With the continued roll out of direct-to-consumer startups, it seems like any renter can simply furnish their apartment with a few clicks of their mouse. Mattresses, furniture, linens, even grocery delivery can be researched and purchased online, a veritable lifestyle in a box.
It now appears that the kitchen may be an increasingly busy battleground for new direct-to-consumer business. Earlier this month, Material launched a set of high-quality kitchenware and knives. Last fall, Austin-based Made In, which raised $1.33 million in funding, released a line of American-made pots and pans. Both join Misen, which began as million-dollar Kickstarter success story selling knives, but just moved into cookware last year.
All have eyes on being a Warby Parker for the kitchen and grabbing a slice of the $17 billion-a-year kitchen and cookware industry. They can’t beat Amazon on pricing, or ever match the physical footprint of a Williams Sonoma. But by tailoring their message to a older, wealthier millennial market, they’re betting they can sell high-quality essentials to a demographic comfortable with online commerce that. In the words of Made In co-founder Jonathan Kalick, these are consumers “moving from house parties to dinner parties.”
“We don’t ever want to be in the business of selling avocado peelers, we want to be providing core tools,” says Made In’s other co-founder, Bradford Malt. “The stuff you need, and none of the BS.”
The online, direct-to-consumer retail model has found footing in numerous industries, especially after companies such as Casper and Harry’s Razors became some of the last decade’s big entrepreneurial success stories. The direct-to-consumer concept is far from new in the kitchen space, and earlier in the decade, before the current wave of startups, new kitchenware companies such as Get It Right and Field Company started utilizing online sales and crowdfunding.
But the field seems particularly busy now, due in part to an opening in the market created by a changing food culture, and what these new competitors see as complacency by established firms. While millennials spend a higher percentage of their food dollars on going out than their parents—44 percent versus 40 , according to a study based on USDA data—these startups are betting that as they age, this foodie generation will crave better tools for the home kitchen.
According to Omar Rada, Misen’s founder, the kitchenware industry didn’t react quickly enough to the changing zeitgeist. Chefs have become rock stars, the Food Network seems like cable’s most popular channel, and Buzzfeed’s Tasty became a viral sensation. Yet the clear appetite for food media wasn’t met with enough new, innovative products or purchase methods tailored to a new generation of home chefs.
Rada and others believe the target demo for most of these companies, older millennials, hasn’t upgraded to quality cookware or established brand loyalty. Made In conducted a survey with home chefs before launching and found that 90 percent couldn’t name the company that made their cookware. Eunice Byun, co-founder of Material, found the same thing when doing research; most of their friends had a kitchen drawer filled with random tools from IKEA or inherited from parents or former roommates.
“Meal kit services were great at getting consumers to try out something new and expand the boundaries of what they would do in the kitchen,” says Byun. “We’re trying to say that it doesn’t take that much to get started.”
All three of these companies have pushed starter pack-style offerings—Made In’s three-piece starter set, or the Material 7-piece, $175 Fundamentals kit—aimed at the casual home chef. Pricing splits the balance between bargain bin and high-end: a 10-inch frying pan from Made In costs $79, while a comparable All-Clad model sells for $150.
The messaging and marketing, complete with Instagram-worthy food photography, speak to both high-quality materials and casual get-togethers. Unlike an established company such as All-Clad, that showcase celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller using their products, these firms are more about friends gathered around the kitchen table.
“We live at a time when people go out and spend $30 on a grass fed steak, do research online to figure out how to prepare it, but they don’t have the tools to make it to the best of their ability,” says Kalick.
Misen, Material, and Made In all have plans to eventually expand their product line up. All agree this is far from a winner-take-all market. With U.S. cookware sales up 9 percent in 2017, there appears to be plenty of home chefs looking for an upgrade.
“As you saw with the mattress industry, it wasn’t a topic of conversation, people didn’t tell you what they were sleeping on,” says Made In’s Malt. “Now, with 50 companies out there, it’s something people discuss. It’s beneficial for all that more people are starting to focus on this space.”