Q&A: Maple CEO Caleb Merkl on Building the ‘Ideal’ Food Delivery Concept

By Andrea Hayley
Andrea Hayley
Andrea Hayley
Reporting on the business of food, food tech, and Silicon Alley. Studied the Humanities for undergrad, and obtained a Master of Arts in business journalism from Columbia University. I love covering the people, and the passion, that animates innovation in America. Email me at andrea dot hayley at epochtimes.com
February 2, 2016 Updated: February 3, 2016

Maple launched its gourmet food delivery service in the Financial District less than a year ago, and in January expanded to include Midtown Manhattan.

With Maple, New Yorkers can order up an exciting chef-designed meal any day of the week, such as the Chipotle Beef on Mushroom & Spinach, with oregano chayote squash, and spicy scallion snow peas. The promise is that it will be delivered hot, in 30 minutes or less. Lunches are $12; dinners are $15, delivery and tip included.

Backed by Momofuku’s David Chang, and $29 million in venture capital funding, Maple’s business is unique in that it owns the entire process—from recipe development, to production, assembly, and delivery—and manages it with sophisticated, purpose-built technology.

CEO and co-founder Caleb Merkl talked with Epoch Times about Maple’s vision, Chang’s role, sustainable sourcing, and why vertical integration is the only recipe for long-term success.

“We’re not playing to win the next year or two,” says Merkl, “we’re playing to build a food company that is going to change the landscape and be a leader for decades to come.”

The Model

Epoch Times: Why did the team decide to start Maple? What was the unfilled need in the marketplace?

Caleb Merkl: Maple serves balanced meals, made from the highest quality ingredients, at an accessible price, and wrapped up in an experience that is predicated on reliability and ease of use. The idea was born out of the basic pain points when it comes to ordering food online. NYC is spoiled with great restaurants, but great delivery is an entirely different challenge. We’re rethinking the whole process and building a company from scratch with the singular vision of making delivery exceptional at every step in the process.

Maple co-founder and CEO Caleb Merkl (Courtesy of Maple)
Maple co-founder and CEO Caleb Merkl. (Courtesy of Maple)

Epoch Times: You’ve referred to the Maple model as “vertically integrated dinner delivery.” How does Maple’s delivery-only restaurant business model work? What’s new here?

Mr. Merkl: We were lucky to be able to approach the problem of food delivery from a blank slate. Not having any institutional baggage allowed us to imagine what an ideal delivery business should look like. This meant no need for a traditional brick-and-mortar presence, which improves our cost structure and allows us more flexibility to scale.

This blank slate approach has allowed for incredible innovation—from the technology we’ve developed to drive the business, to the physical layout of our infrastructure. We’re able to serve a much larger audience than a traditional retail location, which means we get tremendous leverage out of each location.

Fine-tuning the process with purpose-built technology means we’re exceptionally efficient compared to any other business in the space. Ultimately, by tackling the entire process, we’re able to own more margin, which means we can provide a higher quality product to our customers at a better price and as part of a vastly improved experience.

Epoch Times: In March 2015, Maple announced $22 million in Series A funding, for a total of $25 million invested, according to CrunchBase. What is the scale of the operation’s infrastructure today?

Mr. Merkl: We found a small group of long-term minded investors to back Maple early in our journey. They saw the disruptive nature of what we’re working to build and wanted to enable us to go after our vision as aggressively as possible.

That said, we’re constantly taking pause to learn, so our growth comes in waves. Our first learning came from a small friends and family test-run out of an old restaurant in the Meatpacking District. Next, we graduated to a commissary and a single neighborhood kitchen serving the Financial District.

We took several months to refine our approach and to see how our customers responded to the service before making the next leap. We’ve now expanded our commissary and opened four neighborhood kitchens. We continue to learn an enormous amount and are very excited to take our next big step.

Vietnamese Beef Salad, and Feta, Cucumber, and Orzo Greek salad from Maple, a New York meal delivery service, on July 20, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Vietnamese Beef Salad, and Feta, Cucumber, and Orzo Greek salad from Maple, a New York meal delivery service, on July 20, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Epoch Times: Where is Maple’s food prepared? How many locations do you use in Manhattan, and what happens there? How many employees are involved, and what is the breakdown ratio between cooks and delivery?

Mr. Merkl: We prep Maple meals in our commissary kitchen in Brooklyn. From there, we plate and pack meals in one of our four neighborhood kitchens in Manhattan. With these four locations we currently serve users located from 42nd Street to 14th Street, between Eighth and Park avenues, and anywhere south of 14th Street in Manhattan.

We’re continuing to grow at a very steady pace, but as of now, our team includes 500 people with the vast majority of the team focused on delivery and culinary service in our neighborhood kitchens.

Epoch Times: San Francisco-based Greenoaks Capital led Maple’s Series A funding round, and you were quoted in a New York Business Journal article saying, “Greenoaks brings an incredible wealth of knowledge around logistics and intelligent scaling to the table—two areas that are going to be vital for Maple’s success.” We’d like to know how that partnership is going. How does Maple intend to excel in the logistics area, and why is that important?

Mr. Merkl: Honestly, I think we must be some of the luckiest entrepreneurs on the planet in terms of who we’ve partnered with on the investment side.

Thrive Capital helped co-found the company, betting big on us before we even named the company, and they’ve continued to be an incredible resource as we’ve thought about how to scale. Adding Greenoaks to the team, having them gel so well with Thrive, and aligning so clearly on our vision, makes the process truly unique.

Greenoaks has been an incredibly long-term minded partner—they’ve pushed us as the right times and remained patient at the right times. Most importantly, they see how the food landscape is changing and they understand that this model, when executed on correctly, has the potential to yield a truly massive business.  

Logistics and technology are huge differentiators for this model, versus legacy players or other delivery services. A big benefit of starting from scratch is the ability to build each step of our process for maximum efficiency and utilization—both in terms of technology and infrastructure.

We’ve created an extensive layer of technology from the ground up that helps drive our entire business. We’re able to decide how many incoming orders to accept, how to bundle those orders, when meals for a given order within a given bundle should be put in the oven, and how and when to dispatch riders.

An endless number of variables come into play, so having a system that ties each step to the next is incredibly powerful in helping us ultimately deliver a level of service that others can’t.  Delivering a couple hundred meals out of a restaurant is something that can be figured out with basic rules of thumb—when you start talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of meals a day, then logistical and technological exceptionalism is a prerequisite to delivering on a fundamentally better customer experience.      

Epoch Times: What is different about Maple from other companies offering on-demand delivery?

Mr. Merkl: The food industry is a big space, with a diverse set of problems and customers, which means there will be multiple winners. When we think about food over the long-term, there are three things we don’t expect to change in the next 10 years: People are going to want higher quality food, they’re going to want that food at a more accessible price, and they’re going to want a better, more convenient experience. 

There are models that allow you to do some of these things, but to really nail all three you have to own the entire process. Owning part of the process may look nicer from a margin standpoint, but we think that’s in the short-term. 

In the long-term, defensibility and margin come from actually solving the problem, which is really hard to do if you don’t control each touchpoint. It’s hard for some to wrap their minds around in a world of marketplace business models, but the best solution, in this case,  also means investing in infrastructure. We’re not playing to win the next year or two, we’re playing to build a food company that is going to change the landscape and be a leader for decades to come.  

Epoch Times: How does Maple handle delivery? Why did you decide to use your own couriers, and how did you design the customer’s delivery experience? Are you able to scale the use of bike couriers to other locations/cities?

Isaiah delivers food from Maple, a meal delivery service, in the Financial District in Manhattan, New York, on July 20, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Isaiah delivers food from Maple, a meal delivery service, in the Financial District in Manhattan, New York, on July 20, 2015. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Mr. Merkl: Our goal is to minimize time from oven to your door, which means optimizing every available minute. We’ve been able to achieve unique rates of throughput in our kitchens (that few companies have reached) all without sacrificing on food quality. This is almost entirely due to the advances our team has made with Maple’s technology platform.

While use of technology is integral for Maple, there’s still a very human side to our business. We really excited about Maple’s opportunity to create meaningful careers—we pay a living wage and offer health care to our delivery and culinary teams. This allows us to attract the best talent, and, in turn, provide the best service. We’ll continue to tweak our model as we move to other cities and other countries, so we may not always rely on bike couriers, but Maple will always require good people.

The Food

Epoch Times: How does Maple ensure that customers get the highest quality food? How do you design meal choices to optimize quality?

Mr. Merkl: We feel strongly about offering simple, balanced meals with a thoughtful approach to flavor and ingredients. When we’re developing a new dish, we’re always considering how that dish will travel, as well as how the components of that dish will change over the course of the delivery process.

We test extensively—it’s a fundamentally different approach to menu development than you would see at any other restaurant. Packaging and delivery equipment play an important part (we looked at over 200 different types of packaging prior to launch, and continue to make changes on this front), as does the routing technology we’re building.

Outside of our extensive testing process, we’re always considering ingredients; our ability to source at a high standard and to our scale.

The result? For lunch you might find a smoked trout sandwich on toasted rye, a black bean, avocado, and quinoa salad, or ginger grilled chicken on sesame brown rice. Our dinners feature an entree with two sides, and include dishes such as pepper-crusted heritage pork tenderloin, baked arctic char, or Moroccan spiced chicken.

Baked Arctic Char (Courtesy of Maple)
Baked Arctic Char. (Courtesy of Maple)

Epoch Times: What perspective does Soa Davies bring to the food?

Mr. Merkl: Soa is Maple’s executive chef, and the mastermind behind Maple’s menu. She brings nearly two decades of experience to Maple, having previously served alongside Eric Ripert as head of menu research & development for New York’s three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin. Finding someone who is innovative across multiple cuisines, who has an unrelenting desire for quality, and who’s constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to new dish development, is exactly what the company needed. Soa has proven to be a tremendous driver of Maple’s success thus far.  

Epoch Times: What role does Momofuku founder David Chang play in the business, and what perspective does he bring? Chang is a heavyweight in the New York culinary scene.

Mr. Merkl: We met David before we even had a name for the company, and he was really excited about the idea of serving food outside a restaurant. He helped us convince Soa Davies to join as executive chef, and has been an incredible sounding board for her and for the rest of the culinary team as we’ve worked through the menu development process. David also helped us assemble Maple’s Culinary Board of Advisors, which includes Mark Ladner (executive chef of Del Posto, founder of Pasta Flyer), Brooks Headley (former executive pastry chef of Del Posto and Founder of Superiority Burger), Dan Kluger (former executive chef of ABC Kitchen) and Christina Tosi (executive chef and owner of Milk Bar).

Maple’s culinary board acts as a network of advisers—all have incredibly high standards and a tendency to go really deep in the pursuit of perfecting something. Dave’s got an incredibly full plate with projects for Momofuku, so we felt grateful to involve him early in the process. While Maple is clearly not Momofuku food, his perspective and expertise are a crucial part of the conversation driving the company.  

Epoch Times: At the beginning, some people thought David would be the face of the business, but it seems he is not. 

Mr. Merkl: Dave was never meant to be the face of Maple, and that’s something we all landed on very early in our conversations. You’ll notice he’s never mentioned on the website or in the app; that’s always been the case.

Maple food is decidedly not Momofuku food, so plastering Dave’s face everywhere wouldn’t have been true to our brand. His role as Maple’s chief culinary officer is the perfect balance; he’s provided invaluable perspective as we’ve worked to get Maple off the ground. We’re lucky to have built a special relationship with Dave and the Momofuku team, and we’re excited to work with him as Maple expands. 

Maple's meals are delivered in compostable containers packaged in branded pale yellow paper. (Courtesy of Maple)
Maple’s meals are delivered in compostable containers packaged in branded pale yellow paper. (Courtesy of Maple)

Epoch Times: Former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, now with meal-kit delivery service Purple Carrot, has written that sourcing large quantities of sustainable ingredients for his business has not been easy. Is Maple having any trouble sourcing the quality ingredients it needs?

Mr. Merkl: Sourcing the highest quality ingredients in a sustainable way is certainly a challenge, but it’s not an impossibility. We’re not willing to sacrifice when it comes to our menu, so we’ve had to invest a lot of time and resources in building an internal team and strong relationships with the right purveyors. Given our growth, we’ve already had to start conversations with farmers about purchasing crops in advance in order to ensure that our ingredients will be available, and will be grown or raised to our specifications.

Epoch Times: Is sustainable sourcing a concern? If so, is there anything Maple plans to do to help local farmers?

Mr. Merkl: Sustainable sourcing is a concern, but also a very realistic area of progress. The more that companies demand sustainability, the more purveyors fall in line. We work with local farmers to ensure that sustainable practices are going to find a large and regular buyer through Maple.    

Epoch Times: We’d all love to know, how did the team come up with the name Maple, and what does it mean? 

Mr. Merkl: We’re trying to build a fundamentally different experience—something that truly stands alone in both approach and experience. We wanted our name to feel like it could stand alone as well. We didn’t want to be purely illustrative of what we were doing, or sound like a hip Brooklyn eatery, and we wanted grounding in food. We stumbled across the word Maple and immediately knew it was a good fit. It feels positive, strong, and something that could stand on its own as the next great food brand.

The Future

Epoch Times: Maple launched in Lower Manhattan last April. In early January you launched in Midtown Manhattan. What has customer response been like, and are you meeting your targets for sales growth?

Mr. Merkl: We’ve been able to expand to four neighborhoods since our launch in April and the response has been incredible. People are passionate about food, so they’re eager to engage with Maple. We’ve had customers write us poems, and even one customer who proclaimed she intended to wed one of our salads (and then proceeded to stage a mock wedding with her colleagues).

Maple hits a nerve when it comes to filling a need for a balanced meal at a reasonable price and we’re thankful to have customers who have been so supportive. One of our challenges has actually been scaling our operations quick enough to match demand. We’ve made sure to pause and ensure we’re not moving too far from what our customers want, but it can be hard to hold the line when people are pushing for more. We also still aren’t perfect—we let customers down from time to time and we’re learning, so that we can get better with each day we operate. Since the beginning, we set pretty ambitious goals for ourselves and, despite our deliberate pacing, we’ve been able to dwarf original expectations.  

Epoch Times: What can we expect from Maple for the rest of 2016?

Mr. Merkl: Right now we’re focused on Manhattan and working to serve as many hungry New Yorkers as possible. We’re excited to take our next big step, but we’re only going to do so once we’re confident we’re in a spot to scale without sacrificing on the quality of our service. Either way, I’m confident that people are going to get to see a lot more of Maple in 2016.

Epoch Times: What is Maple’s most audacious long-term goal? Global domination is it?

Mr. Merkl: People are seeing the tip of the Maple iceberg. We have the most impressive team making Maple better every day. With that in mind, I have no doubt that we’ll blaze new trails in the coming years and decades. It’s not going to be easy, but we have the right people and the right model. We’re aiming for nothing less than building a company for the ages.  

Caleb Merkl completed his MBA at Harvard Business School. After working as a private equity analyst for Weston Presidio in Boston, Merkl spent three years as VP of strategy and operations at a New York-based furniture design and manufacturing firm.

Merkl joined Primary Ventures as entrepreneur in residence in 2014, and co-founded Maple that same year with former Primary venture partner Akshay Navle (Maple’s COO), using $4 million in seed money from Thrive Capital and Primary Ventures.

Andrea Hayley
Andrea Hayley
Reporting on the business of food, food tech, and Silicon Alley. Studied the Humanities for undergrad, and obtained a Master of Arts in business journalism from Columbia University. I love covering the people, and the passion, that animates innovation in America. Email me at andrea dot hayley at epochtimes.com