Plated.com Takes Its Culinary Show on the Road—in an Airstream Trailer

Who needs the Web when you've got a camper?

Tech startups have cooked up all sorts of ways to get the attention of potential customers, but in the case of Plated.com, those methods won't include the Internet. The Web-based, cook-at-home delivery service recently finished transforming an Airstream camping trailer into a full-on gourmet kitchen and, starting Aug. 22, will take to the open highway on its "Road to Discovery" tour. The nine-city campaign will park in high-traffic downtown areas, where members of the public can step inside the trailer, meet the company's executive chef and, of course, eat.

Move over, mobile marketing; here comes mobile-home marketing

"The thinking is to do an experiential and immersive cooking journey, and expose our target customers to our standards and food quality in a way that the computer just can't do," said Plated.com co-founder and co-CEO Nick Taranto. "Even a great mobile app is not capable of transmitting aromas and the visceral nature of breaking bread and dipping it into olive oil."

Founded in 2012, Plated.com is one of a crop of new meal-subscription services including Blue Apron and Hello Fresh that deliver all the ingredients you need to cook a fresh meal—including a recipe you can follow to actually cook it. It's sort of like an egocentric variant of takeout: The customer gets to play the accomplished home chef, while the service takes care of time-consuming details like grocery shopping and food prep.

Just a few years ago, this kind of venture might not have made much sense. The number of dinners prepared at home has fallen from 75 percent to 60 percent over the last 30 years, as time-starved Americans opt for quicker and easier ways to chow. But a recent survey by NPD Group found that millennials are rediscovering the kitchen, with 30 million of them following recipes to cook dinner once a week at minimum.

The trouble is, Plated.com faces the same list of challenges that its competitors do. Skeptics are bound to wonder if the ingredients are really fresh, if the recipes are really all that easy, and if the results justify the cost. (Plated.com meals start at about $12 per dish. Four recipes—which make eight servings—run about $96 per week.)

It's a tough sell, which is why Plated.com execs decided that cooking for the masses was the only way to do it. The brand has gone all in, too. It bought a classic Airstream ("land yacht") and built a kitchen complete with a butcher-block island and an herb garden. "We cut out over half of one wall, since we want people to feel like they're in an open kitchen," said marketing svp Nick Karrat. Plus, "an Airstream feels modern." At the range inside will be Le Cordon Bleu-trained executive chef Elana Karp, who'll be preparing dishes like cider-braised short ribs with creamed fall greens.

Also along for the road trip will be Plated.com's event partners, including Pandora (which has created six stations with music suited for cooking); San Pellegrino mineral water, Food & Wine magazine, and MasterCard. "Culinary is one of the areas where we have seen growing consumer engagement," said MasterCard's group executive of U.S. marketing, Maripi Jalandoni, who adds that Plated's Road to Discovery event "showcases a way for busy consumers to bring a special culinary experience to their homes." (It doesn't hurt that those customers can pay with MasterPass by MasterCard, either.)

For the home cooks of Boston, Chicago, Austin, New York and the five other cities on the itinerary, Plated's culinary road show will be a treat—though the event represents a degree of risk-taking for the brand, whose burgeoning reputation will surely suffer if those ginger-scallion salmon burgers aren't perfect.

"The complexity of pulling something like this off is hard and scary," Karrat admits, but adds that the size of the target market (dinner, as a category, is a segment worth an estimated $414 billion) makes the trailer kitchen the only way to go.

"We want to get out there and establish ourselves not just as another food-tech startup," said Taranto, "but as a company whose mission matters, telling people that living better is attainable, to show our generation that cooking isn't hard and isn't scary."