How to develop a cooking app

Kitchen Stories' headquarters in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg is a ghost office, a normal case in these times. Nobody eats or chats in the team kitchen, nobody plays table tennis or stands at the table - "every start-up needs that," says founder Mengting Gao. She stands at the bar where people actually drink "Friday Beers" together at the end of the working week, and laughs. It is generally noticeable how the manager is beaming as she leads through her dead-quiet loft. It's been more than a year since the last round was served here, but things couldn't go better for the start-up.

At the end of 2013, Gao Kitchen Stories founded together with her former business partner, Verena Hubertz. The cooking app is one of the most successful in Germany and has been downloaded 22 million times worldwide. Why an app with cooking recipes at all ?, you can of course ask. Gao's answer is as simple as it is conclusive: She wanted to develop the first really useful one. And, that much can already be revealed, it was a success. Apparently so good that Apple boss Tim Cook visited Berlin in person.

Since March 2020, Gao and her more than 60 employees have been working almost entirely from home. Those involved only come to the office for photo and video shoots. The shelves in the hallway are full of dishes, glasses and tablecloths, there are five kitchens: one for the team, three for the show and one for preparation with two walk-in fridges. "Most of the cooking is done in the prep kitchen, so it is usually not as tidy as in the others," says Gao. All dishes are tested here and then photographed and filmed in one of the show kitchens.

Gao and her co-founder Verena Hubertz, who left the company last year, have known each other since studying business administration. They often cooked together when they were studying. Even then, Gao was an enthusiastic hobby cook. She grew up watching Jamie Oliver and Tim Mälzer's television shows, and now she likes to watch American cooking shows on YouTube, preferably with Alison Roman or Joshua Weissman. For Kitchen Stories, they finally wanted to combine modern, appealing photos and videos with instructions that "are so good that anyone can cook them," says Gao. "The beautiful videos are not suitable for that, because you have to keep pausing and jumping back." These should rather give a first impression of the recipe and inspire you.

The instructions in the kitchen cannot be detailed enough

Indeed, the internet is full of recipe videos, the best known being the Buzzfeed offshoot "Tasty". There are also many cooking sites with - often unappealing - amateur photos and texts. With Kitchen Stories, users can upload their own recipes and photos, but the focus is on the dishes prepared by the professional cooks and editors. "But without our community we couldn't cover so many topics," says Gao.

The detailed instructions are the core of the business model. For risotto with wild garlic oil and green asparagus, for example, you learn step by step how to cut asparagus and how to sweat the rice with the help of photos. In some recipes there are additional clips that show how to cook an egg until waxy or how to properly roll out pasta dough. In the so-called "cooking mode", the images and text appear larger so that the recipe can be read better when the tablet or smartphone is next to the stove. You can set a timer for individual steps directly in the app, for example until the pasta is al dente.

The app works intuitively, its simple, clear design has won several awards. In the Kitchen Stories office there is a design award from Apple and Google - in addition to a selfie with Apple boss Tim Cook, a declared fan of the app, who therefore wanted to see the start-up for himself when he visited Germany in 2017. The picture document from the visit, printed out on A4, seems a little improvised, but improvising is one of Kitchen Stories' strengths. Because the founders couldn't afford a show kitchen in Berlin when they started, they shot the first hundred videos in a holiday home in Brandenburg.

On the photo wall in the team kitchen there are more pictures that evoke the founding myth, as befits a young, successful company. A photo from the notary's appointment for example, or one of a Mett hedgehog. Because earlier, when you didn't have your own office, the team worked in the rooms of a befriended start-up and always met there on "Mettwoch" for Mett-Igel-Essen. A lot was saved in the beginning, only the recipes have always been developed by professional cooks. The inserts, the text overlay with the respective ingredients, were bilingual from the start, in German and English. Mandarin was soon added, and Gao's mother translated for her. Gao was born in China and has lived in Germany since she was four years old. Unlike spoken text, the inserts can be quickly inserted in other languages. This is what makes the app so flexible. To this day, China is their most important market after Germany and the USA. There, says Gao, people appreciate authentic European recipes in the local language.

Everything that has to do with cooking is booming in the pandemic

There is still little entrepreneurial spirit in Germany. The bureaucratic effort is too high, and potential investors too averse to risk. The scene in Germany is male-dominated, with just under 16 percent of the newly founded companies being run by women. "But awareness is growing," says Gao. "Today there are funds that only invest if there is at least one woman on the management team." In recent years, the start-up scene has grown and more is being invested, says Gao. There are many success stories, especially in the New Food Economy. For example, the former Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg has just invested in the barbecue pasta manufacturer Beneto Foods, and the Berlin-based agricultural startup Infarm is planning to go public. In the pandemic, everything that has to do with cooking is booming, be it kitchen appliances or organic food.

Kitchen Stories also gained a million users in the first lockdown in 2020, says Gao. But at the same time there were problems. Many advertisers are dependent on the catering industry, where sales have collapsed. "We struggled to keep our advertising deals." Kitchen Stories is not yet making a profit, but is investing in its own further development. The app is free, the company earns money with native advertising, collaborations and, more recently, with a subscription that allows you to save an unlimited number of recipes from the Internet in the program. Food, dish and kitchen appliance manufacturers pay to appear on the app's videos and social media posts.

The Bosch subsidiary BSH Hausgeräte has been a majority shareholder and investor since 2017, and the kitchens are equipped with BSH appliances. It is the user data that makes supposedly simple recipe apps so valuable and interesting for larger companies. Samsung, for example, which is also working on the intelligent kitchen operating system, bought the "Whisk" cooking app in 2019. When it comes to strategic issues, you coordinate with BHS, says Gao and emphasizes: Otherwise you are independent.

The secret of the success of Kitchen Stories is the analysis work, it is only this that makes the app so attractive for advertisers. Gao and her team know exactly which recipes are clicked on and that the users actually cook six to seven percent, more than the average, says Gao. The latter can be recognized, among other things, by how much time people spend on the page, whether they use the shopping list, the cooking mode or the timer. "80 percent of our recipes are developed based on data," says Gao, "20 percent are based on trends, for example in social media." Like the "Feta Baked Pasta" that was trending at TikTok at the beginning of the year and that "went totally through the roof" at Kitchen Stories. In addition to seasonal dishes, recipes for buttermilk pancakes and Indian butter chicken are generally popular - and in Germany, according to Gao, sliced ​​turkey cream and minced potato gratin.

"We all cook and mostly eat the same thing over and over again"

For many dishes you hardly need more than five ingredients, for example for quick dinners like sweet potato and lentil soup or pasta risotto with fennel and lemon. The first recipe, on the other hand, was a classic of French cuisine: Coq au Vin, chicken in red wine sauce. With 60 minutes of preparation and 15 ingredients, it is one of the more elaborate dishes at Kitchen Stories. Gao observes that German users are looking for healthy, vegetarian and quick recipes on weekdays. Usually the recipes are designed so that you can try them out after work. The Kitchen Stories cookbook, which came out in the fall, is fittingly called "Anyone Can Cook". It's not that simple after all, but Kitchen Stories at least suggests how easy it could be.

In the future, the app will also offer personalized recipe suggestions for everyone. As you know it from online mail order companies. To do this, even more data is evaluated. "Everyone has their own Cooking comfort zone, that means, we usually cook and eat the same thing over and over again, "says Gao." We are currently proposing recipes in the app and on the website that are in this comfort zone, but which might expand the limits a bit. "In times of pandemics It's even more important than usual to do things a little differently, also for the team. At Kitchen Stories, you drank virtual "Friday beers" at the beginning - "but at the end of the week people don't have that much fun, yet sitting in front of the laptop for an hour, "says Gao. They have just sent packages of ingredients and virtually baked pizza together.