Tuesday 27 September 2016

From the perfect boiled egg to designing tomorrow's kitchens

The smart scales made by hi-tech culinary craftsmen at Drop are turning heads and filling bellies all over the world. Louise McBride met one of the founders and talked turkey about the food technology business

Lousie McBride

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

‘I love traditional apple peeler/corer/slicer/cutter machines — they never cease to amaze me,’ says Ben Harris of Drop. Photo: Tony Gavin
‘I love traditional apple peeler/corer/slicer/cutter machines — they never cease to amaze me,’ says Ben Harris of Drop. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ever got yourself in a tizzy because you discovered you didn't have enough eggs for your chocolate brownies - after you started making them. Or broke down in tears because you didn't have enough self-raising flour for that sticky toffee pudding you were dying to make?

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Four food lovers believed that so many people were finding themselves in such predicaments that it was time to develop something to help them along.

The four - Ben Harris, Jack Phelan, Tim Redfern, and Jonny McCauley - are all creative technologists. Almost three years ago, the men set up Drop - which has created an iPad-connected kitchen scale that works like an interactive cook book.

"There were all these smart home appliances coming out for the living room - and we felt that the kitchen was underserved and ripe for innovation," said Mr Harris, who is the CEO of Drop. "We looked at how recipes were being used online and saw that recipe formats hadn't really changed - they largely consisted of a block of text and an image.

"With that in mind, we developed an interactive recipe app. That app walks you step by step through a recipe and tells you exactly how much of an ingredient you need to have. If you don't have enough flour to make a batch of cookies, the app will scale all the other ingredients proportionally to match. It also tells you how to scale chemical agents - because if you double a bread recipe, you don't want to double the yeast."

Mr Harris said he has always been interested in "removing ambiguity from the kitchen".

He invented the PerfEGG - a device which creates a perfectly boiled egg - while studying industrial design in Brunel University, just outside London. The gadget lets the egg white coagulate but keeps the yolk runny, regardless of egg size. He also developed a meringue maker - SweetAir - that makes meringues using a vacuum instead of heat.

Not surprisingly, he likes to cook himself.

"I love to make paella," said Mr Harris. "It takes time and care - but with a bit of patience it's a homely, summery, nourishing, delicious meal that is a delight to share with friends and family around a big table on a summer evening."

Mr Harris graduated from Brunel University in 2006. Shortly after that he started to work with James Leckey Design in Belfast where he developed postural management products for children with special needs. In February 2012, he moved back to Dublin where he set up a product design consultancy, White Zebra Studios.

"That's when I met the other co-founders of Drop," said Mr Harris. Soon after that, the Dubliner decided to wind down his consultancy so that he could focus on Drop.

Mr Harris and his fellow co-founders set up Drop in November 2012. The first product released by Drop was the smart scales. This scales essentially talks to the company's recipe app - the Drop Kitchen app.

"We released the scales in every Apple store in the United States, Canada and Britain in November 2014," said Mr Harris. "We've gone live since with Apple stores in Australia."

The scales can also be bought in Lakeland stores in Britain, Target stores in the United States, and online from Amazon as well as the company's own website at getdrop.com. The company's scales can also be bought in Harvey Norman stores in Ireland.

"You get the dropkitchen app and all the recipes for free," said Mr Harris. "So all you need to do is buy the scales. When you connect the scales and the app, you get your interactive cook book."

So is there a demand for an interactive cook book?

"Definitely," said Mr Harris. "People want to make better use of their time. It helps people make some great food in the kitchen. We shipped our first product in November 2012. In our first six months we had over US$1m - about €890,000 in today's money - in revenues."

The recipes offered by Drop range from lemon sorbet to eggs benedict to huevos rancheros - and more. The company first worked with a couple of bakers when deciding on the recipes to be used with its app and scales.

"The 'in-house' bakers were Brenda Kearney of Fumbally Cafe in Dublin and Stephane Stocki, from Northern France and one of the original bakers from La Boulange - a Californian bakery chain," said Mr Harris. "We also worked with recipe partners like Food52, Good Housekeeping and some bloggers."

As an international food business, it is important that Drop has recipes which cater for various palates. So how does the company do that?

"We launch local recipes as we go live in each area," said Mr Harris. "Our most popular recipe in Australia for example is a traditional loaf called Damper. It's essentially an Ozzie version of our soda bread."

As well as having an office in Dublin, the company recently opened an office in San Francisco.

"San Francisco is a hive of activity with an incredibly forthcoming knowledge pool of entrepreneurs who are all willing to share both their war stories and success stories," said Mr Harris. "It is also surrounded by a plethora of wonderful areas like Tahoe, Big Sur, Yosemite and Napa - so you can both work and play hard."

Drop currently employs 12 people. It plans to launch a new product early next year but Mr Harris won't yet divulge the details.

At 31 years of age, the Dubliner is a young entrepreneur. "I grew up in a food-driven, entrepreneurial family," said Mr Harris.

His mother, Elaine O'Hora, founded the Munchies chain of sandwich shops in Dublin. His father, Peter Harris, also set up restaurants as well the courier company Pony Express. His brother is CEO of a computer design company and his sister has just set up her own cafe, Foodie, in Dublin's IFSC.

So apart from the Drop scales, what's the cleverest kitchen appliance Mr Harris has come across?

"I love the traditional apple peeler-corer-slicer-cutter machines - they don't cease to amaze me," he says.

Mr Harris hopes that his Drop scales and app will become "the operating system of the smart kitchen of the future". "In the future, our plan is that the app will be able to turn on and off food processors and blenders, make sure your oven preheats at the right time - without you having to turn it on, and turn your oven off at the right time too."

"The smart kitchen is coming," he adds. "Every large kitchen appliance manufacturer in the world has a plan for the smart kitchen. We are at the forefront of that wave of development."

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