The adage that “too many cooks spoil the broth” does not apply if they are U of I alumni working for Chicago-based meal service company Tovala.
“You hire from within your network because they are people you know and trust, and you understand their skill sets,” says Bryan Wilcox, PHD ’11 ENG, co-founder and chief technology officer of the company that employs 11 U of I graduates. “Also, U of I not only has a big footprint in the Midwest, but an especially big footprint in the technology field.”
“Knowing what fellow U of I grads had to achieve to get their degrees definitely builds in an extra layer of trust,” adds Adam Brakhane, ’14 ENG, Tovala’s director of software engineering.
Tovala offers a new menu and a delivery every week, with the customer choosing the number of meals. Options include meat or fish with a side dish, or be plant-based. Gluten-free and carb-conscious choices also are available.
Technological savvy helps differentiate Tovala from its competitors. Chiefly, the company supplies customers with its computerized Smart Oven. Users scan a barcode on a prepared Tovala meal, place it in the oven, and it cooks perfectly.
Wilcox and Peter Fiflis, ’11 ENG, MS ’13 ENG, PHD ’16 ENG, Tovala’s principal technologist, developed the first generation of the oven, and Keely Kabala, ’09 ENG, Tovala senior vice president of operations and hardware engineering, developed the second-generation model. Food prep time is one to two minutes, and oven cooking time is 20 minutes or less.
“It’s fun working at Tovala and dealing with all the cool problems we’re trying to solve,” Brakhane says. “We need all kinds of skill sets and [we] are growing. It’s been an amazing experience, and it never hurts to have a few more Illinois grads on the team.”
Because of the pandemic, “business is up,” Wilcox says. “It is demonstrably safer to have products delivered to your home through a safe delivery channel than it is to go out. We already had strict safety procedures, and now we have an infectious disease consultant overseeing our personal protective equipment and our production control mechanisms. Our employees have stayed healthy, we have shipped every week, and we’re very proud.”