Eight cooking apps I made and never released

Will Turnage (he/him)
10 min readJul 21, 2014

It feels good to launch something. I recently launched gitchen.org, a Github site for open source cooking-related code. I’ve also launched a few cooking apps, most notably Ratio and Bread Baking Basics with award-winning author Michael Ruhlman. These apps have an active user base and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with them.

For the last six years, though, most of my cooking app projects remain unfinished and haven’t been released to the public. They all start out the same. There’s a spark of an idea followed by a surge of progress and excitement. Prototypes are made and tested. Then come the roadblocks. There’s not enough data. You underestimate the complexity. You need thousands of painstakingly staged photographs. You can’t afford to outsource. The work stops being about product development and becomes a list of excuses and rationalizations. There is no business model. Charging for the app isn’t sustainable and won’t cover development costs. You can’t figure out a way to make a living doing this full time. A few months later, the project is just another folder buried three levels deep on your hard drive.

I’ve been down this path with at least 12 significant food-related projects, not to mention tens of other ideas, sketches and brainstorms. Some only used up a few hours here and there, but some have consumed months of time. At this point, I’d normally write off these ventures as collateral damage from the creative process, but there are eight apps in my archive that just won’t fade away. They linger. They nag. There is something good here, I just haven’t cracked it.

Most of these ideas are utility-driven. They’re features or products and they all suffer from the same mistake — having little to no business model. Classic startup problem, I realize, and I’m working on it.

But here they are. Eight ideas for how to reinvent cooking at home.

App #1 — The Dinner Party Planner — Developed with Mike Lee from Studio Industries, this website simplifies planning and hosting dinner parties. Cooking for friends isn’t difficult, but many people find it overwhelming. We built a website that puts the emphasis on helping you plan your cooking better. Better planning makes for easier cooking, and hopefully that leads to more shared meals in your home with friends and family.

The app’s core feature is a single dinner menu. Normally, that would involve flipping back and forth between multiple recipes, but we developed our dinner menus with “smart recipes.” Smart Recipes can do things normal recipes can’t, like:

  • Automatically merge ingredients from multiple recipes to form a single shopping list.
  • Automatically merge instructions from multiple recipes to form a single list of steps for cooking that meal.
  • Add/Remove/Substitute recipe ingredients based on your guest’s dietary restrictions. A Smart Recipe for a meal might begin with a generic name like “Enchiladas”, but only after all your guests RSVPd would it transform into “Gluten-free Summer Vegetable Enchiladas” or “Gooey Meat & Cheese Enchilada Extravaganza.”
  • Include household chores and non-cooking tasks in your list of instructions. Sometimes cooking isn’t overwhelming, it’s hosting that’s overwhelming. Smart Recipes identify the downtime in cooking prep and replace it with tasks like “set the table”, “fill the water pitchers” or “crank up a funky playlist” to ensure you aren’t running around at the last minute.
  • Share recipe steps easily with others. When your best friend comes over an hour before, the Smart Recipe provides clear tasks he or she can do. These tasks could be done solo, e.g. setting the table, or tasks could be done together, e.g. opening and tasting the wine.

We spent several months building a fully working prototype. We threw a dinner party. We documented the process and shared the results at SXSW Interactive in 2012. But after all that work, our prototype only supported a single dinner party menu.

Smart Recipe prototype

Ultimately, we weren’t convinced the market size was big enough, and we were also unsure how to monetize the service without a solid grocery tie-in. There were also concerns about scalability. It required a huge amount of work to develop a single Smart Recipe. And with an unclear ROI, we couldn’t justify the amount of time and effort needed to make the service worthwhile.

App #2 — The Smart Baking scale — Developed in 2011 and also presented at SXSW in 2012, the Smart Baking scale was a prototype eerily similar to the recently announced Drop baking scale.

The prototype connects a tablet to a kitchen scale and together they measure ingredients for you. So if you’re making bread, instead of measuring 20 oz. flour, you place the bowl on the scale, and keep adding flour until the progress bar on your tablet tells you to stop. If you add too much flour, the app can scale then entire recipe dynamically and tell you how much of the other ingredients to add. It’s a simple idea, and makes home baking much easier.

Image of the Baking Scale Prototype in action

The prototype was a postal scale connected to an Android tablet over USB which was always cumbersome. In 2011, Bluetooth LE wasn’t prominent yet, and I didn’t want to manufacture my own hardware, especially for something as commoditized as a kitchen scale. At the time, there were few scale manufacturers making Bluetooth LE scales, and none of them were willing to open up their SDKs for third-party apps. Some of this has changed recently, and now there are multiple companies like Drop and Orange Chef making progress with smart kitchen scales. I love their products, so at this point, I’d rather try and help them grow vs. adding a third competitor into the marketplace.

App #3 — Larder.co — I’ve been making fresh sausages for years, but never had much luck curing or aging sausage. To help, I built a device to monitor the progress of my charcuterie and salumi at home. The device is a small, battery-powered, temperature and humidity monitor that logs data to the cloud over WiFi. A custom dashboard provides a history of readings as well as alerts for when the temperature and/or humidity strays too far from the desired range.

Through a friend, I was able to test two prototypes for a few months in the Kaizen Trading Company, part of the Momofuku Culinary Lab. Ironically, we weren’t even using these for meats, but instead for their Hozon and Bonji products (which are PHENOMENAL). What became apparent here was that the needs of a business were dramatically different than the needs of an individual. Home cooks are managing a few variables, but businesses need to manage multiple lots in parallel.

http://instagram.com/p/jzJzgBBEiM

Screenshot from prototype dashboard for Kaizen Trading Company

Despite excitement for the product, I found the audience size to be too small to support a business. To make this work, you’d need thousands of monthly subscribers and the service wasn’t invaluable enough for this niche audience to pay the $$$ to make it worth it.

App #4 — CARV — In December 2012, I led an amazing team of people and won first prize at the FoodTechConnect Hack//Meat hackathon with an idea called CARV. For our hack, we created an internet-enabled scale that could be placed in slaughterhouses to track what was being weighed and cryovaced for sale. Once that data was in the cloud, then it could power all sorts of third party APIs around inventory control, HACCP plan management, carcass yield, etc.

After winning the hackathon, our team spent time in the Northeast talking with various producers and processors and presented our work at the New England Meat Conference.

What we found is that the problem originally posed to us by the Vermont State Agriculture department is a problem primarily found in the northeast United States. Once you get west of the Mississippi, most slaughterhouses are medium to large-scale operations. Given the amount of USDA regulations and the fact that there are only ~6000 approved slaughterhouses in the entire US, we didn’t see a way to sustain a viable business from the audience size.

We also learned that these kind of internet-enabled scales exist from industrial manufacturers, but their software stack is living somewhere in 2002. If these companies were able to release an open SDK or REST API for any of their products, it could enable so many software companies to take off.

App #5 — Salad Maker — My wife is the most amazing salad maker I know, and I’ve tried many times over the years to turn her salad sensibility into an app. Currently I’d call this concept Foodpairing, Anatomy of a Dish and The Flavor Bible Go to the Salad Bar Together. This app takes 50 raw ingredients and provides a simple guide for people to design their own salads. These could be based on personal tastes, what’s in their fridge, or what’s on sale at the grocery store. The goal here is to help home cooks easily learn to make a variety of salads that were interesting and fun.

Again, great idea with no business model.

Some preliminary data analysis of ingredients used internally

App #6 — Granola Bar Maker — This app is a personalized Blue Apron/Plated for homemade snacks. Similar in structure to the Salad Maker, this app allows you to design your own granola bar recipe. It could be tweaked based on your dietary restrictions (no peanuts, soy, nuts, gluten, etc.) as well as personal tastes (sweet vs. savory, chunky vs. smooth). Once a month, you’d received a package of dry goods that could be used to make customized snacks for you and your family’s preferences and dietary restrictions. Initially, this would target parents who want to provide healthy snacks for their kids with unique dietary restrictions.

Unlike my other ideas, there’s actually a clear business model here (gasp!), and now I can’t remember why I stopped working on this. Hmmm… maybe I’ll start on this again. It would be a great service for Bob’s Red Mill or even someone like Platejoy.

I storybord a lot, and even though it looks like UI, I would never use these for UI. Instead, these help me flesh out data models visually.

App #7 — Mixed at Home — I’m beginning to sound like a one trick pony, but this app is another ratio/formula, but for cocktails! Loosely based on Jamie Boudreau’s Golden Ratio, this helps you make a fine tasting spirit-forward cocktail based on what’s available in your liquor cabinet.

The formula is simple — 6 parts base spirit, 3 parts fortified wine, and 1 part liqueur or flavoring. But for this app, I feel it needs to be entirely visual. Just full screen video guiding you through the process of designing your own custom drinks.

I initially tried to do this with 3D renderings of the cocktails, but abandoned that. So I put this app on hold until I can find the right photographer who would be willing to do a week long video shoot about making cocktails.

And while I know we could sell this app, again, it’s not a sustainable business. More like a one-off project. And I’m still unsure if the money made from selling the app could cover the costs of a video shoot and app development.

Early 3D rendering test of a Blue curacao cocktail. Clearly needs work.

App #8 — Long Form Foods

Users can slide these up and down to help visualize a recipe’s timeline. Each box is “spongy” meaning that it can shrink/expand to match the time range given in the recipe, e.g. “rise for 10-14 hours”

Long Form Foods is a website that allows people to plan and track recipes that take a long time to prepare, meaning 12 hours or longer.

These are foods like bread, pickles, beer, sauerkraut, cheese, homemade soda, kombucha, infusions, bacon and cured meats. The recipes aren’t terribly complicated, but they often require scheduling steps across multiple days.

On the site, you can schedule alerts to remind you when to do something later on and you can also keep a journal of your cooking attempts.

Long Form Foods would have a freemium business model. The free version would allow everyone to view the recipes, but for a yearly membership, you could access the alerts, logs, and utilities that help you track how your food is doing. The big question, though, is are there enough people willing to pay for this service to sustain it as a business? People would never pay for a recipe, but the unique nature of the utility in this app might be worth paying for.

I’m not sure if I’ll continue to work on these, or if they’ll just be left out here for others to learn from.

But I firmly believe that cooking at home is something more people should do, and data and technology haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of what’s possible.

If you feel the same way, let’s talk. I’m @wubbahed.

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Will Turnage (he/him)

Hands-on software engineering leader. Advisor and partner to startups. Director of Technology at I&CO. https://turnage.co