Downtown View:Meals at your Doorstep

March 11, 2016
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By Karen Cord Taylor

You can get just about anything delivered to your door these days.

The question is: Is it worth it? I’d say there are still kinks to be worked out if these companies want to succeed in downtown Boston or any dense city.

I was introduced to the concept of meal-kit delivery by a daughter who gave me a two-week Blue Apron subscription for my birthday. I later ordered a two-week subscription to Purple Carrot. I figured I’d try both services and report what these meal-kit businesses get right and what they get wrong—especially for city dwellers.

My daughter had already placed the order from Blue Apron. But I wondered how they were going to deliver. Fedex, it turns out.

That’s when I got worried. My door is right on the sidewalk. They can’t leave a box there, nor can they slap their sticker above the doorbell saying they’ll return tomorrow because the food in the box is perishable. I would have to be home to receive it.

I discussed this situation with several representatives. They were all polite and tried to help me solve the problem, but all they knew was suburban living. Why couldn’t the driver leave it on my porch? I have no porch, just a step. Right on the sidewalk where people walk by.

Most people are honest, but I remember a man who held my ladder for me as I was washing a window high above the door. When I went into the house to get clean water, he stole that ladder.

Could the box be delivered to my office? Difficult. Not all offices are manned from eight to eight, which is the time slot Fedex reported to me. So there is still the problem of someone having to be there to receive the box. Moreover, it would be hard to get the heavy box home.

Purple Carrot had the same problem—a 12-hour delivery window and a shocked representative when I told her I had no porch. I then had to explain how cities are built.

If your building has a doorman, you’d be okay. Maybe residents of the Back Bay or Charlestown with doors set back from the street could get away with a box left unattended in a covered entryway, but on Beacon Hill and in the North End, it’s not going to fly.

Then there was the food. Blue Apron’s packages were well designed, the food was fresh and in good condition. The meals were the right size. It took only 20 minutes to prepare the food for cooking, most of which took place in only one pan. The meals were excellent.

Purple Carrot, started by the revered food writer Mark Bittman, not so much. Bittman advocates plant-based eating. Purple Carrot’s offerings are vegan. We vegetable lovers thought that would be fine. The ingredients were fresh, but some meals were tasteless. A “frittata” made with broccoli and a chickpea flour and water was inedible. The best meals were inspired by Asian or Middle Eastern recipes and featured lots of spices.

Another problem with both meal-kit web sites was that you didn’t order every week. Instead the companies delivered three meals a week until you asked them to stop. It was hard to find the link to stop on both web sites.

A friend of mine was put off by the environmentally-unsound delivery system. It looked as if Fedex picked up Purple Carrot’s box in Needham, delivered it to a warehouse in Connecticut, and sent the box to North Billerica, after which I got it. When that delivery was delayed by a snowstorm, Purple Carrot did not charge me for it, even though when I eventually received it, most of the food was in okay shape.

I could not check any of these facts because Purple Carrot’s public relations agency could not get back to me with answers even after two weeks. Maybe it’s just that the Carrot hasn’t been in business long enough.

There were other problems. Purple Carrot neglected to put one ingredient, gochujang, in the box. My spice drawer ranges widely through cuisines, but I didn’t have this item.

My recommendations: if these services want to succeed in cities they must learn how to shorten the delivery window or use the USPS, whose postmen have keys that work in all multi-family buildings so they can leave the box safely inside.

They should also redesign their websites to make it easier to stop delivery. After all, people go away.

As I was testing these two services I got wind of another meal-kit delivery service, Just Add Cooking. This husband-and-wife team had a pop-up booth at the Boston Public Market because they use local suppliers. Their kitchen is in Dorchester. They use their own drivers, cutting delivery times to five hours instead of 12.

The owner told me they use less packing and fewer ice packs because of the shorter time between packing and delivery.

I’ve gotten tired of waiting around for meal kits, so I’m letting a couple of months go by before trying Just Add Cooking. If you do so, tell me how it goes.

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