|KITCHEN ACCOMPLISHED: The TurboChef double wall residential oven costs $7,900. Its controls were designed by the same people responsible for the iPod.
photography courtesy of TurboChef
In 1990, phil mckee took a business trip to japan that would eventually change how food is cooked in kitchens everywhere. At the time, he was 33 and had already started and sold one company. Now, with a background in math and an MBA from SMU, he was the president of a food ingredient company. It made an emulsifier that improved the taste and texture of microwaved bread.
Inspiration struck in Tokyo. McKee marveled at the variety of food items available in the city’s prolific vending machines. Instead of the typical snack mix, their units stocked sandwiches, wraps, noodles, soup, egg rolls, and dispensed them in the same time it took to fill up a cup with soda. So when his client asked if he had any new ideas that he was working on, McKee found himself saying that he had a plan for a new kind of vending machine, one that could supply french fries, chicken nuggets, personal pizzas—food that was crispy and evenly cooked, not just nuked. And soon, what was once just a rough concept materialized into machine parts littering McKee’s garage and kitchen. But McKee wasn’t an engineer. “Pretty quickly I got in over my head,” he says.
He knew the key to his vending machine would be its oven, which would need to cook the food more rapidly than any conventional oven could. For that, he enlisted Earl Winkelmann, an electrical engineer he had met through a business deal in the late ’80s. Although McKee was living in Wichita, Kansas, at the time, a 1,200-square-foot northeast Dallas warehouse that Winkelmann had been using as an office became the young company’s base of operations. Every week McKee would commute to Dallas in his ’88 Oldsmobile—five hours each way—to work on the project. The time in the car, predating the omnipresence of cell phones and PDAs, was far from wasted. McKee dedicated those 10 hours a week to focused thought about the product and its technology. “It’s not that we didn’t make mistakes or do anything stupid, but we were very efficient,” McKee says.
One year and $300,000 later, the two men had a quick-cooking oven—but that was it. No vending machine. What they invented (and patented) is known as airspeed technology. Basically, McKee and Winkelmann created a small blast furnace. Their oven cooked food by blowing hot air over and around it at more than 60 miles per hour. Microwaves were then introduced to accelerate the cooking even further. The catch was figuring out how to combine the two methods.
Pizza was the first item they test cooked in their contraption, and they went through thousands, usually 9-inch Tony’s frozen pizzas from local Tom Thumb and Albertsons stores that McKee would bring back to the office. Eventually they were able to cook a frozen pizza in one minute flat. They also produced a low-tech video spotlighting the oven’s features, which, along with the filed patents, generated interest from behemoths like Pizza Hut, Sam’s Club, and Whitbread, a British food service company. In 1992, the then president of Pizza Hut visited the team’s modest digs and was so taken with the oven’s capabilities that he placed an order on the spot for 25 ovens at $10,000 each. (A change in leadership at Pizza Hut resulted in that order not being filled, but McKee and Winkelmann were allowed to keep much-needed cash from the $125,000 down payment.)
Soon after, a Sam’s Club representative paid a visit. The chain was interested in using the oven in its cafes. McKee and Winkelmann prepared for days to get the cook settings right for the demo items, purchased, appropriately, from a Sam’s Club frozen foods section. At this point, the oven was so large that they’d built a special wooden table to accommodate it. For the big visit, they covered it with an old tablecloth.
When the rep saw the oven demonstrated, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The oven could not only cook a raw chicken breast in two minutes, but five of them, back to back, in about 10 minutes. The rep lifted the tablecloth to see if there was someone under the table, inserting pre-cooked food into the oven. “He didn’t have a frame of reference with which to process or analyze what he was seeing,” McKee says.
Orders started to stream in, and, by 1994, TurboChef, a name coined by McKee, was a publicly traded company with McKee as the CEO. Shortly after the IPO, with more than 250,000 miles logged on his car’s odometer, he left Kansas and moved his family to Frisco. In 1998, McKee came to realize he was an entrepreneur more than a manager, and he bid farewell to TurboChef. Business was up and down after that, and in 2003 a group of investors bought the company. The following year, the windfall that McKee and Winkelmann had sought for so many years finally came. Subway restaurants ordered 20,000 ovens, ballooning the company’s revenue from $3 million to $72 million. Although revenue declined in ’05 and ’06, analysts say TurboChef revenue in ’07 should be more than $90 million.
Now, with a client list that includes Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and 7-Eleven, and marketing materials that boast props from chefs Charlie Trotter (a company spokesman), Guenter Seeger, and Dean Fearing, the oven that began as pieces in McKee’s Wichita kitchen is returning to where it started: the home.
The TurboChef global operations center occupies a sprawling red brick building in a nondescript Carrollton office park, just west of the Tollway. A sign bearing the company’s sleek black-and-white logo is the only indication that anything remarkable might be going on inside. The development, testing, and fabrication of the ovens happen here, though the new residential models are currently produced by a Chicago outfit. More than 200 employees work inside the Carrollton outpost, which will soon include a retail showroom.
On this day in August, the sign-in log at the receptionist’s desk contains six or seven entries of names with “Frog Design” listed next to them. Frog, a Palo Alto-based design firm responsible for the iPod’s user-friendly features, helped develop the residential ovens’ appearance and functionality. These models have a trademarked Cookwheel and Cook Navigator display that allow you to scroll through nearly 500 settings as easily as you would search for a favorite song.
The walls in the lobby area are covered with patents, and the receptionist volunteers that TurboChef owns 90 percent of the patents in the industry. Chef Alison Brushaber, vice president of culinary services and a former executive chef at Tony Roma’s and Black-Eyed Pea, greets me wearing the sensible trappings of her position as the leader of an 18-member culinary team: a no-fuss blond bob and chef whites. She leads the way through a set of glass doors, beyond which lie brightly lit cubes interspersed with red-carpeted hallways.
We arrive at the TurboChef test kitchen, where the company’s two residential model ovens—a double wall unit with both speedcook and convection ovens, retailing for $7,895, and a single wall unit featuring just the speedcook oven that sells for $5,995—sit in uninsulated, free-standing cabinets. The speedcook ovens gleam from their perches, one in Thermal Red and the other in Ivory, both with curved, stainless-steel handles tracing the upper edge of their arched, retro-modern facades. A traditional analog clock plays foil to the modern, iPod-like Cookwheel that has modes for air crisp, bake, broil, dehydrate, favorites, roast, and toast. Once a setting is selected, the Cook Navigator brings up a list of food selections with preset cook times that are typically 15 times shorter than those for conventional ovens. A cookbook, created by Brushaber and her team, comes with the oven, which has all the recipes pre-programmed.
Brushaber begins her oven demonstration without assistance from the cookbook. She takes a flatbread pizza out of the freezer, shows me that it is frozen solid, and then pops it into the preheated oven to bake. In the time it takes her to tell me how she came to work for the company—her restaurant consulting firm was acquired by a technology company that later merged with TurboChef—a gentle ding announces that the pizza has finished cooking. About two minutes. The pizza’s surface is shiny and golden, with the cheese bubbling up near the crust’s edge. Steve Beshara, the amiable chief branding officer of TurboChef whose build suggests frequent attendance at the company’s cooking demos, is visiting from the Atlanta headquarters and has joined us in the kitchen. Between bites, he stresses the high-end nature of the ovens, likening their production to that of a Porsche—a handmade machine that transcends its function. As Brushaber rubs a generous portion of chateaubriand with olive oil, salt and pepper, and rosemary, Beshara goes on to explain that the oven’s curved shape sprang from consumer research: people often used their hands to simulate arched contours when describing the kind of styling they wanted to see in an oven.
Once the meat has finished cooking, Brushaber rounds out the main course with roasted potatoes, incorporating the same seasonings that she used on the chateaubriand, and asparagus, wrapped loosely in a damp paper towel that helps produce perfect al dente results in just 45 seconds. She says the asparagus was one of the items that really impressed the editors of Gourmet magazine during one of TurboChef’s many press demos. In an article about high-speed appliances from June of this year, the Wall Street Journal singled TurboChef out for a test run and praised the results of a rack of lamb cooked in five minutes.
The oven’s brochure promises: “The time saved waiting on the oven is time gained with loved ones.” Perhaps. But it’s not difficult to come up with other time-saving inventions that have failed in that familial regard. The automobile, e-mail, and so on. For those without such reservations (and at least six grand to spend), Beshara promises: “It’s one of those ‘wow’ things at dinner parties.”
Mckee, a little grayer at the temples since his trip to Tokyo, is still working with Winkelmann, filing patents on new technologies. McKee is an avid cook, but he hasn’t scored one of the new TurboChef residential ovens yet. He used to have some of the older commercial models at home. His latest project involves the back end of the cooking process: clean-up. He and Winkelmann are applying the technology of their oven to the dishwasher. Their latest patent was issued in March. Though he grants that speed dish-washing may not have the same appeal as speed cooking. “It’s not as sexy as an oven,” he says.
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