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Local Start-Up Munchery Makes the Luxury of a Personal Chef Affordable

When you launch a company, timing can be everything, and in that respect the timing looks to be perfect for the geek team of three at Munchery, who launched their intriguing service in San Francisco on April 23rd. 

The idea behind this startup is to match you with your own personal chef.

It's even better than that. Because your own personal chef will turn out to be someone who's committed to using locally grown, sustainable, seasonal ingredients to turn out high-quality, nutritious meals delivered right to your door at a total cost around $20 per person per meal.

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In other words, Tri Tran, his cousin Van Tran and a third founder who's still quasi-undercover because he hasn't quit his day job, have figured out how to bring what has always been considered a luxury available only to the super rich down to the range where you and I can afford it.

Munchery is able to do this because it leverages several of the key technological advances that take much of the pain (and most of the cost) out of launching neat little ventures like this one.

First, it's built on Ruby on Rails --  the open source web application framework that makes it intuitively simple for chefs to publish their latest menus and set prices, as well as for you to browse those menus, and ensure they can deliver your choice to your address on the date and teh time you want it.

Placing your order could not be simpler.

"Say Monday is always a busy day for you," explains Tran. "You never have time to cook or even shop or even order takeout. Well, our system can take of all that for you. You can decide to order a recurring meal from one of your favorite chefs, the chef is notified, we remind you each Monday, the chef can text you as well. Plus, you have the ultimate flexibility because if you have to cancel it that day you can."

Using Amazon Web Services, Munchery's servers sit in the Cloud. "We never even see the machines serving our content," notes Tran. For secure payment, there is Braintree, which powers companies like Living Social or 37 Signals.

"We never hold your credit card information in our database, all we have is a reference number from Braintree, which is worthless to anyone but us."

Throw in Google Docs and Apps and you have an entire company platform that can be built and operated by three people for a pittance of what it would have cost until very recently.

"Even a couple of years ago it would have taken far more resources to do this," points out Tran. "I worked for ten years as part of a 50-person development team stuck with a dated architecture. Today, the three of us are able to turn out new features far faster than all 50 could on that team; in fact we can roll out significant new features every few days."

The Munchery Three turned to several friends who are chefs as they were creating the company earlier this spring, and then started checking out the personal chefs listed at Yelp, contacting only those with very high quality ratings.

For the chefs, signing with Munchery costs nothing -- they are only charged a ten percent commission when an actual order comes in, and since Munchery handles the credit card fulfillment and delivery details, this is an attractive new customer acquisition option for sure.

From Tran's research, he estimates there are between 50 and 100 personal chefs with top reputations in the city currently, 14 of whom he already has on board -- just weeks after launch.

"We also have leads or contacts from 40 or 50 chefs in other places all over the country," he reports. Since the trick is to match chefs and customers up by zipcode, Tran feels it will not be difficult to scale this idea market by market, especially in other foodie heavens like the peninsula, East Bay, Austin, Texas and Manhattan.

Last weekend, Munchery's "Give Mom a Break From the Kitchen" campaign indicated that there may be a significant market opportunity in giftng private chef meals as well, or as fundraiser auction items, and so on.

Another layer of the service helps chefs find professional kitchens where they are required to prepare their meals in order to be certified by Munchery, and Tran says the company can help with that as well.

As for the chefs themselves, I browsed the site yesterday and quickly found a half dozen serving my zip code in the city, both those well-known for catering, plus a few affiliated with great rstaurants I'm familiar with. They include Alison Mountford (Square Meals), Katherine Frank (Evolution Catering), Simone Shifnadel (Delish Dish), Indrajit Ghosh of Little Delhi, and Stacy Lu of Golden Kim Tar.

When it comes to the pricing, several of the above were offering meals for $15, and there is also an initial $10 off coupon from Munchery for trying out the service. Over time, it looks like you would be spending around $22 per meal, which less than what you pay when you eat out at a decent restaurant.

According to a new survey from Mint.com, the average American goes out six times a month (not counting junk food and coffee shops or bars) and pays an average of $28.47 per meal.

Tran is quick to differentiate Munchery from all that, however. "We are not trying to compete with the dining out experience with a loved one or friend on Friday or Saturday night. What we offer is more for people on the run who nonetheless want a delicious, nutritious meal that fits into their busy schedules."

Tri Tran may be as perfect an example of an immigrant entrepreneur who started with nothing as you're likely to find. After moving from his native Vietnam at age 11 in 1986 to live with relatives in San Jose, he completed his middle school and high school there before enrolling at MIT. "When I arrived at MIT, I had exactly $100 to my name."

For Tran, those days are over.