Everybody has a kitchen. But are they actually using it—and do they know how?
When Kevin Yu discovered that many culinary resources didn’t cater to people with no knowledge of cooking, he set out to change that. With a background in tech—and the haunting memory of one disastrous Valentine’s Day dinner of strawberry spinach salad, mushroom soup and seafood pasta—Yu realized there was an opportunity to create a brand that could become the heart of the heart of the home.
Yu started SideChef in 2013. The app, which offers interactive recipes featuring hands-free voice commands, step-by-step photos, built-in timers and more, has become an award-winning home-cooking platform, recently featured on Inc. 5000’s list of fastest-growing companies, showcased as a favorite cooking app in a New York Times article and named “Best App of 2017” by Google Play. SideChef currently has more than 13.5 million users and brought in $1.5 million in revenue in 2021.
Yu himself is now a three-time TEDx speaker on vision-driven design. He’s partnered with brands including Walmart, Amazon Fresh, LG, GE Appliances, Samsung and Sharp and brought in influencers ranging from professional chefs to popular foodies.
Yu sat down with SUCCESS to talk about the brand’s origin story and how he’s built his business by constantly adding more assets to SideChef.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk first about the dinner fail that fueled your passion to make cooking at home less of a disaster.
Kevin Yu: Well, my background is very much not in food. So about 10 years ago, I wanted to make a nice dinner for my girlfriend at the time. I was trying to use a recipe from YouTube, another one from a website and then another one from a blog. The worst part, and what made it so complicated, was that I was trying to make everything at the same time. And timing is everything in cooking. So the thought came to me: How come there isn’t cooking guidance like there is for driving?
Say I gave you gas money, a car and Google Maps and told you that you could drive from San Francisco to New York. You’d eventually get there, and there is confidence in that. I wanted to give people that same confidence to get through a dish.
Is that what happened?
KY: We immediately had a huge success rate: 95% of people could make any dish they’d never seen before, as long as they followed the step-by-step instructions.
How did you continue to build SideChef from there?
KY: We knew that people weren’t cooking as often as they could, because so many things made it difficult for them: planning the meal, getting groceries, figuring out what dishes go together and more. That was why they weren’t cooking. Our idea was to solve all of those problems with one click.
And how has SideChef evolved since its inception?
KY: The entrepreneurial experience is not a straight line. In 2014, we built the app. In 2016, we realized that even though we had an award-winning app, it was hard to monetize that. We wouldn’t survive without that. So, we pivoted our business model toward smart kitchen appliances until we became a kitchen operating system. Today, we work with most of the top 10 kitchen appliance manufacturers. In 2018, we saw the rise of voice assistance. So everything just continued to change toward a guided kitchen experience.
Where did you go from there, and what’s next?
KY: The latest chapter is working with most of the top consumer packaged goods brands. How do they take their brands and contextually offer them as solutions to problems? The SideChef recipe leads you to the products, and you add them to your cart in seconds. It’s a unified experience. That allows us to monetize our idea with different groups in different ways, because food is such a fragmented industry.
With technology advancing so rapidly, how do you keep your competitive edge with SideChef?
KY: People have asked us who our competitors are, but it’s hard to say. Maybe recipe sites, maybe smart kitchen companies, maybe food delivery apps? We’ve become unique because we’re the only one-stop destination for all of those components. That path became our competitive edge. Our mission from the beginning was to allow anybody to be able to cook. And chasing after that has evolved, but it’s always been about being the single destination—like Netflix, Spotify, Uber. Solving “What’s for dinner?” has never had that until now. Every house has a kitchen, but not everyone cooks at home.
What lessons did you learn growing up that you still lean on today?
KY: I grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, and my parents wanted me to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. Very clichéd. So, I was kind of the black sheep, because I was following different pursuits, and I had to learn to be comfortable in my own skin. But as you grow up, you find people in your life who give you validation about who you are and what you’re doing. Those are the stepping stones you build up to give you confidence as you face adversity. And that helps you make your own way.
With life’s daily distractions, how do you keep focus at work and at home?
KY: Focus is so important on the company level, but I try to understand it within myself first—figuring out how I stay focused and then how can I apply that on a macro level. It’s a combination of the people and the plan, but a plan that can change. You need to know—and I share this with our team and our investors—that somebody will build the Netflix of food. It might as well be us, because we are in the lead.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo courtesy of SideChef.