I love to cook. I consider it one of my greatest passions in life, along with music and tech. Given my love of food and technology (and my gradually evolving web development skills), I’ve started following the burgeoning “food tech” startup scene a lot more closely over the last year. I’ve been paying particular attention to some of the new delivery services such as Blue Apron and Plated (though some other food & tech startups I find interesting include: Food52, Tasting Table, and Farmivore).
I never really thought about using a service like Blue Apron because my wife tends to do most of our food shopping and I’m definitely one of those cooks that rarely follows a recipe unless I’m specifically trying something new or baking, which I don’t do that often. That’s mainly because I’ve been cooking since my late teens — my mother was a caterer — so I’ve spent most of my adult life cooking probably 80-90% of my meals each week. I love the process of creating a meal from scratch just about as much as I like eating the results.
However, I don’t really like the process of deciding what food to make, and I don’t particularly enjoy food shopping (I think I might find a crowded supermarket more stressful than having three burners and a grill going at the same time). So, having ready-to-prep meals delivered to my doorstep each week actually seemed like a good thing for me.
Well, as it happens, over the holidays a friend of ours sent us a nice little surprise: a one-time freebie from Blue Apron for a three-meal delivery. So, just like like that, we jumped into the ready-to-prep meal delivery startup scene to give it a try. Overall, I thought it was a good experience, but it definitely got me thinking about ways that it could be improved. As my brain kept churning, I conjured up enough thoughts that I decided I ought to write a blog post about it. So, I put on my chef’s hat and my Product Manager’s thinking cap and pieced together a few words…
Here’s a rundown of the recipes we made and a few comments on each one…
Cioppino-Inspired Pasta with Bay Scallops, Crusty Bread & Garlic Aioli
This one was tasty. The pasta sauce was bright and flavorful, the scallops were fresh, and I especially liked the use of fennel, which gave the sauce a nice texture and bite. My one question is why the bread with garlic aioli as a side? It was tasty, but I’d much rather have a salad or some kind of vegetable here.
Chopped Chicken, Bacon & Brussels Sprouts Salad with Blue Cheese, Currants & Sherry Vinaigrette
We liked this a lot. The mixture of ingredients brought out some great flavors, especially the sherry vinaigrette. One suggestion is that instead of escarole I think this might work better with spinach or mixed greens.
Roast Beef with Horseradish Sour Cream & Grilled Treviso
This looked great, but we actually decided to hold off on making this one because we’d already had so much roast beef during that week of holiday dinners with the fam. We ended up using most of the ingredients elsewhere, and the beef is in the freezer for another day.
Seared Pork Tenderloin Medallions with Roasted Carrot, Avocado & Orange Salad over Farro
This was probably our favorite of the bunch. The pork was tender and the spices were just right. The citrus/avocado salad was a really nice pairing for the pork. Great stuff!
Spicy Cod Puttanesca Pasta with Spaghettini & Pickled Cauliflower
This one was decent, but it lacked a little flavor (probably due to shorter cooking time for a red sauce and having cod as the “main event”). I also really didn’t understand the choice of pickled cauliflower as the side for a quick meal. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it, but it was a lot better the next day after some more pickling time. I’d have preferred a quick green salad or maybe even some more veggies in the sauce as an alternative.
Chicken Tortilla Soup with Hominy, Avocado & Queso Fresco
This one was also pretty solid. Without all the condiments, it didn’t really work, but with the avocado, tortillas and queso fresco, it perked up quite nicely. I’d have liked a better avocado and some more sides to compliment the leftovers, but this was still a decent selection.
After two rounds of meals, here’s what I saw as some of the pros and cons…
(convenience #1) — In general, what I enjoyed most was having our ingredients delivered to us as ready-to-prep meals. That saved us a bunch of time shopping and spared me the pain of having to decide what to make each night.
(convenience #2) — even though I still needed to do the actual cooking, having everything set up for me in advance, in the correct portions, and with a well-written recipe/guide was all a bit of a mental time-saver. I didn’t have to stare at our fridge or fret about missing one or two key ingredients as I often do when I normally cook.
3) DISCOVERING NEW RECIPES, NEW INGREDIENTS AND NEW COMBINATIONS
(bonus) — I didn’t really think about this one beforehand, so this was a nice added value. There were a few true keepers, so I held onto those recipe cards and plan to make them again someday.
1) LACK OF CHOICE
Blue Apron offers some basic choices/guidelines (e.g. vegetarian vs. carnivore), but overall, they pretty much dictate what you’ll be eating in a given week (of course, this is by design and is part of the model that allows them to scale up and serve lots of different customers and at decent prices).
2) STILL HAVE TO SHOP FOR THE IN-BETWEEN MEALS
While the deliveries certainly save time and provide convenience, the service doesn’t fully replace your other shopping if you want to cover lunch, breakfast, snacks, etc… I don’t think this is that big a deal, but it does diminish one of the key pros from above.
3) THE PACKAGING AND WASTE
There’s just so much packaging material for all this stuff. Sure, I can recycle some of it, but not all of it. It just make me wish they’d pick up as well as drop off.
4) LACK OF VEGGIES AND SALADS
Per my comments above, I felt like the meals were often lacking in the “veg” category. I don’t want bread as a side (at least not over a salad), and while pickled cauliflower is interesting, I’d much rather have something green in a slightly more traditional approach.
Some Future Iterations I’d like to See on the Blue Apron Product Roadmap
If I were running Product at Blue Apron, I’d love to see some of the following on their future roadmap (or at least in pre-dev stages to test out for potential product releases):
1) A WAY TO GIVE QUICK FEEDBACK
By far, my number one suggestion to Blue Apron is to create an app that prompts customers for immediate feedback for their meals and experience. They could allow users to give comments and suggestions for the following:
- ease of prep
- anything else
While native mobile apps would be great for this, they could probably handle this well with a decent (but responsive) web app to hit on a few quick survey questions. I’d think it they prompted users via email or text approximately after they’ve finished their meal, they’d be likely to generate useful feedback on what works and what doesn’t (which could not only help their Dev, Product, and Operations teams but also the folks that select their recipes and ingredients).
Obviously, this is a bit trickier, but I’d love to see them help users recycle all the packaging materials. Perhaps there might be a way to leave the boxes, coolers, and containers to be picked up for the next drop-off? This might even save them some money since they’d be able to re-use the ice packs and some of their other containers. And, there’s the obvious benefit of these items not ending up in the landfill or one of those NYC recycling bins that I’m convinced don’t actually get recycled.
3) FOOD CHOICE
Although I’m a big believer in keeping choices simple for consumers, food is an area where that “simple is best” model might need to allow for a bit more wiggle room. From a business model and operations standpoint, I certainly understand why they keep the menu choices limited. However, I’d personally like to have a bit more say about what food is coming my way each week. In that sense, it’s very possible I’m not the primary target customer for Blue Apron. But I could certainly be convinced, so they will need to decide if people like me are worth going after or not.
My wife and I drink wine with most of our dinners, so while we sat down to one of these meals, it struck me….why not pair a bottle of wine for each meal and allow it as an upgrade option? I think this could be an interesting development for startups like Blue Apron, at least further down the line as a longer-term product expansion. Given the serious mark-ups for wine at restaurants, I think this could be a decent money-maker. Obviously, the intricacies of local alcohol laws make this a bit trickier, so this would likely take a good amount of legwork and probably a larger mass of customers in a specific regions for it to work well.
5) “ECONOMY” VS. “PREMIUM” OPTIONS
And that last point brings me to another thought on the longer-term approach for this type of service. I wonder if it might eventually make sense to split the approach into categories of consumers, sort of like high-end vs. low end options.
- the “Economy” plan — could be for more budget-conscious customers that really just want someone to do their shopping “for the week” and provide a set of ingredients that could work for a few meals (the cost efficiencies could be found through repeating key ingredients, like using a whole chicken but for 2-3 different meals)
- the “premium” plan — this could be a mixture of any upgrade-worthy items (like a bottle of wine with each meal, all-organic ingredients, higher-end meats/cheeses, exotic ingredients to interest the foodies, etc…)
Both of these iterations would probably work best as the service scales to a larger user-base, but I could see them being attractive to more consumers, given the different price points and menu options.
Overall, I am bullish on these types of approaches to the way we shop, cook, and eat our food. It will probably take a few years for startups like Blue Apron to really suss out the best business models and creative approaches, but I think this realm has a lot of runway ahead of it. So, hopefully my lowly little blog can provide a little “food for thought” as they try to improve their service and scale up to the masses.