'Cult-like worshippers' turn Canadian-invented Instant Pot into a phenomenon

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A Canadian innovation is poised to be the top-selling product on Amazon — both in Canada and the U.S. — during this week's Black Friday sales event.

The Instant Pot "smart cooker" — a high-tech pressure cooker that promises to help you make tasty, homemade meals fast — was already the biggest seller on Amazon's Prime Day this past July. Close to 250,000 units were purchased on that day alone.

Only Amazon's own products, such as the Echo smart speaker, saw a bigger response from consumers. But Robert Wang, the Ottawa-based inventor of the Instant Pot, still considers his product's performance a triumph — and one that's about to be repeated.

"It's impossible to beat the sales numbers of Amazon devices on Amazon's own day," said Wang. It's no surprise that the e-commerce giant features its own merchandise more prominently than anything else. Even so, he was thrilled to be at the top of the charts. 

"To sell 250,000 units in 24 hours is close to a miracle," he says with pride. "It's like that saying about when the time for an idea has arrived, nothing can stop it."

Half a million orders

Now the former Nortel engineer is forecasting another miracle: that on Black Friday, the Instant Pot will double its sales record. Wang placed a massive order with his manufacturer in China five months ago, anticipating a potential 500,000 orders from Amazon alone.

"The sale is happening on one day, and the product has to be in the warehouse," he explains. "Amazon has the promise of delivery within 48 hours." 

It's hard to imagine an unglamorous, electric cooker generating the kind of excited stampede that's more commonly seen for a hot Christmas toy, or fun electronic gadgets. Just what's so great about the Instant Pot anyway?

"What's not so great about the Instant Pot?" asks Carole Nelson Brown. She's a chef who also teaches Instant Pot cooking classes, sharing her boundless enthusiasm for the device.

Fanatical devotion

"This is healthier, it's cheaper and it tastes amazing. And I really think people have a sense of pride when they make their own meal."

Brown notes that frozen meat can be savoury and ready to eat in just over 30 minutes.

But even as a super-fan herself, she's astounded at the devotion some consumers feel for the pot. Many of the 750,000 members of the Instant Pot Community on Facebook are "cult-like worshippers," in her opinion.

"They are obsessed," claims Nelson Brown. "They don't use their stove anymore, they don't use their microwave anymore, they don't use anything else. If someone comes in and says 'I'm not loving it, I tried a few things, they didn't really work out', these people go insane at the thought that someone might not love their Instant Pot as much as they do."

Solving dinner time-crunch

The Instant Pot arrived on the market seven years ago. Wang and his business partners Yi Qin and Dongjun Wang had all worked in Ottawa's tech sector before deciding to put their engineering smarts to work on a problem in their own homes.

"Many kitchen appliances were designed for the lifestyle of our parents, of our grandparents," says Wang, standing in an office at the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Ottawa. "Now our generation lives a different lifestyle, so we need to rethink those legacy devices and make sure they adapt." 

The pair realized that the speed of a pressure cooker could solve the time-crunch so many families experience when it comes time to make dinner at the end of the workday. But old-school pressure cookers had to be watched, and they could explode if not monitored and adjusted properly.

Wang and Qin developed a "smart" device with multiple sensors — to ensure the lid is sealed properly, that the pressure is perfect, and to guarantee food won't burn. And of course they added Bluetooth, so that consumers can control and monitor the pot remotely.

"Have you seen The Big Bang Theory episode where they say everything is better with Bluetooth?" asks Wang playfully. "It's true."

More popular in U.S.

Americans caught on to the Instant Pot well before most Canadians. The momentum south of the border started in 2012, helped along by food bloggers and influencers who were recruited to use the Instant Pot. Word spread quickly that the device did all it promised, and by that summer Wang saw his invention become a "category No. 1" on Amazon, with thousands of positive reviews.

During Prime Day in 2016 — Amazon's summer sales event for its Prime members — Wang was overwhelmed by demand, and didn't have enough inventory.

"After 23 hours they were all gone," he says. This summer he made sure the company was better prepared and able to fill every order.

The Instant Pot's fame continues to pick up speed in the U.S. Last month, Jimmy Fallon bantered about the product with his sidekick on The Tonight Show ("I'm excited, I want to get one of these things"), and The Dr. Oz Show featured a lengthy segment about how to cook with it.

"Now Americans realize that eating healthy has become more and more important — and they also understand eating fast food, manufactured food, is not good for their health," says Wang, explaining his thoughts on why the invention is surging in popularity in the U.S. "Also, consumer culture is very strong there."

Word of mouth

Now Canadians are starting to catch on, too. This year, Instant Pot hit the No. 1 spot during Amazon Prime Day in Canada as well.

"It's developed a cult following so quickly," says Candace Sutcliffe of CA Paradis, a kitchen supply store in Ottawa.

"They've put zero advertising into getting it out into the public, and so really everything is created either through Facebook groups, or people are exchanging recipes on other social media. It's developed its fan base just through word of mouth, which is incredible."

But could the Instant Pot craze fade fast, and become just another over-sized gadget gathering dust in a closet — along with the bread-making machine and waffle iron?

Wang believes the device is still in its infancy, citing a statistic that only five per cent of North American households have a device similar to the Instant Pot. "So 95 per cent of them still don't have a smart cooker yet. That's our objective, putting an Instant Pot in every kitchen."

He also says the company has a "large cache of new products" ready to be launched starting in 2018, but is tight-lipped about what they will be. "Unfortunately I can't disclose that at the moment," he says with a smile.

"We see lots of opportunities in improving what we call the legacy devices in your kitchen."