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Roundtable: Is the Food Delivery Craze Dead?

It was a bad week for Blue Apron, and Instacart is facing a strike — has the Big Meal bubble burst?

Blue Apron Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s Thanksgiving week, which means a perpetual hunger has settled in at The Ringer. What better time to talk about food—specifically, how easy it is these days to get virtually any kind of meal delivered to your doorstep. For the past several years, food delivery has been a hot sector in Silicon Valley. Startups know we need sustenance and that technology has made us too lazy to want to leave our homes to buy it. But 2017 has introduced serious headwinds to the food-delivery craze. Blue Apron, which mails customers ingredients to cook, has struggled to woo investors since its June IPO and recently laid off hundreds of workers. Delivery-only restaurant Sprig shut down in May, while competitor Munchery has also faced cutbacks. Have startup founders misjudged the way people want to buy and eat their food? Ringer staffers Alyssa Bereznak, Katie Baker, Victor Luckerson, Molly McHugh, and Kate Knibbs weigh in. — Victor Luckerson

Are you using food-delivery apps more or less often in 2017 than in the past?

Kate Knibbs: I use Seamless on a weekly basis, but I stand by my hypothesis that the only people who use services like Blue Apron are the podcast hosts who are charged with promoting them.

Molly McHugh: I've never used a Blue Apron–type service and I am prone to picking up my own takeout. Postmates has always exclusively been a hangover/special-occasion-only app. UberEats and Postmates are the only apps I've “given in to.” I go pick up my takeout like it's 2005! But for comparison's sake, I guess I would say I'm using these apps less. I never used them all that much to begin with, but this year I've deleted them multiple times to make more space for other stuff.

Katie Baker: Don't overlook the demographic of “your coworker who has a toddler”! If it weren't for Sun Basket (a kind of semi-healthier Blue Apron alternative), my husband and I would do the “Eh, should we just make mac and cheese?” every night. Instead, two nights a week, we dutifully measure out our 2 tablespoons of oil and get to work. I don't think any food delivery apps exist where I live—I've heard rumors that there's, like, a guy you can call who will go pick up food for you, but it seems pretty analog.

Alyssa Bereznak: Virtually every person I know has done the free trial for both Blue Apron and Plated, because it's hard to pass up a good promo code—especially when it's plastered everywhere on your subway commute. Back when all this started, I opted for a more “artisanal” CSA (community-supported agriculture) style service called Quinciple, which has since rebranded to Farm to People. Needless to say, every single service I've tried is overly expensive and very Type A in its packaging and instructions. I am and always will be a dedicated Seamless customer.

Baker: I switched my Sun Basket from three times a week to two times a week this year (and one of the things I love about Sun Basket is that you have that option), so I guess I'm using it less, but we're more likely to utilize 100 percent of the prepped meals this way. There was nothing that made me feel lower than throwing out the full unused bag of produce and tiny maple syrup vials after it sat in the fridge for two weeks …

Knibbs: Do any of the services provide enough food that you would have leftovers? I feel like they might be underestimating how important leftovers are. I usually cook enough food for three to four meals a person for my two-person household; it just doesn’t seem efficient to do single servings all the time.

Baker: NO, and that's probably my biggest complaint.

McHugh: Crockpot forever! Leftovers for DAYS.

Bereznak: There's an interesting leftovers spectrum here. I think the complaint with Plated or Blue Apron might be that the ingredients are so measured out that you don't have leftovers, whereas anything like a CSA you just have turnips for days.

Baker: Alyssa, so true. Although I definitely feel like I “learned to cook” more when I did the CSA route. Lots of “what to do with leeks” Google searches that yielded surprisingly lasting results (turns out leeks are really good, and can be made with just about any shredded veg!).

I feel like when we do Sun Basket, we sort of grasp “cooking techniques,” but not really—it's like driving somewhere using GPS. You're so reliant on the map that you don't necessarily internalize where you've gone. In the moment I get it, and then I forget everything.

Is something being lost in the cooking process using these ingredients-in-a-box services?

Bereznak: Yes! I think what services like Blue Apron, Plated, and Sun Basket overlook is that cooking needs elbow room if you're going to learn. The little tin of exotic spices will remain a little tin of exotic spices unless you're given the imagination to do something more than follow paint-by-numbers cooking instructions.

Baker: If you think about it, it's kind of to these services' advantage to not forge a new generation of confident home cooks, because then what will they need the Blue Apron for? They've definitely gotten a lot of people to invest in zesters, though.

McHugh: I have no idea if this is true, but I think lots of people actually like grocery shopping?

Knibbs: I love grocery shopping!

McHugh: Me too!

Knibbs: I also love to cook, though, and I get that a lot of people don’t.

Victor Luckerson: Sometimes I get distracted and end up at the Chick-fil-A by my Kroger rather than buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

McHugh: If I didn't grocery shop I wouldn't be able to buy chocolate-covered gummy bears from the bulk section, which is a joy I will never tire of.

Baker: The most empowering cookbooks I have are the ones that teach you how to “build a pantry” and explain what staples to keep on hand that enable you to put together a meal either without having to go to the store that day, or with having to stop for only a thing of kale and a thing of ground meat. Blue Apron and its ilk are the opposite of that.

Knibbs: For me, the meal kit services are like eating low-fat frozen yogurt. They’re not as good as real ice cream (a.k.a. Seamless/Chik-fil-A/Postmates) but they’re not as virtuous as just not having dessert (doing my own damn grocery shopping and meal prep). They occupy this middle ground where it’s neither fun nor frugal.

Will apps ever replace trips to the grocery store?

Luckerson: We haven't even talked about Instacart (some of whose workers went on strike this weekend over low pay) or the fact that grocers like Kroger offer to have someone pick your food for you and bring it to your car or house.

McHugh: Oh man, Instacart sounds bleak. Maybe I should start working for Instacart part time: The best part of grocery shopping is the shopping; the worst part is the putting it all away. (Not to trivialize this strike.)

Knibbs: I think grocery-delivery services have more long-term appeal than Big Meal Kit.

Bereznak: Maybe this is just me underestimating the laziness of younger generations, but I think that people will always like grocery shopping! It's part of growing up and becoming an adult, and mastering that skill is incredibly satisfying. But you can still do that by choosing all the products online.

Baker: If grocery stores would sell their damn herbs in smaller bundles, I'd quit Sun Basket tomorrow.

Luckerson: I wonder if consumers will experience any kind of crisis of conscience with these convenient services, kind of like what's gone on with Uber this year. The bleakness of Instacart speaks for itself, but stories about the poor working conditions at Blue Apron's meal-packing factories really run against the company's image.

Baker: Yes, Victor, that story was a real eye opener. Part of Blue Apron's appeal early on was the idea that you were getting freshly sourced, possibly local goods … not that you were participating in a next-gen Upton Sinclair exposé.

Berezenak: Not to mention the incredibly wasteful packaging!

McHugh: It seems like it's near impossible to scale this sort of business to the size they're at now and keep everything local and sustainable. You just can't do it, but you hope people become reliant on your product in the meantime.

Bereznak: This is a common issue we see in Silicon Valley. Startups co-opt messages of being healthy/organic/clean/community-building to market their product, but as soon as they try to scale up to make those VCs happy, they frequently need to engage in unsavory business practices that completely contradict their image.

Luckerson: Seems like a good time to mention that all these companies are probably gonna have to contend with the Amazon–Whole Foods goliath at some point. Amazon is so desperate to conquer food.

Bereznak: Yes, because when Jeff Bezos controls our food, that's one step closer to controlling the human race.

Baker: Reading that recent story about Amazon's “last mile” issue made me remember that when they bought Whole Foods, I saw a few tweetstorms and ultimately articles about what it could mean last-mile-wise.

Luckerson: The idea of Amazon, of all companies, getting people weaned off food-delivery apps (by funneling them toward Whole Foods) is really interesting.

Knibbs: At least until they figure out how to get us hooked on getting meal kits delivered via drone from a floating warehouse staffed by harried, underpaid workers stuffing quinoa into single-serving plastic packaging.

Luckerson: All roads lead to robots with Bezos.

Bereznak: Yeah, to me the Whole Foods acquisition felt like a necessary first step of gathering real estate around the globe that will function as experimental ground for whatever robotic solutions Bezos comes up with. The stores are also physical shrines to the company in general. REMEMBER THE AMAZON “A” MADE OUT OF GROUND BEEF?

Baker: Alyssa, I'll never forget.

What would be your dream Thanksgiving dinner to have delivered via app?

Luckerson: Personally I would use Postmates to order the mac and cheese sampler from the East Village's S'mac, because mac and cheese is the best Thanksgiving side anyway.

Baker: DOES S’MAC STILL EXIST?? I THOUGHT IT CLOSED DOWN. I WAS JUST TALKING ABOUT S’MAC WITH MY BEST FRIEND. MISS U, S’MAC.

Sorry.

Knibbs: I’d use Seamless to order pizza because … I actually don’t like Thanksgiving food that much!

Bereznak: That is rude to our forefathers, Kate. Even if pizza is delicious.

Baker: Has Amazon partnered with the NYT Cooking section yet to create a Sam Sifton drone? If not, they can beta test on me.

Bereznak: I may have canceled my Farm to People subscription for being too expensive. But that doesn't mean I don't peep the artisanal products in their desperate “come back” emails from time to time. Their Thanksgiving product lineup is lavish and unnecessary, but needless to say I'm a sucker for a goat’s milk caramel!

McHugh: UberEats has always been faster for me than Postmates, so … UberEats. But I'd rather scrounge my cupboard and fridge, to be honest.

Baker: The problem with using a restaurant-delivery app for Thanksgiving food is I feel like most restaurant Thanksgiving dinners are kind of wack. It's like how fancy restaurants ruin lobster rolls by trying too hard.

McHugh: AGREE.

Luckerson: Yeah, if nothing else does, Thanksgiving will probably remain a delivery-free holiday.

Knibbs: You know what’s never wack? Pizza. … In conclusion, if Blue Apron pivots to just delivery pizza, maybe it will have a fighting chance.

Baker: [Watches stock start climbing on this suggestion.]