Inside the Instant Pot phenomenon

The Instant Pot combines an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and yogurt maker in one handy unit
The Instant Pot combines an electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker and yogurt maker in one handy unit PHOTO: NYTIMES

KANATA, ONTARIO (NYTIMES) - The grey, sterile headquarters of Instant Pot may not stir your imagination.

But its product - Instant Pot, a line of electric multicookers - has whipped up an Internet craze.

Devotees use it for every kitchen task imaginable, from sauteing and steaming to even making yogurt.

The Instant Pot is hardly the fanciest appliance on the market, with several models selling for under US$100 (S$133). But it has upended the home-cooking industry.

During last year's Black Friday sales, it was among the top five items sold by Amazon.

Its creator is Mr Robert Wang, chief executive of Double Insight, its parent company.

It is a remarkable example of a new breed of 21st-century start-ups - a home-grown hardware business with only about 50 employees that raised no venture capital funding and spent almost nothing on advertising but achieved traction primarily through online word-of-mouth.

 

Mr Wang, 53, did not set out to be a kitchen mogul. An engineering whiz who grew up in Harbin, China, he earned a PhD in computer science and intended to develop artificial intelligence systems for a living.

 

After a series of jobs in telecommunications and technology, he was laid off in 2008, just as the global financial crisis hit.

After a failed attempt to start his own tech company, he turned his attention to kitchen appliances, a market that had not yet been visited by the tech industry's disruption gurus.

He hired two engineers and spent 18 months and US$350,000 of savings, developing a high-tech device that would combine pressure-cooking, sauteing and other common functions.

In 2010, after several months of sluggish sales in Ontario, he listed the Instant Pot on Amazon, where food writers took notice.

Vegetarians and paleo dieters, in particular, were drawn to the pressure-cooking function that shaved hours off the time to cook pots of beans or large cuts of meat.

Sensing viral potential, Instant Pot sent test units to about 200 influential chefs, cooking instructors and food bloggers. Reviews appeared online and sales climbed.

"They're expanding as fast as they can produce the appliances," said Coco Morante, a food writer and author of The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook.

"They've built this word-of-mouth advertising and community around their appliance that's pretty fervent."

But why, and why now? After all, pressure cookers are not new and most of the Instant Pot's functions are replicated by other common kitchen appliances.

Mr Wang credits the technological advances - most notably, a group of sensors that keeps the cooker from overheating or exploding under pressure.

Internet fandom also gives it a leg up. The food bloggers behind popular recipe sites such as Nom Nom Paleo were early converts to electric pressure-cooking.

More than 1,500 Instant Pot cookbooks have been written, including several of Amazon's current best-sellers.

The online giant has played a particularly large role.

Early on, Instant Pot joined the Fulfilment By Amazon programme, in which Amazon handles the packing and shipping of a seller's products in exchange for a cut of each item sold.

Eventually, Instant Pot sent shipments from factories in China and Amazon began promoting them in its major annual sales.

Kitchen appliance fads tend to come and go.

And major manufacturers such as Cuisinart and Breville have introduced electric multicookers of their own.

Mr Wang believes that Instant Pot's passionate online following will protect it from being crushed by a larger rival.

He said the company wanted to modernise the design of other "legacy appliances" in the kitchen too by adding sensors and microprocessors, and eventually using Wi-Fi to connect them to the cloud.

Not that Instant Pot needs to branch out just yet. According to researchers NPD Group, only 11.5 per cent of American households own electric multicookers.

Mr Wang wants to bring the rest into his flock.

"We know we really make a difference in people's lives," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2018, with the headline 'Inside the Instant Pot phenomenon'. Print Edition | Subscribe