The Instant Pot is, by all indications, a perfectly good machine—maybe even a great one. The IP, as the device is known to its many devotees, is a kitchen gadget in the most straightforward sense of the term: It’s a classic labor-saver, promising to turn ingredients into family meals while you clean up, tend to your kids, and do all of the other things you could be doing instead of keeping an eye on the stove. Once you get the hang of the electric pressure cooker, it seems to basically deliver on that promise, chugging along gamely through years’ worth of weeknight dinners of pork green chili or chicken tikka masala. Since its debut in 2010, the Instant Pot has sold millions of machines and spent years as a must-have kitchen sensation.
Sure enough, in 2019, when the private-equity firm Cornell Capital bought the gadget’s maker, Instant Brands, and merged it with another kitchenware maker, the combined company was reportedly valued at more than $2 billion. A few years and one pandemic later, the company filed for bankruptcy on Monday, weighed down by more than $500 million in debt after years of supply-chain chaos and limited success expanding the Instant brand into other categories of household gadgetry. Perhaps counterintuitively, that the Instant Pot remains a useful, widely appreciated gadget is not unrelated to the faltering of its parent company. In fact, it’s central to understanding exactly what went wrong.
The Instant Pot certainly didn’t invent at-home pressure cooking, but it did introduce the concept to lots of Americans, and it did so in a plug-in, set-it-and-forget-it format that wasn’t as intimidating (or as explosion prone) as using a stovetop pressure cooker. If you weren’t sure how much you’d use the pressure-cooking feature, that was fine—the IP billed itself as a “multi-cooker,” and it also slow-cooked, steamed, sautéed, cooked rice, and made yogurt. At the height of its popularity, in the 2010s, you could get a basic model on Amazon for less than $100, so giving it a shot wasn’t much of a risk, even if you ended up using it only occasionally. As the device became more popular, it seemed to generate endless word-of-mouth praise for its ability to generate one-pot dinners, and Facebook groups, websites, and cookbooks sprouted up to teach new users how to get the most out of their machine.
All of this amounted to the kind of public-relations coup that companies are constantly trying and failing to buy for their own new launches. Those failures are not infrequently a result of the products themselves; at this point, it’s very difficult to come up with a novel idea for a consumer good that addresses some kind of real and reasonably common issue. The average American just doesn’t have that many problems left that can plausibly be solved at the level of inexpensive gadgetry. The Instant Pot flourished because the company found a tiny bit of white space in a crowded market, and it sold a machine that did a serviceable job at helping out a particular type of very common home cook: someone who cooks regularly for more than one or two people, more out of necessity than because they find the process creative or relaxing. There was no slick branding exercise foundational to the Instant Pot’s success. The device was the brand. It still is.
Therein lies the problem, or at least one of the problems. A device developed primarily to address a particular food-prep inefficiency has a natural ceiling to its potential market, and when one catches on as quickly and widely as the Instant Pot, it can meet that market ceiling in pretty short order. Arguably, it can exceed it—people who wouldn’t have otherwise seen themselves as Instant Pot owners buy into the hype. Predictably, after a decade of lightning-fast sales in the United States, things seem to be cooling off. Instant Brands does not release detailed sales figures, but from 2020 to 2022, sales of multi-cookers as a product category dropped by half, according to the market-research firm NPD Group. Instant Pots dominate the category. Very few people seem to need or want a second IP within five years of buying a first one. Why would they?
From the point of view of the consumer, this makes the Instant Pot a dream product: It does what it says, and it doesn’t cost you much or any additional money after that first purchase. It doesn’t appear to have any planned obsolescence built into it, which would prompt you to replace it at a regular clip. But from the point of view of owners and investors trying to maximize value, that makes the Instant Pot a problem. A company can’t just tootle along in perpetuity, debuting new products according to the actual pace of its good ideas, and otherwise manufacturing and selling a few versions of a durable, beloved device and its accessories, updated every few years with new features. A company needs to grow.
In the past few decades, the idea that every company should be growing, predictably and boundlessly and forever, has leeched from the technology industry into much of the rest of American business. Recently, it’s become clear that those expectations are probably not sustainable even for companies that have produced era-defining software products. They’re certainly not sustainable when placed on the shoulders of the humble Instant Pot, which, despite being an object with a digital display and a wall plug, was never technologically innovative so much as it was a clever, useful packaging of existing components. This was not at all unclear during the product’s heyday, but private-equity interests tried to moneyball it anyway, as they are wont to do.
When Cornell Capital acquired Instant Brands, in 2019, it merged the company with Correlle Brands, which it already owned and which makes a few lines of kitchenware, including Pyrex. It then began steering the brand into new markets with new products—it tried Instant-branded air fryers, blenders, air filters. None of the new product lines really worked out, because lots of other companies already do a fine job manufacturing and selling those things, and no one really had a reason to choose the Instant Brands version over competitors from Ninja or Vitamix or Honeywell, which specialize in those kinds of products in the way that Instant Brands does the multi-cooker. There was a lot of money, at least while interest rates were low, but there was no second good idea. Of course there wasn’t. Success on the Instant Pot scale is very seldom repeatable. It’s vanishingly rare for it to happen to a consumer-products company even once. But the pressures and expectations of private equity mean that that sort of astronomical success can still result in failure.
The Instant Pot, for its part, is not dead. Cornell Capital has brought in a restructuring crew, and the brand’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing allows it to continue doing business while it seeks relief from its debts. The problem is how the debts got there in the first place—in pursuit of growth for its own sake, of increased output with no clear needs that the new output would address. Even if the Instant Pot were the greatest kitchen gadget of all time, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome that faulty financial logic.