Our Origin Story: From a Frustrating Grocery Run in 2002

Today’s vast grocery stores offer convenience, but only the most organized among us can get in and out in an hour with the right stuff.

In 2002, I stood in the produce aisle of our local neighborhood QFC grocery store with the jumbled list of 40+ items my wife had given me, wondering what to make.

Having forgotten items on the two previous trips at considerable spousal irritation, I made extra-sure to scan through that list multiple times. Since it wasn’t organized in any way, I started at the first aisle, scanned through that list, got a couple items, moved to the next aisle, scanned the list, and so on.

Forty minutes later, I thought I was done.

But sure enough, when I went home, I had forgotten the wheat bread. So back to the store I went. Drive. Park. Find. Queue. Pay. Drive. Park. And… done. So a grocery run that should have taken thirty minutes ended up taking about two hours.

As a developer, I felt that there had to be a better way. It seemed like a mobile device could let me keep my grocery list sorted by aisle, and maybe let me look up my family favorites, so that I’d save time and never forget something at the store again. I had just decided to depart a senior leadership position at Expedia, having built and sold my first startup called VacationSpot.com. In addition to some volunteering, I was very interested in getting back to my coding roots, and was playing around with the Pocket PC operating system.

After that frustrating grocery run, I booted up the development environment and wrote a simple shopping list manager, PocketShop™, which helped me create a quick grocery list and automatically sorted the items by aisle. It saved me a lot of time: about 15 minutes on every grocery run. Perhaps more important, I never forgot another item. I decided to publish PocketShop, and in 2003 and 2004, it won awards for Best List Manager by PC Advisor Magazine.

I wanted to hear ideas from the community to help improve it. So, built-into that little shopping list program was a feature letting customers suggest new features. Far and away, the number one comment was “the shopping list is cool, but please let me keep my recipes here, so I can add them to the grocery list directly, instead of just the ingredients and items themselves.” Some even said “In fact, let me plan the week’s meals here too.”

From this community encouragement, BigOven was born.

I reasoned there were at least five important parts of the cooking cycle that software could help with: discovery, planning (including diet/nutrition constraints), grocery shopping, preparation and sharing.

Initially Windows + Web. Our Mobile Focus Began in 2008

The web was always an integral part of BigOven (our site went live in 2003), but initially, the method of viewing the shared web archive and adding to it was via a 60Mb Windows desktop application, which was available for download but also purchase in boxed form at Staples, Office Depot and Amazon.

Building a desktop Windows application was a deliberate choice, since many of the “power collectors” of recipes had already adopted MealMaster, MasterCook and other solutions to organize their recipes, and importing home-grown collections from those formats was very important to get the shared archive going.  BigOven for Windows let home cooks upload their recipe collection to a shared archive, so everyone could search it. That Windows application was fine for 2002-2008, but then a little thing called the iPhone came along and helped change everything.

As use of the web and at-home high-speed internet connections continued to spread, I quickly heard from people that they wanted to access recipes from anywhere, yes on the web, but particularly on mobile devices, which are equally at home on grocery runs and the kitchen counter.

Inflection Point: 2008 and the iPhone

A traffic boom of unexpected proportion arrived with the first release of BigOven for iPhone.

BigOven was the first cooking app on the iPhone and Android and tied for first with the iPad. One anecdote that helps put into perspective just how important mobile devices are for home cooks: the day before the iPhone app was available, we had 768 downloads of our Windows recipe software. The day the iPhone app was shipped, we had 228,000 downloads, a three-hundred-fold increase. When the iPad and other tablets came to market, it was very clear that tablets and smartphones are where people want their cooking information. Today, well over half of our traffic comes from mobile devices. Four years ago, we adjusted our pricing strategy to reflect this – the desktop application was given away free with one Pro membership applying across all devices.

The Pain and Promise of Grocery Shopping

Farmers markets always make me happy.
Farmers markets always make me happy.

Mostly, I find grocery shopping to be frustrating, but occasionally, particularly at local and farmers’ markets — it can be quite pleasurable.

For a city dweller, grocery shopping usually includes fighting traffic, parking, struggling mightily over what to make at the store and beforehand, threading-the-needle on too-many picky-eaters, crowded aisles, elevator music, slow checkout, the occasional screaming child, tedium of restocking staples, paying, getting everything home and realizing you’ve either bought the wrong items or that some were forgotten. Survive all that, and too often, we let a good deal of this perfectly good food go to waste.  (Americans throw away about 23% of what we buy at the grocery store as unused food waste.)

The pleasurable parts of grocery shopping, at least for me, are the creative, aspirational, experiential sides. Oh look, these gorgeous peaches are in season. The ahi tuna is fresh today, and would make a terrific ahi salad. Endive is on sale.

Or, the anticipation of a simple comfort-meal to come.

Food helps connect and nourish us. Dinner helps us slow down, reconnect, pass along family lore, and share stories. The benefits of a regular all-family meal are well documented. Meals with my family were extremely important to me growing up, and I’ve always thought there’s more that we can do to get people centered around the dinner table once again.

At the grocery store, the promise of a great new discovery is right around the corner. And with growing confidence that comes from experience as a home cook, it is tremendously satisfying to be able to effortlessly whip-up a great meal and share the love through food, helping someone you care about end their day with a delicious thing that you dreamed up in the kitchen.

Getting Home Cook Organized and Inspired

As a software entrepreneur and primary cook for a family of five, I know that innovative software, mobile devices and the cloud can do a lot more to help the life of the home cook. If you enumerate these problems and pain-points, you’ll see innovative solutions to these drive our product releases.

Let’s start with the shopping list — we did.

It is incredibly frustrating to go from one aisle to the next, scanning a random list in full, trudging back and forth across the megamart, only to arrive home without that important item.

Why can’t a smart grocery list sort all the items for you, letting you add recipes and individual ingredients – even change your mind at the grocery store and strike recipes off the list, taking the ingredients with them?  Why can’t I make a grocery list during the week from my work computer on the web, then simply look at my mobile app in the store? These features are all now available in BigOven’s grocery list. Why can’t I just tell the grocery list I’m making Caesar Salad tonight and have it add the items? Or, if I don’t know what goes into a good souffle, why can’t I look that up at the grocery store, in the aisle?

And of course, with more and more online grocery delivery options on the horizon, why not simply pass those items to a delivery company?

Next, it can seem to take forever to figure out what to make – shouldn’t a computer be able to recommend what I should make? Can’t I go to a device and say “what are all the things I said I wanted to try, when I had some browsing time the other day?”  And why can’t I digitize all my family favorites so I can look them up instantly when I see what inspires me at the grocery store?

And why do all these items that I’ve bought go to waste?  Why can’t I enter a few ingredients into a vast recipe search engine to find out what I can make?

There are also some problems we haven’t yet solved, or solved well-enough yet. For instance, why can’t a device tell me when things are on sale that I typically buy?  Why don’t my cookbooks talk to me while I’m cooking and interleave all the start/stop times for me of the menu that I’m making? And more.

BigOven is a full-fledged organizer and discovery source for home cooks and now food bloggers. We’re constantly improving the way BigOven lets you discover great things to make, use up what’s in your fridge, digitize your family favorites, and generally eat better when you dine-in. BigOven lets you find any recipe, make a grocery list, plan menus, find out nutrition of what you eat, and more.

Fast forward to August 2015, and we’re just now welcoming our three millionth member, with about 1,000 new signups happening every day, and hundreds of thousands of delicious recipe ideas. Thank you cooks for sharing your great cooking ideas and your thoughts on how to make BigOven better. We’re listening.

How Can We Become Your Most-Used, Best-Loved Food App? Let Us Know.

BigOven’s purpose is to get every home cook inspired and organized in the kitchen and on-the-go, and our goal is to be the best-loved, most used app for at-home cooking.  How are we doing? What more can we do for you?  Be sure to let us know.

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