Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Blue Apron

Dear Blue Apron,

I'm a veteran food writer and restaurant critic. My expertise is on the eating end rather than on the cooking end, which probably puts me in synch with many your customers - people who know food, love food, but are more excited about consumption than preparation.

I have two main reasons for using Blue Apron (every once in a while, anyway; most months I cancel most or all deliveries; sorry...I know that makes me your least favorite type of customer):

1. My cooking gets into ruts, and I like to be pushed into using different ingredients and preparations. There's nothing mysterious about a cucumber and radish salad, but it's not something I'd normally imagine making. After preparing it once, it feels like a part of my repertoire (not just an academic possibility).

2. I buy more or less the same versatile groceries each week, and improvise meals by mixing and matching ingredients in clever ways. Not being a cooking hobbyist, I'm uninterested in shopping for specific recipes. Nor do I have room to fill my pantry and fridge with leftover ingredients I'll rarely use. Blue Apron sends just what I need, so there's no shopping or pantry clutter.

I'm not all that indignant about paying $60 for a box containing $25 worth of ingredients. Since I do it seldom, and for the reasons above, and it works out to only $10 per individual meal, the price point isn't killing me.

Here are my complaints:

Drabbly Corporate Recipes
I understand your recipes are developed under many restraints. It's a tough job. But I'd suggest that you pay whatever it costs to get one really talented non-corporate chef in that loop. My taste buds tell me your team is composed of chefs with a corporate background (degrees from culinary school, experience in some "name" hotel or chain whose branding impressed your non-foodie headhunters, etc.). Such chefs are not primarily deliciousness-oriented. They're about getting stuff done to spec. But you need deliciousness, too!

The recipes are usually at least competent....though not always. Your Saffron And Tomato Bucatini directed us to add full-thread saffron by tossing it in to the sauced pasta and stirring for 2-3 minutes, just before serving. That's not how saffron works. It must dissolve and infuse over time. If the injection needs to be quick, at very least you must grind the threads. This is a dumbfounding error and a waste of good saffron. Highly corporate chefs don't have much experience with this spice. You need someone in the loop who can spot and stave off such problems.

I'm not denying that you need "get it done" dweeby corporate chefs in there developing things to spec. But you need a quality assurance stopgap - someone with deep knowledge and passion tweaking and improving. As-is, the recipes are 100% dweeby.

I understand you're not looking to tart things up with esoteric, indulgent arty touches or impractical complexities. But a non-corporate, non efficiency-oriented food expert could catch gaffes and generally polish things.

And you do need the polish. Your stuff usually more or less "works", and I realize that, alone, is tough under the constrained circumstances. But it's not quite enough.

The Tyranny of Timid Palates
A slight majority of your users probably has timid palettes, but a sizable minority does not. I just made your Caribbean chicken curry, and it flat-lined spice-wise...an absolute zero, insipid as an airline meal. Similarly, you consistently under-portion the garlic. Your users complain about these things bitterly (do you read the comments under your recipes? You should!). Offer heat, but make it optional. Offer extra (i.e. correct) garlic, and make it optional.

Really, I'd go the other way, and let the timid opt out by decreasing quantities. I'm sure you've done market research, but understand while some customers inevitably scream/yell about excess spice, those turned off by blandness will drift away more quietly. Extreme reluctance to offend is a race to the bottom, so you need to consider which segment will be more valuable and loyal in the long term.

Natural filtration (i.e. not trying to please every last person) is a viable biz plan. HBO has a healthy subscription base despite its profanity and nudity. The network TV model - offend no one, ensuring you'll delight no one - is awfully stale in this era, no?

Layered Seasoning
Many of your customers mock your recipes for calling for salting/peppering to taste after every single step. It's true that good chefs "layer" their seasoning, to ensure a professional and consistent result. But for those unaccustomed to such layering, it's difficult to avoid under or over-seasoning. Either forego the layering approach, or else stipulate quantities (those who like things more/less salty or peppery can easily add/subtract).

It's 2017. People are eating healthy. I don't believe I've ever seen a full vegetable serving from you - not even in your veg meals. Cucumber salad is not a fully nutritious vegetable portion, nor is an ear of corn, nor the tomatoes in that bucatini. We need green leafy things, cabbagey things (e.g. brussel's sprouts) carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, etc. If I need to cook that stuff on my own, you're not providing a full meal.

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