Anyone unfamiliar with the recipe/food delivery service Blue Apron might have become acquainted with the company a couple of weeks ago. That's when NPR aired a story titled, "Meal Kits and Chaos," based on a BuzzFeed investigation alleging violence in the Blue Apron workplace, as well as nine violations for unsafe working conditions following an inspection by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. It wasn't a good week for the company.
I had become interested in Blue Apron after a number of food-loving friends and acquaintances sang the company's praises. Since so many Utahns were jumping on the bandwagon, I thought I should try their goods myself. After all, readers of my columns care about the quality of meals in the restaurants I review, so why not turn my attention to an outfit that is supplying meals both locally and nationally? I signed up for the service and, a couple days after the NPR story aired, I was scheduled to receive my first meal shipment.
What is Blue Apron? The company was formed in 2012 when co-founders Ilia Papas, Matt Salzberg and Matt Wadiak seized the idea of a business that would deliver fresh, wholesome foods to customers' doorsteps with easy-to-follow recipes for complete, wholesome, home-cooked meals. Raising some $194 million in venture capital, it ballooned from being a startup with fewer than 100 employees in 2014 to what is now a company valued at $2 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal, and delivers some 8 million meals per month. Delivery/membership is on a subscription basis—typically three two-person meals per week, priced at $60 including shipping. That works out to about $10 per meal per person, and customers can skip deliveries any time they wish.
Given that the standard three-meals-per-week for two people is their best-selling subscription program, it's fairly obvious that the target market is young professional couples without families and without a lot of time to shop for food and cook. The meals can be prepared from start to finish typically in less than 35 minutes. But they also appeal to a demographic like mine: My wife, Faith, and I are "empty-nesters," and although I love to cook, I don't always love to shop for food; Faith downright hates it. Blue Apron provides pre-measured portions of every ingredient necessary to make a meal—all delivered in refrigerated boxes.
I was excited to open my first package of meals; it was sort of like Christmas. Atop ice packs were the fixings for three meals: pimento cheeseburgers with collard greens and carrot slaw, seared cod and udon noodles with shiitake broth and togarashi-spiced cucumber, and crispy chicken milanese with warm Brussels sprouts and potato salad.
The company sources products from partner providers around the country, such as 30-year-old Vermont Creamery (goat cheese), fourth-generation Reeves Farms in upstate New York (fresh produce) and Oregon's Country Natural cooperative of cattle ranchers, specializing in humanely raised, antibiotics- and hormone-free cattle.
It's common to get exotic items like fairy-tale eggplants and Persian cucumbers, and the wild Pacific cod I received, like all of their fish and seafood, was sourced from sustainable fisheries in accordance with Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch (a program committed to ocean conservation and education). The quality of the ingredients I've used—from Sun Noodle Co.'s fresh udon to cage-free farm eggs and crisp collard greens—has been first-rate.
There were three components to the meals I made. First, there is the main protein: chicken, fish, beef, etc. (there are also vegetarian and vegan options available). Second, there are the perishable goods like fresh veggies, cheese, breads, fruit and potatoes. And then there's a packet for each meal called "Knick Knacks." This is stuff like parmesan cheese, rice vinegar, sesame oil, whole grain Dijon mustard, dried shiitake mushrooms, panko breadcrumbs, Champagne vinegar and other seasonings or garnishes.
These meals are not completely labor-free, however; shallots must be minced and celery sliced. Prep work is required. However, for a beginner or intermediate cook, the directions are crystal clear, and the company posts helpful how-to videos online, such as a simple technique for stripping collard greens leaves from their tough stems. They also assume that you have some basic supplies on hand, such as salt, pepper, water and olive oil.
What appeals to me most about these recipes is that all of the meal ingredients are measured out in advance. I don't have to buy a bunch of scallions when just a single scallion is called for, or a dozen eggs when only one is needed. Liquids come in small plastic bottles in the exact amount necessary, so there's no food waste, and you don't end up throwing out a bunch of celery because you only needed two ribs. (The amount of plastic packaging that winds up in the trash is another story.) I did some rudimentary math, and the ingredients for most of the meals I've made at home would cost about the same, or maybe a little more, if I were to have shopped for them myself. Given what my time is worth, I'm happy to have them do my shopping for me.
The recipes are very well written and conceived, and I have to say that the results, so far, have been nothing less than delicious. We're also eating more veggies and fewer calories than normal, since the packaged meals are high in nutrients and mostly low in fat. Whereas I'd normally eat french fries with a burger, Blue Apron's burger side dish is wilted collard greens and carrot slaw. If nothing else, they've gotten me out of a recipe rut and forced me to cook foods that I normally don't. That said, I don't plan to stop frequenting local restaurants anytime soon.
The company shares their recipes on their website, so even if you don't care to spring for home-delivery, you can shop for the meal ingredients yourself, follow their excellent recipes and DIY. It's a new way to cook at home.