Are meal delivery services the future of groceries? PandoDaily finds out
We’ll concede that the headline was a slight stretch. But the sheer volume of venture-backed meal delivery services that have cropped up over the last year can only mean one of two things: Either there is a sudden, massive demand for this service, and it has finally figured out an economically viable model.
That, or there's a whole lot of people with the same bad idea.
I (Erin) decided to try out Blue Apron for myself in New York. Meanwhile, Michael experimented with Fresh Dish in LA. We’re the ideal customers for these services: interested in cooking, too busy to plan and shop for meals, and willing to pay for convenience. Here’s our take on each.
LOGISTICSErin: Even though the week's worth of food inside was sufficiently cold-packed with the promise it'd be okay for eight hours, I felt wary of a box of meat rotting on my doorstep. So I was glad that I happened to be working from home when the box was delivered to me.
Erin: The first thing I noticed was the insane amount of packaging required to make this work. The nice thing about Blue Apron is that you only get exactly what you need for the recipes. There are no weird leftover ingredients that’ll just wither away in your fridge, like a giant bunch of dill or a bottle of rice wine vinegar. That's how the company keeps costs down -- by buying in bulk and splitting it up -- but it also means a single teaspoon of rice wine vinegar gets its own plastic bottle. Before I even started my first recipe, my kitchen was covered in plastic bags, plastic vacuum-packs, plastic containers and plastic wrap. I guess there's no good way to get around that, though.
Michael: Fresh Dish is a bit more flexible than Blue Apron. Each meal can be ordered to serve two people or four, and users get the option to choose as many or as few as they want from among four or five different meals each week. Before ordering, consumers can view the ingredients, cooking instructions, and nutritional information. There is no subscription requirement, and delivery is free when you order a minimum of two meals.
Michael: I was similarly shocked and impressed with the packaging required to make the delivery of raw meat and sauces feasible. Fresh Dish ingredients are delivered in individual vacuum sealed pouches or ziplock bags, with each meal contained inside of its own cardboard box. These meal boxes are then packed inside of an insulated foil cooler, which is filled with enormous reusable ice packs, and then packaged snuggly inside of a larger cardboard box.
Michael: Unlike Erin, I was not home when the food was delivered. While I don’t know whether I arrived an hour or several hours after it was left on my doorstep, the perishable ingredients were still frozen solid.
Michael: I got three meals, each serving two people – but the package was large and it strained the limited capacity of my fridge and freezer. This raises to one of the drawbacks of the Fresh Dish model: The company deliveries only once per week. So if you want 14 meals or four, you they’ll all arrive at once – on Tuesday. All ingredients are sourced fresh on Sundays, and the packages are sent out for overnight delivery on Mondays.
THE FOODErin: The second thing I noticed with Blue Apron as I cooked meal one (Acadian Redfish with remoulade, frisee salad and red potatoes), was that there is absolutely no room for snacking. Or mistakes. The red potatoes for two was literally four tiny, two-inch potatoes. If I would have eaten even one potato slice as they came out of the oven, it would have put a noticeable dent in the meal. And if I accidentally mixed two ingredients that weren't supposed to be mixed? Forget that part of the meal -- there are no backup ingredients to start over with.
Michael: The same concerns about limited portions of each ingredient applied to Fresh Dish. On some occasions it seemed that the full contents of the package was closer to 1.5 servings than enough to serve two adults. That’s subjective, but it might be nice to have the option to order a normal or large serving size.
Michael: Fresh Dish’s focus is on healthy, quality ingredients, and I was satisfied with what came out of the box. The cuts of meats looked fresh as did the vegetables. The condiments, on the other hand, left a little bit to be desired. It’s nice to have portion-perfect salt and pepper, but to prepare a nice home-cooked meal with take-out restaurant style paper packets is a bit off-putting. It’s a small thing, but it detracts from the overall experience. Fortunately, it would be simple to change.
Erin: That’s really bizarre -- Blue Apron assumes you have salt, pepper and olive oil in your house.
THE RECIPESErin: I found the recipes to be slightly ambitious. I appreciated that, but I definitely did not cook a single one in 35 minutes, as Blue Apron claims.
Michael: Fresh Dish advertises the meals take “as little as 30 minutes.” I’d say that’s generous, but may be reasonable if you exclude prep time. After the oven is preheated and the ingredients are mixed, the cooking times were right around 30 minutes.
Erin: My kitchen abilities probably lie somewhere between that of Smitten Kitchen and Drunk Kitchen, given that a Midwestern upbringing teaches one very little, culinarily, beyond the art of the casserole. That's precisely why I tried Blue Apron -- to have some adventurous experiments with new styles of cooking.
Michael: Fresh Dish’s recipes are divided into “Easy” and “Moderate” difficulty, but I found both to be approachable – even to the least confident chef. The inspiration behind Fresh Dish’s meals come from a combination of the company staff chefs and a “featured chef of the week.” My first meal was Sausage Pizza with Peppers and Insalata Mista. Second and third on the menu were Pork Chops with Mushroom Gravy and Orzo, then Kung Pao Chicken with Steamed Rice and Broccoli.
Erin: For someone whose meat-cooking experience consists of frozen chicken breasts on a George Foreman Grill, Blue Apron's photo-driven instructions, while beautiful, left me wanting. Pan-fry a panko-crusted pork chop "until it's done"? What does "done" look like?! What should I do when its pink on the inside and burning on the outside? How much oil do I need to add to the pan? What is the contingency plan?! All of that is to say, I overcooked the shit out of everything. ...A smoke alarm may have been involved.
Michael: Unfortunately, Fresh Dish suffers from the same vagaries as Blue Apron using, imprecise words like “cook until done,” or “cook until brown.” That said, it was hard to go too wrong and none of the meals required any fancy culinary skills. Every Fresh Dish ingredient comes numbered and labeled, and each meal package includes simple instructions for preparation. There are no pictures but the directions are reasonably straightforward.
THE RESULTSErin: Despite my shortcomings as a cook, my guests were impressed with the results. Each meal, when plated, seemed elaborate, which is a success, considering it was always a just fancy version of the "salad, carb, protein" formula. No souffles, no baking, no Julia Child stuff. The ingredients were super fresh and, with items like wheat berries, miso paste and beef bones, more interesting than what your average home chef buys in the store.
Fancier than a meal prepared on a Foreman grill
Erin: At between 650 and 750 calories each, the meals weren't off-the-charts healthy, but they beat take-out. They also didn't feel like very much food, but I think that's because I'm not accustomed to such precise portion control. Since we (the collective we) have to buy food in larger portions at the grocery store, it's pretty standard to cook enough for seconds and leftovers. There are zero leftovers with Blue Apron, but nothing goes to waste that way, either.
Erin: I want to believe a cooking enthusiast enjoys the journey of picking out and purchasing the best ingredients at their favorite market in the same way vintage clothing lovers relish visits to their favorite secret thrift stores. Acquiring the goods is part of the process, and Blue Apron kills that aspect of it. But for someone who'd otherwise be ordering take-out or Foreman-grilling another frozen chicken breast, it was worth the $10 a plate.
Erin: I would not do it every week -- cooking three meals in a week feels overwhelming, even though they only took between 40 minutes and an hour to prepare. But I get that the economics of shipping a giant cold-packed box with just $20 worth of food do not add up. Blue Apron's minimum order is three meals per week. I would probably do it one week a month.
Michael: I would order each of my three Fresh Dish meals again. It’s not because they are things that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t have made on my own. Unlike Blue Apron, the meals are not overly exotic. Rather, it’s because having the ingredients, prepped, portioned, and delivered to my door for $8 to $12 per portion is just so damn convenient, and reasonably priced.
Michael: Like most people, I work long and irregular hours. Knowing that I don’t have to think about what to cook on a given night, or to wonder what ingredients I have in my house and what I need to stop at the store and purchase makes up for most of Fresh Dish’s shortcomings. It’s also nice not having leftovers, whether that means of the meal itself, or of each of the ingredients that are typically bought in bulk. I get the feeling that if I made a habit of using Fresh Dish, I’d throw away much less food at the end of each week, month, or year.
Michael: That said, there are plenty of nights that I want to eat out, order in, or cook something that takes five minutes, not 30 (plus). Fresh Dish has a role in my future meal preparation, but will not make up the entirety
SUGGESTIONSErin: The ability to re-order a meal you liked. I want a second shot at pan-searing delicate redfish without mutilating it. And I have no desire to go on a grocery store adventure to try to find Acadian redfish.
Michael: I second this. If it turns out not to be feasible from an inventory and fulfillment perspective, a meal archive that lists the past recipes would be helpful in the event that you want to recreate it on your own. Along the same lines, it would be great to offer a requests box for future meals, or popular meals to bring back. This, combined with order data, could eventually lead to the creation of a “favorite meals” section, for items that would always be available, in addition to the new meals of the week.
Erin: Also, the ability to get just one meal a week. Yes, I know this is not economically feasible. But I'd be a more frequent customer.
Michael: Fresh Dish offers this, but there are limited choices each week.
Michael: I’d like the option to order larger portion sizes. While eight ounces of chicken or beef may technically be a single serving, many people are accustomed to eating 1.5 to two times as much as that. If you’re making a meal for two people, two “portions” may be too little, and four “portions” too much. If there was a plus-sized option, or the ability to add a single additional serving, that might alleviate that problem.