Apr 28, 2015 · 4 minutes

When I first heard of David Chang, it was in one of those hilarious New York Times trend pieces. This one was about how marijuana use had shaped fine dining in the five boroughs and beyond, giving rise to what the writer cleverly coined as "haute stoner cuisine."

You mean to say that people in the restaurant business smoke marijuana?! And that stoned people like to eat good food?!

Kidding aside, this dope-addled dietary paradigm isn't a complete invention of the Grey Lady's Wonder Emporium. While Chang's emissary claims she was sober when she invented the cereal milk ice cream at Milk Bar -- part of Chang's renowned Momofuku empire -- I'm not sure I can say the same of whomever invented the Dorito Kimchee Carbonara at local Bushwick favorite King Noodle.

In any case, Chang has now emerged in an even unlikelier venue: The world of startups and apps. And today, with $26 million in the bank, an executive chef from the Michelin starred restaurant Le Bernardin, and a focus on technology that's as serious as its focus on food, Chang's meal delivery app Maple officially opened for business in lower Manhattan's Financial District. Though even with Maple's celebrity chef endorsement from Chang -- who as Chief Culinary Officer will "curate" the daily menus which include items like bacon-wrapped tenderloin, spiced shrimp biryani, and tarragon roasted chicken salad -- the app faces stiff competition in New York's food delivery market.

There are direct competitors like San Francisco's Munchery, which recently expanded to New York to deliver its own Michelin-quality meals. Platforms like Seamless-Grubhub offer an online delivery interface for thousands of restaurants in the city -- most of which aren't Michelin-starred, but Seamless still serves plenty of quality (and charmingly un-quality) options. Postmates recently announced an expansion of delivery options across the country and in New York, now delivering from both local favorites like Doughnut Plant and guilty pleasure chains like Chipotle. Never one to miss out on the trend of using software to move around things or people is Uber, which launched its 10-minute food delivery service in Manhattan today -- that's right, the very same day Maple launched. For more industrious eaters, there's Blue Apron and Plated which deliver meal kits that customers cook at home. And finally there are restaurants -- many of them wonderful and affordable despite their lack of venture funding -- that will bring you food if you just call them.

So what, other than Chang, does Maple have to offer to break from the pack? Or is Chang enough?

CEO Caleb Merkl talks up the need to "own every step of the process," from preparation to packaging to ordering to delivering -- which is something only a handful of his competitors like Munchery do. So while Seamless offers a fantastic ordering app along with good customer service around that, the preparation and delivery is pretty scattershot from restaurant to restaurant. Blue Apron may deliver fresh ingredients and inspired recipes, but that won't stop me from overcooking the salmon. And as I learned when I tried Postmates' expanded service, many of its clients do not offer packaging that's built for cross-city transportation, turning the food lukewarm by the time it arrives.

As for Munchery, Merkl's closest competitor in terms of technology and culinary pedigree, Maple often undercuts it on price. Its meals are $12 for lunch and $15 for dinner with delivery and tip included, whereas Munchery's meals range from around $9 to $16, but tip and delivery are extra.

But basing your success solely on undercutting the competition isn't always a smart idea in the on-demand food space. San Francisco's Chefler discovered that the hard way when it ran out of money after losing the city's food delivery price war to better-funded competitors.

With $26 million from investors like Greenoaks Capital, Thrive Capital, and Bonobos' Andy Dunn, Maple won't likely run out of money anytime soon. That said, its founders also believe they've come upon a more efficient way to run both on-demand food delivery startups and restaurants in general that will allow Maple to become a profitable business at affordable price points.

"We went in and built technology for every part of the restaurant we were running," says Akshay Navle, Maple's cofounder and COO. "A lot of things off the shelf were too loaded or not specific enough for our needs, so we built our own POS [point-of-sale] system, our own ticketing system via the kitchen, our own delivery guy app... every delivery member gets a delivery phone. We track location and velocity every second and it helps calculate how long it takes in reality."

The food startup space is crowded and the margins, well, the margins often aren't great -- especially when owning the entire process. But Merkl says that while Maple's profit potential isn't as good as that of a lot of platform plays like Uber, he takes a different view: That Maple's margins are far better than at a traditional restaurant.

"When we were talking to financial investors for our A round," Merkl says, "they said, 'This isn’t our marketplace, and your margins aren’t 99 percent.' And they're not. It’s not a business that’s built on the back of a lot of other businesses. But if you look at the margin structure versus a typical restaurant, it’s really really compelling. So for us it’s a way to build a food brand that’s much more scalable."

And with a sizable war-chest and a top chef at the helm, Maple will likely stay in business at least longer than the average restaurant in New York City -- though that may not inspire much confidence either.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]