a food-safe, high temperature silicone, with a thick glass strip at the edge. It has a single physical button for starting and stopping the cooking process, and a 5-inch, multi-touch LCD display.
That display is where you’ll swipe and tap and essentially tell the Brava what you’re cooking, so it can do all the cognitive work for you beyond that. You can also send recipes from the Brava mobile app directly to the oven over Wi-Fi.
The oven’s heating elements include six, 270-millimeter bulbs. They resemble incandescent bulbs or tungsten halogen lamps, but they have been tweaked for culinary use. Brava likes to say the bulbs can ramp up to full power in under a second. That’s one of the things that’s supposed to make a Brava oven different—how quickly it heats up. But the more interesting part is how the heat is controlled, a technology that Brava has labeled “Pure Light.” There are three zones inside the oven, and they can each be heated independently of one another. The heat of these zones can be dialed up or down depending on what you’re cooking.
It’s basically cooking by numbers. Let’s say you’re making a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. You’re supposed to tell the Brava oven what you’re about to cook, and it would then assign a number to each of your ingredients. Each number corresponds to one of the labeled sections on the custom-made trays Brava sells. Place your ingredients in the designated sections of your tray, shove a Swiss-made temperature sensor in the protein, slide the tray in the oven, and each portion of the meal will cook at the appropriate temperature for the appropriate amount of time. The company tells me the oven is capable enough to sear meats.
Cheng, the CTO, says the oven’s lamps aren’t the magical part of this equation. It’s the whole package: the control system, the software, the sensors. “I wouldn’t call this a revolution, but more of an extreme evolution of sorts,” he says. “One, it’s just far more powerful, and two, it’s far more precise in controlling the elements.”
The Brava oven also has a 5-megapixel, fisheye camera inside of it, which is less about allowing mere mortals to watch their food cook and more about training Brava’s machine-learning engine. The camera itself doesn’t even recognize the food item you’ve put inside the oven. Instead, it’s designed to capture the surface texture of the food, the company says, and it’s using that gathered information to gauge how well something is cooked. Once it sees dinner’s done, the oven shuts itself off.
The demo I saw involved using Brava’s AI to make toast. To develop the machine-intelligence component, Brava’s software engineers loaded up gobs of food photos; in this case, pictures of toasted bread. Then, Brava’s staff of seven chefs looked at those toast pics—uncooked bread, cooked toast, burned toast—and helped put together a kind of matrix for what an ideal piece of toast looks like. This database, which now contains thousands of food items, lives in the cloud, but Brava has condensed it down to a model that lives on the oven.
During the demo, I watched through the Brava camera as a slice of bread went from white and doughy to a crisp, medium brown; while a laptop sitting on top of the oven (just for the purposes of the demo) showed the computational process behind it.
Those same chefs are a critical part of Brava’s other big sell: its food delivery service. It’s an a la carte food service, not a subscription business, and all of the foods are sourced by Travis Rea, Brava’s head chef. The beef is from Double R Ranch, the salmon is Ora King salmon, and the veggies are organic. Eggs will come rom Good Eggs. Los Angeles-based Chef’d is assembling and fulfilling the food orders, and Brava has a food distribution warehouse in New Jersey, as well.
Of course, you can buy your own food and cook it in the Brava oven. But Brava says your experience will be optimized if you buy direct. The cuts of meat will be just the right thickness, Brava’s recipes are designed around these ingredients, and so on. Pleasants emphasized that he believes Brava isn’t just about the hardware; it’s about the relationships you’ll have with chefs, with other people in the community sharing recipes. Like Peloton.
This kind of magical cooking doesn’t come cheap. $995 gets you the oven, two oven trays, and sensor, plus a dinner for two that you order through Brava. Spend $1,295, and you get three additional accessories—a chef’s plan, a cast iron grill pan, and an egg tray—as well as a $150 food credit. The meals cost, on average, $13 to $15 per serving. So, dinner for two costs between $26 and $30. Brava says the oven will ship in November.
“There have been a lot of entrepreneurial efforts around making the act of getting food more convenient,” says Aileen Lee, the founder of Cowboy Ventures, which invested in Brava. “But this is about making it easier to cook, and I think people actually like to cook. And an hour to an hour-and-a-half prep for a meal is just not a reality for a lot of people.” Another reason why Lee invested, she tells me, is that what Brava’s doing is technically challenging.
Brava is part of a broader trend around connected kitchen appliances, and specifically, around oven technology, which goes beyond just using an app or shouting “Alexa!” at something. Size-wise, Brava falls into the same category as the June countertop oven, a $1,495 convection oven that uses carbon fiber heating elements that are designed to heat up quickly. The Miele Dialog oven is a full oven, not a countertop oven, that also holds the promise of precisely controlling the cooking process, through electromagnetic waves that are emitted at specific frequencies. It started selling in select countries in Europe last month.
But Brava’s claim that its main product is the “fastest oven in the world” applies only to certain foods. During my visit to Brava, I saw multiple food items being cooked (and even participated in some of the cooking), and times varied. That piece of toast, for example, still took around three and a half minutes to brown properly, so, not very fast. An egg and cheese frittata, cooked in an egg tray, took around six minutes. The founders say that not all foods will cook at supersonic speeds; but since the Brava is taking up significant counter space, they wanted to ensure that it could do some of the basics, like toasting, in case you ditched your toaster.
Even with foods that do cook quickly, that claim is difficult to fact-check. Cheng is candid about the fact that Brava’s marketing copy—”zero to 500 degrees in under a second”—wasn’t something that thrilled him. “I wanted to clarify one thing. What it actually does is it goes from zero to as if you’re at 500 degrees,” he says. “If you try to do that with a completely cold oven, you’d have a safety override, and you’d have to hack something to do this. This is effectively a 500-degree oven.”
And considering that the oven will likely only cook enough food for four people at a time—or two very hungry adults—you’ll have to factor in that you might end up cooking in batches.
On the upside, the total cook time for salmon and asparagus was around 12 minutes that day in Brava’s kitchen, and a filet mignon has a typical cook time of 15 to 18 minutes. Considering how ridiculously long it takes for my own electric oven to heat up, that was a marked improvement. The skin on the salmon was also crispy, which would normally only happen if I had pan-seared it.
You can also set the Brava’s zone temperatures yourself, or, if you’d like, just crank up the oven to a specific temperature and cook something in an un-smart way. I ask Pleasants and Cheng whether a customer needed to have the Brava connected to the internet. Basically, is the kitchen of the future one in which you can’t cook some vegetables without being Wi-Fi-connected?
No, you don’t have to connect it to the internet, Pleasants says. But you’ll want to. “Just like a Tesla, we can update the features and the operating system over time,” he says. “Another thing is the recipes—we give you new ones every week, and you’ll want to be able to see them.”
Earlier, I ask Pleasants about another Silicon Valley hardware startup, one that sold an expensive, internet-connected juice machine that didn’t work out. Did stories like that concern him as he readies to launch a food-related hardware product?
“Every industry sector has its stories like that,” he says. “You have to stand behind the quality of your product and the problem you are solving. I think we’re solving a real problem.”