Saltalk turns up the heat on its virtual kitchen following new $8M cash infusion

Saltalk, a virtual kitchen and e-commerce platform, closed on $8 million of Series A financing to continue developing its one-two punch of authentic cuisine, made by both restaurant chefs and home cooks, and food supply resources and logistics.

Founder and CEO Fred Ming, previously a software architect, got the idea for Saltalk a few years after relocating from China. He and his wife went out to dinner at a restaurant that served a meal that reminded Ming’s wife of home.

“My wife told me the meal made her homesick, which gave me an idea to cure it by building a platform that gets chefs from everywhere to come and cook for those away from home,” he told TechCrunch.

From that plan became Saltalk, which he started in 2017. The company’s name is a mixture of “salt,” an important spice for cooking, and “talk,” which he said “is essential for our lives.”

Four years later, the company’s 8,000-square-foot virtual kitchen is churning out orders from Saltalk’s website, which features over 200 dishes.

Virtual kitchens don’t have dine-in facilities or the costs associated, which typically means they yield higher profit margins. The industry is hot right now and goes by other names, like dark kitchen, cloud kitchen or ghost kitchen, and involves having space in a central location where chefs whip up their culinary creations and have them delivered.

The global virtual kitchen market was valued at just over $43 billion in 2019 and is poised to grow to $71.4 billion by 2030, according to Statista figures. That compares to a trillion-dollar food industry.

As the food delivery industry grew over the past 2 years, these types of kitchens also gained attention as we ate more from home during the pandemic. It not only provided restaurants a way to have online ordering capabilities without changing their own kitchens, but in some respects it also enabled them to experiment with small-batch cooking of some of their more popular menu items. In addition, when restaurants were laying off staff, it provided an outlet for chefs to supplement their income while creating their own menus.

Investors were not far behind, pumping some $545 million of venture-backed funding into just the U.S.-based virtual kitchens in 2020, according to Food On Demand. TechCrunch has been along for the ride, most recently reporting on The Food Lab in Egypt and Manila-based MadEats.

Saltalk virtual restaurant food

Saltalk’s virtual kitchen features daily specials from a number of its restaurant brands. Image Credits: Saltalk

Over at Saltalk in the South Bay, 25 chefs are currently working out of a kitchen. Here’s how it works: There are two paths — one is the kitchen platform for chefs where they can start their own business for about $30,000. Saltalk does charge a set of fees for the space, licensing and processing, and it takes a 25% commission.

Ming says many of the chefs are able to “break even” after working with Saltalk for 3 months. The company gives them everything they need to set up the company, including order management, inventory and wholesale purchase capabilities.

“More people are spending time on work and social lives, and they don’t have time to cook,” Ming said. “At the same time, current food service is based on traditional restaurants, which often have expensive prices for food. We needed a new infrastructure to improve that, and Saltalk’s service is like Shopify, where our success is based on the chef’s success.”

The other side is the e-commerce platform where the company acts as a one-stop shop for lots of different types of cuisine, from Japanese to Indian to burgers and pizza. Customers can order up to 2 weeks ahead, and delivery comes in 15 minutes, Ming said.

“We have our own routing plan system so our drivers can do four stops at one time, saving on logistics costs, which is how we are able to not charge delivery fees from customers,” he added.

Approximately 100 companies use the service, which enables pre-ordering of group meals and on-time delivery through proprietary route planning technology, Ming said. Customers don’t pay any shipping or service fees, nor do they have to tip.

Ming said the company’s technology went through a strategic upgrade about 8 months ago, where it shifted from being just a business-to-business operation to adding consumers, and since then, Saltalk achieved over five-fold growth.

The Series A funding, led by Foothill Ventures, comes at a time when the company is accelerating its growth. Including the new investment, the company has raised $10 million since 2017.

Saltalk is planning two new 15,000-square-foot virtual kitchens in the East Bay and the Peninsula to support additional brands. Ming expects 15 of these kitchens will be dotted across Silicon Valley by the end of 2024.

In addition to the new kitchens, Ming believes the company will grow approximately $2 million per month over the next year, giving Saltalk an opportunity to double its workforce.

“In the coming two or three years, we plan to expand all over California,” Ming said.

Launch startup Astra’s rocket reaches space

Rocket launch startup Astra has joined an elite group of companies who can say their vehicle has actually made it to orbital space – earlier than expected. The company’s Rocket 3.2 test rocket (yes it’s a rocket called ‘Rocket’) passed the Karman line, the separation point 100 km or 62 miles up that most consider the barrier between Earth’s atmosphere and space, during a launch today from Kodiak, Alaska.

This is the second in this series of orbital flight tests by Astra; it flew its Rocket 3.1 test vehicle in September, but while that flight was successful by the company’s own definition, since it lifted off and provided a lot of data, it didn’t reach space or orbit. Both the 3.1 and 3.2 rockets are part of a planned three-launch series that Astra said would be designed to reach orbital altitudes by the end of the trio of attempts.

Astra is a small satellite launch startup that builds its rockets in California’s East Bay, at a factory it established there which is designed to ultimately produce its launchers in volume. Their model uses smaller craft than existing options like either SpaceX or Rocket Lab, but aims to provide, responsive, short turnaround launch services at a relatively low-cost – a bus to space rather than a hired limousine. They compete more directly with something like Virgin Orbit, which has yet to reach space with its launch craft.

The view from Astra’s Rocket 3.2 second stage from space.

This marks a tremendous win and milestone for Astra’s rocket program, made even more impressive by the relatively short turnaround between their rocket loss error in September, which the company determined was a result of a problem in its onboard guidance system. Correcting the mistake and getting back to an active, and successful launch, within three months, is a tremendous technical achievement even in the best of times, and the company faced additional challenges because of COVID-19.

Astra was not expecting to make it as far as it did today – the startup has defined seven stages of reaching orbital flight for its development program; today it expects dto achieve 1) count and liftoff; and 2) reaching Max Q, the point of maximum dynamic pressure undergone by a rocket in flight in Earth’s atmosphere. Third, they were looking to achieve nominal main-engine cutoff for first stage – and this is where they would’ve pegged success today, but the “rocket continued to perform,” according to CEO and founder Chris Kemp on a call following the launch.

Rocket 3.2 then performed a successful stage separation, and then the second stage passed through Karman line, reaching outer space. After that, it went further still, achieving a successful upper stage ignition, and a nominal upper stage engine shut off six minutes later. Even then, the rocket reached 390 km which is its target orbital height, but then reached a velocity of 7.2 km per hours, just one half km/hour less than the 7.68 km required for orbital velocity.

Astra emphasized that the mix for the propellant for this stage is basically only able to achieve while testing in situ in space, so they say this will just require some upper stage propellant mixtures to achieve that extra velocity, and Kemp said they’re confident they can do that in the next couple of months, and start reliving payloads early next year. This won’t require any hardware or software changes, the company noted, just a tweak in the variables involved.

View of Earth from Astra’s second stage spacecraft on orbit.

He added that this is a big win for the underlying theory behind Astra’s approach, which focuses on using significant amounts of automation in order to reduce costs.

“We’ve only been in business for about four years, and this team only has about 100 people today,” Kemp said. “This team was able to overcome tremendous challenges on the way to this success.” had a member of the team quarantining, and tested positive on the way to Kodiak, which meant they had to quarantine the entire team, and then sent an entire backup team to replace them – possible because they only use five people on the launch team.”

“We now are at a point where just five people can go up, and set up the entire launch site and rocket, and launch in just a couple of days,” Kemp said. The team is literally just five people – including labor, rocket unloading, setup and everything on-site – the rest is run remotely from mission control in California via the cloud.

Now will do some tuning for Rocket 3.3, which is currently in California at the Astra factory, before soon attempting that final orbital test flight with a payload on board to deploy. After that, they intend to continue to iterate with each version of its Rocket launched, focusing on reducing costs and improving performance through rapid evolution of the design and technology.

Astra targets December for next orbital launch attempt

Astra is set to launch it’s next orbital rocket, with a window that opens on December 7 and lasts for 12 days following until December 18, with an 11 AM to 2:30 PM PT block each day during which the launch could occur, depending on weather and conditions on the ground. This is the startup’s Rocket 3.2, a slightly revised and improved version of the Rocket 3.1 launch vehicle it flew in September.

Alameda-based Astra is a startup focused on building a small, relatively cheap-to-build launch vehicle that can carry small payloads to space at a rapid clip, with flexible launch location capabilities. It’s founded by former NASA CTO Chris Kemp, and backed by funding including Mac Benioff, Innovation Endeavors, Airbus Ventures, Canaan Partners and others, and it already has an active rocket assembly factory operating in the East Bay.

The company was originally founded with the goal of winning DARPA’s Launch Challenge, though the deadline for that has since passed. Astra still aims to essentially satisfying the functional requirements of that competition, by creating a launch vehicle that can be launched essentially on-demand when needed by clients looking for more responsive and mobile spaceflight capabilities, including the U.S. Department of Defense.

The goal of this next flight is similar to the goal of Rocket 3.1 in September: Essentially to study the startup’s rocket and boost its efficiencies while building its effectiveness. Actually reaching orbit isn’t a primary goal yet, but is a secondary, nice-to-have aim of this launch, which will take off from Kodiak in Alaska. The company already learned a ton from its first launch, including lessons that led to changes and improvements made to Rocket 3.2. It has always aimed for a three-flight initial orbital launch test series, and will also fly a Rocket 3.3 after this one incorporating additional lessons learned.