You know you want one.

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The $1,400 Appliance Your Kitchen Needs

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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KitchenAid is getting into the market for the best appliance you've never heard of.

Longtime readers, of course, have heard me talk about this appliance before: the Thermomix. It's a food processor/blender that also has a heating element and a scale. Sounds crazy, I know, like one of those weird things you see advertised on television: "It's a car buffer, and it's also a Doberman Pinscher!" But in fact, it's amazing. It consolidates multiple kitchen jobs into a single countertop appliance, saving space, and it also renders a lot of tedious kitchen tasks as easy as pressing a few buttons, from caramelizing onions to making bechamel. I've had one for a few years now, and if I was only allowed to have one kitchen electric, it's the one I would pick. How else would I whip up genoise on a weeknight or make bacon-onion jam to top our burgers with?

Right now, there are really only two players in this market: Vorwerk, which makes the Thermomix, and Kenwood, which makes a stand-mixer-based cooking machine called, appropriately, the Cooking Chef. Other companies have tried to make their own version of the Thermomix, but they don't seem to have made many inroads. KitchenAid is the first major American brand to get in on the action, with all the market muscle and advertising power that this implies. At the International Home and Housewares Show, it offered a snazzy-looking appliance that could well give Thermomix a run for its money, even though it doesn't have a built-in scale. But I was disappointed to learn that the company may not even offer it in the U.S. In that, they'd be following Vorwerk's lead -- to get mine, I had to order it from Canada.

Naturally, I asked why. Why are Americans being denied the opportunity to own these amazing appliances?

Because the American market has proven tough to crack for these amazing, and amazingly expensive, machines. Thermomix pulled out of the market a while back, and while rumors abound about the exact reason, the best scuttlebutt says that it simply couldn't sell enough product. The Kenwood Cooking Chef is currently available at Williams-Sonoma but doesn't seem to have lit the market on fire, either. Nor have I heard much about KitchenAid's already-on-the-market Cooking Chef equivalent, a Williams-Sonoma-exclusive multicooker with an optional stir arm that retails for about $450 together.

Why can't these machines break into our market? They're all the rage in Australia and Europe, especially Spain. These are nations with less disposable income than ours, so if they can afford them, we ought to be able to put a few on American counters. What gives?

I talked to the KitchenAid rep about this for a while, and I came to a few conclusions.

The first is that these products are hard to sell. They're necessarily very expensive -- combining multiple appliances into one, and having all the parts do an excellent job, costs more than it would to build three separate appliances. And because they're so novel, consumers often have a hard time imagining what they would do with it.

Cooking with a Thermomix isn't just a matter of making a little tweak to your old recipes; I mean, you can do that, but if you do, you'll be using only a fraction of the power of the machine. A good Thermomix recipe breaks recipes down quite specifically: one minute at Speed 3 at 90 degrees Celsius, then add this, chop at Speed 7 for 30 seconds, then change the temperature again, and cook at Speed 1 for 20 minutes. (This sounds ponderous, but I swear to you that it's a lot less fiddly and time-consuming than, say, dicing all your vegetables to the correct size and then stirring for 20 minutes. Average active cooking time for a Thermomix recipe is well under five minutes, even for complicated dishes with a lot of steps.) So the machines need specialized cookbooks and a user base that generates new versions of favorite local recipes. Think about Crock-Pots: If the only recipes you had were the ones that came in the company-written cookbooks, they wouldn't be all that appealing.

All this means that it's easier to sell these machines when a lot of other people already have them. People have seen them in their friends' homes, they can find local recipe sites that cater to their tastes, and you don't need to spend so much time convincing them that really, it's easy to get the hang of using this expensive and seemingly complicated piece of equipment.

If you don't have that installed base, you need to do a lot of consumer education. That's why Thermomix is sold entirely through authorized reps who do in-home demonstrations -- the high-tech version of a Tupperware party. You need to spend a while demonstrating to people that they can actually cook with this thing. I doubt KitchenAid is going to be going that route, of course, but at this point it doesn't need to -- there are enough of these machines in European and Australian kitchens that people are already familiar with the concept.

In America, they aren't, which is why the KitchenAid rep didn't know yet whether the company would try to sell it here. Someone needs to educate the consumer before you can just plop an expensive appliance like this on the shelves.

The ideal venue for these appliances would be an infomercial or some place like QVC (which has a longtime partnership with KitchenAid and moves a ton of its products). The problem is that the price point is wrong. The demographic that watches infomercials isn't the demographic that drops $1,000 or more on a kitchen gadget. And outside of televisions, computers and exercise equipment, QVC's "gadget" price point seems to top out at "Dyson vacuum cleaner." So there's no one to sell the early adopters on the many wonders of a cooking machine.

Of course, that doesn't answer the question of why Vorwerk failed in the first place. I don't know for sure, of course, but I can make some educated guesses.

The first is that American cuisine doesn't rely so heavily on things that benefit from a lot of stirring, like cream sauces -- especially in the waistline-conscious demographic that might be ready to buy these machines. I still think the value proposition is there for other uses, but sauces, custards and curds are the place where the value is sort of instantaneously obvious to anyone who thinks about it for half a second. So it's probably just naturally a slightly harder sell here.

The second is that Americans in general cook less than people in other countries. In a place where people average an hour or more a day preparing the main meal, an appliance that cuts that time in half is going to have more mass-market appeal than it will in a place where they average 30 minutes a day; it can become, like a car or a refrigerator, an expensive but rather ordinary investment, rather than a luxury good for the spendthrift few.

And the third is that American countertops are more spacious than ... well, just about anywhere else. The kitchen in a typical upper-middle-class home has acres of space compared to its counterparts abroad. So one of the main benefits of the Thermomix -- that it compresses a bunch of appliances into one -- isn't quite so valuable.

The good news, for those of us who would love to be surrounded by Thermomix-using Americans who will then obligingly provide me with good recipes for chili and other local favorites, is that the value proposition may be getting more valuable as the Great Inversion moves more affluent Americans into cities. There, they will confront their tiny kitchens and maybe be open to the idea of putting one of these darlings on their countertop.

The other good news is that KitchenAid's cooking machines may do some of the educational work needed to convince people of the benefits of this approach. I already mentioned KitchenAid's stirring multicooker, but it is also bringing out a little multicooker that can be attached to your KitchenAid mixer, giving you a pretty good Cooking Chef imitation on the cheap (plus a multicooker that you can use on your countertop without the mixer). If either of these catches on, Americans will start to understand the value of having an appliance that stirs and cooks at the same time. They'll develop recipes for them. And maybe we'll finally be a ready market for Thermomix and its brethren.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net