Sep 2, 2015 · 9 minutes

We’ve seen plenty written lately about VCs potentially losing their patience with the over-funded food delivery space.

But as I’ve written before there is a huge distinction in this category that I too have been guilty of lumping together as one: On demand (Postmates etc) and Non-Demand (Blue Apron etc.).

Until recently, I totally got the appeal of the former, the same way I get the appeal of the on demand economy generally. When you need something right now-- a taxi in a rainstorm during shift change or Indian food after the gauntlet of putting two toddlers to bed with a mountain of unwritten stories staring you in the face-- you’ll pay any price as long as you can hit a button on your phone and watch it slowly inch its way to you. It’s like that time you lost your notes the night before a mid-term and would pay any price to have them right then, but could shred them the next day.

You don’t want to see the size of my monthly Postmates bill.

Non-demand however I fundamentally didn’t get, and indeed in this sector there is exactly one unicorn: Blue Apron. But I was stunned there was even that many. Really-- I wondered-- there are that many people who can plan to cook three nights a week but can’t Instacart the ingredients?

I had about a week of conversations with devoted users of these services-- and people who seemed like me who wound up just wasting food because they didn’t ever have time or the energy to cook at the end of a busy day.

I wondered-- is this a TiVo like situation? Where it just seems like a better VCR but once you use it changes the way you watch TV?

So I've decided to test all of the non-demand food players. The ones that rely on you to do the cooking.  Over a series of articles I’ll be setting them head to head and, ultimately, picking my own personal winner.

I realize a ton of reporters have written about these services-- and apparently enough of you use it Blue Apron is valued at $2 billion -- so I doubt this series is a first. But I doubt many of reporters have used each of these services for weeks, paid for them, or have the demands of small kids and a company to contend with. Also, we’re further into these companies' lives now. It’s not the heady days of an optimistic launch, it’s scale time or go under time.

So, here we go: An unvarnished take on how they’re doing. Each article will compare two services tournament style. And we’ll see who unseats who.

A few notes before I begin:

  • I didn’t accept any free demos-- and for most services I signed up under a fake name just in case anyone was cunningly looking out for journalist sign ups. I wanted my experience to be as typical as possible.
  • I didn’t actually cook the meals myself -- Paul Carr did. As I wrote before, I love to cook, but I simply do not have the energy to spend 30 minutes chopping and sauteeing after working all day, putting two toddlers to bed, and then working for a few more hours before bed. Paul, on the other hand, has long wanted to learn to cook. So we had a deal: I paid for the service and provided the fully stocked kitchen. Then, while I put my kids to bed, he cooked dinner.

For the last month, two services have gone head to head: Market leader Blue Apron and scrappy underdog PlateJoy.

The TL;DR result: It did not go the way I expected… or frankly, I wanted. Blue Apron won. Handily. I’m sorry, PlateJoy.

I should start at the beginning of the process: My motivation. With Blue Apron, I wanted to understand how this company could be worth $2 billion. With PlateJoy, I fell in love with a Medium post written by the founder Christina Bognet. She wrote about her experience getting in shape and eating well, and how she wanted to help others via this service. It resonated with me. My concern with Blue Apron and Plated are that the meals are pretty high calorie.  I wanted a healthy alternative.

Enter PlateJoy. The calorie counts aren’t quite at Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers level, but most meals clock in at least 100 calories lower than at other non-demand services. More important you can specify a low carb diet, a paleo diet, a dairy free diet or other alternatives. You can also have PlateJoy send you all your meals or just breakfast or just lunch or just snacks or just dinner, or any combination therein.

You can also opt out of specific food items you do not want. For instance, I want fish dishes but I hate salmon. With Blue Apron, I have to pick no fish, or suck up the occasional salmon dish. Sure I can opt out of specific meals once my menu is set, but there aren’t a ton of options if I skip salmon, and that relies on me going to the site those few days. It’s annoying.

PlateJoy is also heavier on the personal service. They have folks who reach out to you to get feedback on the service and the recipes and the delivery folks are far nicer (Blue Apron uses commercial courier services to deliver meals in boxes packed with ice.) Because PlateJoy’s ingredients are coming from local stores, they’ll offer to pick up anything extra you may need while they are out.  

And they’ll focus on stocking your pantry with full-size versions of things you use a lot, like olive oil, versus always giving you pre-measured tiny versions. That’s a nice idea for staples. It’s not like it’s that hard to measure olive oil.

I was 1000% convinced that PlateJoy would be the winner of this head-to-head. Everything about the front end experience was so much better than Blue Apron.

And then, the food arrived.

Blue Apron is less healthy, yes. But the meals were more complex from a flavor palate, more delicious, and -- strangely -- easier to prepare. With PlateJoy, Paul felt like he was occasionally working way harder to prepare something a dude could have just come up with by wandering around Whole Foods. As he put it: “With PlateJoy they somehow make it harder to cook something simpler, whereas Blue Apron makes it way easier to cook something more complicated.”

To be fair: I opted into the low carb diet on PlateJoy and healthy is harder to do well. But there are little things that could make PlateJoy a lot better. For one the ingredients we got didn’t match the recipe several times. On one occasion halibut arrived instead of cod, with no explanation. On another, two inch thick pork steaks arrived for a recipe that required a much thinner cut. It’s harder for an inexperienced cook to improvise when there are curveballs like this thrown in. (Paul: “I ended up cutting the pork steaks in half lengthwise. I still don’t know if that was a good idea. I do know we ended up with way too much pork.”)

Paul also complained about PlateJoy’s recipes missing steps which might seem obvious to seasoned cooks, but left him baffled. “At one point the recipe told me to add in the lemon zest and juice. I had a lemon, and I understood how to get juice out of it, but there was literally no explanation of how I should liberate the zest. Blue Apron talks to me like I’m an idiot -- describing in detail how to zest a lemon -- and that’s good because, when it comes to lemon zesting, I am an unashamed moron.”

I have to give Blue Apron grudging credit. Sterile-ness and lack of customization aside, it’s excellent. We’ve had consistently good meals with no waste. I’ve come to look forward to their deliveries. But ultimately, Blue Apron is like buying an off the rack suit. There’s a reason it’s sterile and non-customizable. It has to scale. It isn’t perfect. I can’t customize it. And it’s too high in calories. But it’s foolproof. And that’s what you want in dinner.

There’s also the issue of staying power. Ultimately, Blue Apron feels like a service you are subscribing to. PlateJoy feels like the friend who ran to the grocery store for you just after you had a baby or a loved one got sick. That means the latter is more customized and friendly, but it doesn’t feel like a scalable business. 

PlateJoy could still figure this out: Early on Tim Hale of Redpoint went to visit Netflix and found an open air warehouse where people were manually sticking DVDs in a big pile of envelopes. “This is a tech company? What have I done?” he thought. Netflix certainly figured that out. But non-demand food is a crowded category with well funded competitors and there's fear the market is going to start to contract. It won’t be easy.

I should note too there is a massive asymmetry in resources here. Blue Apron is a granddaddy of the category with some $193 million  in funding versus PlateJoy’s $1.7 million. But consumers won’t care. And if PlateJoy is going to keep raising money, they’ll have to prove they can compete with anyone.

I’m trying not to speak with the founders while writing this series: I want to asses the services like a true consumer, without being swayed by business rationales or sympathetic origin stories. Still, when I emailed to cancel my PlateJoy subscription the founder, Bognet, responded to ask for feedback why. We had an honest back and forth about my issues with the service. I’m still rooting for them, and may try them again in six months or so.

If PlateJoy doesn’t succeed ultimately, one of the larger services should think seriously about buying them-- or at least ripping them off. They’ve tapped into the human side of this problem in a way the others haven’t. Hopefully they can figure the food part out.

This series isn’t close to done --  there are at least three more services I’m going to try out. Blue Apron may yet be unseated.