Perfect microwaveable meals
A conversation with Bob Schaffel, CEO of Microwave Science JV LLC, owner of TrueCookPlus microwave technology.
FP: Microwave technology has been around for 60 years. What makes TrueCookPlus technology different?
BS: The simplicity of use is one of its biggest attributes. Over the years, people using microwaves complain about the instructions on frozen food packages. Most microwavable foods are based on an 1,100-watt microwave oven. The first problem is that most people don't know the wattage of the oven they own. The next biggest problem is most people don't own an 1,100-watt microwave oven. On the back of the package it says for example, ‘Based on an 1,100-watt microwave oven, cook the food following these instructions, cook it on high for two minutes, medium for two minutes and back on high for one minute.' That's when everyone's eyes glaze over. People start doing the math in their head quickly to make it simpler. ‘If I cook this on high for five minutes, it should work just as well.' Most people don't know how to work the cooking levels on their microwave oven. The food usually comes out frozen in the middle and burnt on the edges – things happen -- so the consumer is unsatisfied with the product. With our technology, you input a code, which is either on the food itself or on our website. By doing that, all the variables are eliminated. The minute you input our code, the code takes over. You don't have to know the wattage of your oven, the size of the unit, the voltage or the elevation. Water boils differently in Colorado, California or New York due to elevation differences. The age of the oven no longer matters (the magnetron changes over time), nor does the geometry of the package. Using our technology, all of these variables are accounted for. So whether it's a cold oven or a hot oven, it knows how to adjust the power level, knows the cooking time, the standing time, whether it's a frozen, refrigerated or shelf stable product. The minute you press the button and enter the code you are finished; this microwave is now a smart microwave and computes all the information. While the product is being cooked, it goes through all of the motions that the back of the package asks you to do, based on an 1,100-watt microwave oven. When it is finished, that product will come out literally cooked to perfection. It reaches all the USDA safe food temperatures so it's safe to eat. It only took 60 years, but it's like having a chef in your microwave oven.
FP: Could you tell us more about the food safety features of the technology?
BS: One of the key issues for consumers is cooking food at the right temperature. People are always in a hurry. One of the challenges for consumers is to cook food until it reaches the correct temperature as recommended by the FDA, USDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). People sometimes assume that frozen foods are precooked and all they are doing is reheating them in the microwave, but that's not always the case. So if it's not totally cooked, they will still eat it. But you can get very sick if the food is not properly cooked. With our technology, that doesn't happen. We can assure consumers that the products we code will be cooked to the correct temperature. We always recommend people use a thermometer; we'd be foolish not to, but the cooking results delivered by our technology are tested by us as well as the food companies we work with. As parents, we are all concerned with food poisoning. Some 76 million Americans get food poisoning every year and 5,200 die annually. Those seem like third world numbers, and shocking for the U.S. The people most at risk are pregnant women, children and seniors. TrueCookPlus is a technology that cooks microwave food to perfection, and, in addition acts as a preventative step against foodborne pathogens such as E-coli and Salmonella.
FP: How did you get involved in bringing this to market?
BS: My son Sam has a disability. He has limited use of one hand and has balance issues. I was very concerned about him cooking on a standard oven and burning himself. I was trying to find a way for him to be more independent and prepare food safely. Microwaving was an obvious choice, but the results weren't always very successful. My brother Steve, who is an entrepreneur, called me from New York and said he was contacted about financing a new microwave technology. He wasn't that interested at the time, but thought it might be a solution for my son and suggested I look into it. I thought it sounded very interesting, so he put me in touch with Steve Drucker, the engineer who created the software, who sent me a prototype of the coded microwave. Sam began to use it; he was having fun preparing products for his friends, and they all agreed the food tasted incredible. I started getting calls from their parents who wanted to know where they could get the microwave because when their kids made the same product in their homes, it didn't taste the same. After a time, I began experimenting by cooking the foods with the codes and without the codes and realized the coding was the major difference. When I understood there was something very special about it, both my brother and I got involved. It was very unique, and there was a real need for the product. So when this all began, I wasn't thinking about it as a business; I was looking for a solution to a problem.
FP: Why was the technology created, and how long did it take?
BS: Steve's wife popped some popcorn at work one day and ruined the office microwave. She came home very upset. Steve being a great husband decided he would find a way to prevent that from happening again. So he started working on an idea he had. Two and a half years later he developed the technology now called TrueCookPlus. He didn't do it to go into business; he did it to make his wife happy and to solve a major popcorn issue in America. Burnt Popcorn!
FP: How has the food processing industry reacted; and are any major manufacturers working with you? If manufacturers are interested in incorporating the technology, whom should they contact?
BS: Change is a slow process, but we are having positive results. It's been an interesting journey and process. Food companies are becoming more and more receptive, and I'm grateful for that. They have been doing things a certain way for a long time, and when you come in with something new they can be resistant. I think their push back is reasonable; they want to do a lot of testing and want to be very sure. They have to take change seriously. What I'm finding is R&D is very receptive. There are more food products on the market and change is occurring more quickly. I'm shocked at how big the food industry is and the responsibility they bear. They've done a lot of testing to make sure our claims were correct. Now that they've seen the results, they are working with us. Some of the big companies we are working with are Pinnacle foods Group (Aunt Jemima, Celeste Pizza, Hungry Man, Bird's Eye), General Mills (Betty Crocker Warm Delights Minis), Diamond Foods (Pop Secret), Schwan's, and Heinz North America.
FP: Food served in planes does not taste very good because it is prepared in high altitudes. Can the airline industry incorporate TrueCookPlus technology?
BS: Absolutely. One of the food companies we are working with did high altitude testing, and they loved the consistent results.
FP: Where can consumers purchase microwaves with the technology, and what is the suggested retail price?
BS: At Sears, Kmart and Best Buy. The two brands are Kenmore and LG. They are fairly priced from $129 to $140. Kenmore just introduced the Kenmore Elite line, and LG will soon be introducing a new expanded line.
FP: The National Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Assn. endorses TrueCookPlus. Has the Association ever endorsed any other microwave technology?
BS: No, we are the only technology they have ever endorsed. They were surprised at how well the food turned out. I look at it like a cell phone. It seems so easy, but how does it work, and why didn't I have this before?
FP: What's the next step for your company?
BS: We're growing at a nice rate, and are happy with results as more food companies step up. We are working with the USDA, and they seem pleased with our food safety studies.