Robotic Kitchen Aids Save the Day…

The Holidays are a time for family togetherness and tireless cooking.  I am certain by now, people’s dishpan hands are cracking as the pots and pans pile up by the kitchen sink.  Bloated bellies and hot tempers often replace goodwill and quality time. There is something wrong with this equations, no? Maybe we should learn from our European friends a better, robotic, way.

Portugal is the poorest nation on the European Continent, but housewives and mothers are forking over $1300 for the latest kitchen craze – BIMBY.  Just to put this in perspective, Bimby is more popular on Facebook than the country’s best-know rock band and iPads. This German-made cooking robot, has become an obsession in Western Europe’s poorest country by promising to make cooking cheap and easy.

Bimby looks like a food-processor with a stainless-steel container and a steaming unit that weighs ingredients, chops, grates, blends, beats, mixes and cooks, all under the control of a timer that lets the cook step away from the kitchen until the food is ready.

“Bimby’s maker has done a great job selling the machine as a money and time saver…particularly in a time restaurants have become prohibitive for many,” said Joaquim Silva, a marketing lecturer at the University of Minho who used Bimby as a case study for his doctoral thesis on marketing.

Vorwerk & Co., Bimby’s manufacturer, has reported record sales in Portugal in each of the past three years, despite a $1,327 price that is nearly twice the monthly minimum wage. Last year the Portuguese bought more than 35,000 Bimbys, compared with 22,000 iPads priced above $700. According to Vorwerk’s forecasts, 8% of the country’s 3.7 million households will own a Bimby by the end of 2014.

Bimby was introduced here in 2000 and is sold in about 60 countries. Its market penetration in Portugal is particularly high.

Bimby has more than 100,000 likes on Facebook; the super-popular rock band Xutos & Pontapés has about 83,000. A Bimby magazine sells 35,000 copies a month in Portugal, more than fashion icon Vogue’s Portuguese edition.

Owners tend to think of the robot as a feminine helper and, in conversations, refer to it as “she.” The name has also morphed into a verb—bimbar. A member of Parliament recently called Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas “a governing Bimby” for taking on too many tasks under the various government positions he has held.

Ms. Brito, who three years ago barely had the patience to make soup, now calls herself a “bimbyholic.” She bought her machine to help her juggle motherhood and a full-time job as a travel agent. When she lost her job in late 2010, she turned to her newfound taste for cooking. Now she spends a good part of her day trying new recipes, posting them on her blog—”Donabimby,” or Mrs. Bimby—and answering questions from more than 9,000 fans. She sells jams at fairs and has acquired sponsorship deals with bakeware companies. “You can say Bimby changed my life,” said Ms. Brito.

Ms. Brito said her family now spends a lot less for groceries. This is one of the main reasons Bimby’s maker gives for the record sales. In Ms. Brito’s home, mayonnaise and ketchup are both handmade. She can’t remember the last time she bought a birthday cake or canapés for parties. If Bimby broke and had to get fixed, Ms. Brito said she would be lost.

“Just to think of all the boxes I would have to go through in the garage to find all my retired appliances, it gives me a headache,” she said.

Bimby, which now has some competition from a device called Yammi introduced by Portuguese supermarket chain Continente in September, reported record sales of more than 5,000 of the robots in November.

“Bimby’s fan base is so large and the community so well built through forums and blogs, that it is like a cult,” Mr. Silva said.

Of course, Bimby has its critics. Sandra Simões, a lawyer from Lisbon, recently saw a cooking demonstration and wasn’t impressed.

“There is no spontaneity buying the ingredients, cooking and even seasoning food, since everything is already measured, programmed and mechanized through their recipes,” said Ms. Simões. “Plus I don’t ever want to be dependent on an appliance.”

Ms. Brito herself puts the machine aside to make some things, including rice, which she says turns out much better cooked cordlessly on the stove.

Bimby was created in 1970. A Vorwerk director in France, where people love thickened soups, came up with the idea of designing an appliance that could blend and cook at the same time. Known outside Portugal and Italy as Thermomix, the appliance is sold as far away as New Zealand but isn’t sold directly in the U.S.

Erica Arimathea, an economist who quit her job a year ago to sell Bimbys full time, said men are equality enchanted with the robot. “Some are so obsessed they don’t let their wives touch the machines,” she said. “It’s like a toy.”

Bimbys aren’t sold in stores. Instead, Ms. Arimathea and about 1,400 other agents go door to door to show prospective buyers how to make juices, soups, sauces, ice creams, dough and even a traditional cod dish in less than two hours.

“A Bimby basically pays for itself, and after that provides substantial savings that in this day and age are essential,” said Ms. Arimathea, who at the end of her demonstrations sits down with her clients to discuss payment options. Ms. Arimathea said she had sold 94 Bimbys in 173 demonstrations.

Actually, she said, selling isn’t quite what she does. “You don’t buy a Bimby, you enter into a relationship with one,” she said.

* The Wall Street Journal contributed to this post

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