Little flyers have been appearing all over Berkeley lately, advertising freshly cooked, mostly organic, home-delivered artisanal gourmet meals for just six bucks a pop.
Your first thought is: This cannot be.
You imagine yourself as a character in a Hermann Hesse novel, where a silent hooded figure brushes by and hands you a slip of paper inviting you to a super-secret club. Because — six bucks? No effing way.
But effing yes. The newest fast-food face in town is SpoonRocket (no relation to Spoonwiz), a startup from 2009 UC Berkeley grads Anson Tsui and Stephen Hsiao, whose previous food-delivery outfits Pho Me Now and Munchy Munchy Hippos brought Vietnamese noodle soup and bacon-wrapped wieners to hungry students in the wee hours.
SpoonRocket too delivers late, until four a.m., throughout Berkeley and neighboring Emeryville, with plans to expand its range soon. Its fare is select: an ever-shifting menu of one meat dish and one vegan dish daily, both with sides, the kinds of steaks and sauçissons and soufflés you’d find in restaurants where you have to sit up straight like a grownup and servers expect $20 tips.
Prime rib. Beef Bourguignon. Oxtail ragout. Dry-rubbed Cornish game hen. Quinoa-stuffed eggplant in tomato coulis. Pan-seared citrus-infused tofu with chimichurri sauce atop black-and-tan rice with baby bok choy and warm mango salad. Stuff like that.
“We make our food in batches so that it’s hot and ready in our vehicles and delivered as soon as customers order,” Tsui told me. “The only interval is the actual traveling time — as soon as customers place their order, it’s on the way.”
Most customers call or order online and receive their food a few minutes later — ten minutes, on average.
Curious, I arranged to visit SpoonRocket’s kitchen, where classically trained executive chef David Cramer arrives daily before dawn to design these meals and oversee their preparation. Workers were chopping, peeling, stirring. Simmering in a stew pot was a creamy braising liquid, swirling with whole spices, in which pork shoulder would later be cooked. Garlic mashed potatoes were being spooned into recyclable plastic boxes. All the food is cooked in this kitchen, then loaded onto specially heated and insulated vans for delivery. It is never frozen. Whatever the ethnic origin of a dish, the SpoonRocket crew cooks it French-style — à la Escoffier.
“We believe in the layering of flavors. Every element of every dish has to be seasoned in exactly the right way or a dish won’t work,” Cramer told me. “Meanwhile, we have to keep our food costs in line while keeping our standards high. Even if I just do coq au vin, I’ll use the best mushrooms and the sweetest onions.”
Yet the portions in these plastic boxes are pretty hefty. Cramer credits his good relationships with local food co-ops, which ask for his input on which fruits and vegetables to plant. He knows where all the produce used at SpoonRocket was grown.
“We’re a small local business and we’re trying to promote other small local businesses,” he said as a delivery-van driver hurried past.
Tsui explained: “Our chef decides what items to make based on whatever ingredients are fresh and in season.”
I’ve ordered two of SpoonRocket’s vegan options. The first was a hearty rigatoni, as colorful as a Matisse painting with big bites of tender-crisp vegetables. The second was a sunny Southwestern-style lasagna, studded with sweet summer corn. Every time I’ve checked SpoonRocket’s menu, I’ve liked what I’ve seen.
As a business model and as actual food, SpoonRocket appeals to the many versions of me: Lazy Me, Cheapskate Me, Hate-Making-Choices Me, Dislikes Cooking Me, and of course Hermit Me. Oh, and End World Hunger Me, because SpoonRocket donates part of its proceeds to charity.
“We have always appreciated good food,” Tsui told me. “Coming out of college, Stephen and I didn’t really have any real skills, so opening a restaurant seemed to be the most obvious step to take, since we wanted to start a business and food is something that everyone has some knowledge about. Then we went to do more research about food and nutrition, going as far as being raw vegans for months at a time, and that’s when we realized how poorly people are eating. That’s probably also why three-quarters of the U.S. population is overweight. We wanted to change that.”
[All photographs by Kristan Lawson.]