Smart scale slims down even the devs who program it

The folks at The Orange Chef prepare lunch in their San Francisco offices. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

The Orange Chef’s Claire McClendon, left, and Amy Wu lead lunch prep at the company’s San Francisco offices. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

SAN FRANCISCO — James Armstrong might be one of the few iOS engineers who loses weight while on a coding bender.

Armstrong is lead developer at The Orange Chef Co., the company behind a smart kitchen scale called Prep Pad. It weighs your food and, based on the nutritional profile you set, gives you a more accurate idea of how much you should eat. While working on a companion iPad app called Countertop, Armstrong beta tested his meals and realized how super-sized they were. So he cut the portions and shed 30 pounds.

“I had to buy new clothes twice,” he says.”I bought a bunch of clothes, then I had to buy ‘em again — it’s made that much difference.”

The folks at The Orange Chef prepare lunch in their San Francisco offices. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

iOS engineer James Armstrong cooks with the Prep Pad. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Orange Chef’s offerings are on the front burner of the smart kitchen space and could also become key ingredients in the stew of sensors and databases that feed the quantified-self movement. Apple’s new Health app and HealthKit developer framework will guarantee iOS devices a place at the table as fitness fanatics, and people facing problems like obesity and diabetes, use technology to help them monitor everything from heart rate and blood sugar to steps walked and calories consumed.

The Prep Pad, which retails for $149.95 at Williams-Sonoma, faces a few competitors to be sure. But most of what you can buy now — Amazon lists about a hundred “smart scales” — are smart only in name, functioning more like the “dumb” digital ones in our bathrooms.

After starting life as an overfunded Kickstarter project, the Prep Pad piled up $3 million in a seed round led by Google Ventures and Spark Labs Global Ventures, then closed the deal with Williams-Sonoma a few months later. Orange Chef and Williams-Sonoma declined to provide sales figures for the scale, which is made in Santa Clara, California, and features a unibody aluminum base like the MacBook Air.

Prep Pad connects to a database of more than 350,000 items (Americans typically eat 1,000 snack or convenience foods per year). There’s everything from water (which contains no calories but should be factored into a pancake batter mix for accuracy) to fancy quinoa and candy bars. Many items can be pulled up by scanning a bar code on the packaging.

Michael Tankenoff, Orange Chef’s chief marketing officer, showed Cult of Mac how a typical afternoon snack might add up using the scale. Once you’ve got your informational profile entered — age, sex, weight, whether you’re following a special diet like paleo or high protein — you add your item to the scale and watch as the circular graph on the digital readout changes.

Tankenoff scans an Odwalla protein bar, then puts an orange on the scale and adds raw almonds. It adds up to more than 400 calories, more than advisable for a mid-afternoon nosh, so we tinker with the amount of nuts to get it to a more manageable 250.

“The cool thing about this is you can add things as you go,” he says. “You can lock them in, so you don’t have to have everything on the scale at once; you can add a couple ingredients, maybe take them off to the side, add them to the meal, and then weigh your next ingredient.”

The precision factor of the scale, especially for prepared foods, piqued the interest of the diabetic community back when the project was on the crowdfunding circuit. “You know, if you get prepackaged food, that on the label there’s 24 grams of carbs in this. But again, the weight of packaged foods may vary slightly, so what you’re actually eating might be 26 or 27 grams of carbs. That’s a big deal to someone who is diabetic,” Tankenoff says.

Next up for Prep Pad is an iPhone app and the ambition to become a “full-scale cooking platform,” Tankenoff says. It’d be like having a good cook at your elbow, he adds, so if you’re making bread and add too much flour, it would recalibrate and get your recipe back on track. Partnerships with other apps and hardware manufacturers are also in the works.

Armstrong says that in the year he’s been at The Orange Chef, his interest in tracking his food intake skyrocketed. “I track everything that I eat now,” he says, showing me a photo feed from his iPhone full of healthy-looking and well-plated burritos and omelets.

He uses the MyFitnessPal app to track calories and snaps all of his restaurant meals for the record, too. “I think it makes my roommates feel bad,” he says, “because they eat potato chips and they always see me cooking food, and they’re like, ‘Man, you’re always cooking.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m not just gonna sit on the couch and eat potato chips for dinner.’”

Michael Tankentoff's dog Walter is the unofficial mascot and scrap finder. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

Michael Tankenoff’s dog Walter is Orange Chef’s unofficial mascot and scrap-finder. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

In a crowded tech scene where employees are sated into loyalty with enough junk food to stock a convenience store and dishes good enough to appear at a wedding, lunch at Orange Chef is more about good eats than excess.

At the airy penthouse headquarters across from AT&T Park, employees take turns cooking for up to 20 people. On a recent visit, office manager Claire McClendon carved up roast lamb while senior accountant Amy Wu dressed a Greek salad and Walter, a French bulldog, nosed around underfoot for scraps. A small kitchen whiteboard shows that Armstrong is on the hook for a stir-fry on Friday; to reconcile his work duties with meal prep, he says he’s the heaviest user of the terrace grill, often coming in early to get ribs started.

“I get pretty grumpy if I don’t eat,” Armstrong says. “So yeah, even on a deadline, I’m the one who’s in the kitchen, going like, ‘What time are we having lunch?’”

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Nicole MartinelliNicole Martinelli heads up Cult of Mac Magazine, our weekly publication available on iTunes. You can find her on Twitter and Google+. If you're doing something new, cool and Apple-related, email her.

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