Oct 9, 2015 ยท 6 minutes

It’s time for part two of our tournament of the non-demand food companies.

Judging by the sponsored ads in my Facebook feed, I fear that this series will never end. (I also fear some of these newer upstarts are spending way too much on customer acquisition…)

More entrants seem to launch daily, despite (at least my) concerns over just how big the market of people who know they have time to cook three nights a week but not time to shop may be. And how long people want to use these services.

After a few months of our trials, the novelty is already wearing off, and we’ve started to have to throw away food that we never got around to making.

Readers will remember the first two we tried were Blue Apron and PlateJoy. And Blue Apron-- the lone unicorn in the category-- proved why it had that valuation, handily winning.

This past month we wanted to try Din and HelloFresh.

Representatives of both companies had reached out to us after our initial coverage, but we don’t accept free demos. We want to experience these services as consumers do. We even signed up under fake names. In judging them, I try to check all my founder empathy at the door and put myself in the shoes of an average consumer who isn’t rooting for anyone, who just wants value for her money and her dinner problem reliably solved.

We try to use each service for several weeks to get a good sense of it, and have continued to use the reigning champ Blue Apron as well so we’re comparing the meals on a weekly basis-- not going off our memory of how Blue Apron was.

The results continued to annoy me: Apparently the venture world is just right on this one. Blue Apron is still head and shoulders better than the others. It’s not always the case that the best product gets the most funding and the highest price. So far, it is with this category.

Let’s talk about Din first. I can’t actually tell you how tasty it was or anything about the packaging or recipes, because we never got that far, despite numerous attempts to become a Din customer.

Din-- to its credit-- has a clear differentiation from the others. It brings you pre-prepared ingredients and recipes from the kitchens of famous chefs. The problem-- apparently-- comes in scaling that with any kind of consistency.

The week we first tried to sign up for Din, we were offered our choice between just three options that are standard Din favorites-- none of which seemed super exciting to me-- and multiple options from the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant…. The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. It’s possible I love grilled cheese sandwiches more than anyone in the world. I’ve made the Four Seasons make me one when I’ve had a rough day. It’s my go-to comfort food. And yet, I couldn’t possibly spend money on this.

For one thing, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen just isn’t that good in my opinion. For another, I don’t need a service to deliver me the ingredients or a recipe to make a grilled cheese. This seemed so far from the promise of Din, to “partner with celebrated restaurant chefs and get access to their best recipes.” Like what? To butter the bread before you put it in the pan? It was like a date saying he was taking you to French Laundry, pulling up in front of a laundry shop with a cafe that sells french fries and saying “Ta da!”

Out of pure curiosity, I reached out to the company-- utterly breaking the rules of this series to only act as a consumer-- and frankly giving Din unfair odds of a favorable review. I was told it was a “back to school promotion” and to check back in a few weeks for something better.

Sure enough, when alerted, I went back to try the Ramens of chef Richie Nakano. That seemed like a fair test of Din’s service. Only after three days of trying on multiple browsers, I gave up ordering. There was a glitch on the site where if I selected a window for delivery the entire sign up process broke. Repeatedly.

I thought about reaching back out to the company. But ultimately, it wasn’t fair to the other sites we were reviewing. We didn’t let any other company handhold and curate and troubleshoot our experience. As a pure consumer I would have never returned after the grilled cheeses. Also, who wants to have several ramens or grilled cheeses over the course of a week? The variety is too great week-to-week, but within an order it’s too similar. I’m sure the ramens are delicious, but my experiment with Din was over.

That left HelloFresh, who by default wins next to Din, because we actually got and ate food and were offered options beyond cheese, bread, and butter. But just like PlateJoy, I’m sorry to say HelloFresh paled next to Blue Apron.

Like PlateJoy, there were initially reasons we were excited about HelloFresh. Their packaging, for instance, is better than any of the others we’ve tried. They’ve helpfully put all the ingredients to each meal in one labeled box. It’s a wonder Blue Apron hasn’t ripped this off. It’s way easier to pull one box out of the fridge each night.

But much like PlateJoy, many of the meals felt more like a list of ingredients you prepared and put on a plate than a sophisticated recipe. As Paul Carr -- who has been doing the cooking each night-- puts it: When you start a Blue Apron recipe you can’t imagine you are going to make the thing on the picture in front of you out of the ingredients in front of you. But the recipes are absolutely foolproof. (Paul grew up in hotels and didn’t know how to make anything before this experiment. He didn’t know the difference between a pot or a pan.) The Blue Apron meals feel like you’ve done something bigger than the ingredients. That’s one thing that keeps the novelty going. You’re impressed with yourself, and you have dinner for a reasonable price.

The HelloFresh finished meals by contrast felt like a pretty linear interpretation of what came in the box-- only cooked.

Also, the first HelloFresh meal we had was the only meal during this entire time that was absolutely inedible. I don’t know if something had gone bad (we made it the day we got the shipment, so it wasn’t on our end), but it tasted like a thin veneer of ammonia was doused over the chicken and apple dish.

Towards the end of our HelloFresh experiment, I started to get sick with pneumonia, so every meal seemed unappetizing, but my niece and Paul dutifully continued the experiment. But after a few weeks, we just stopped making the HelloFresh meals. They just didn’t seem exciting enough for the 45 minutes of work.  We’ve had to toss several.

Again, I hate to write this, because I’m sure there are amazing people behind HelloFresh and I know this is an incredibly hard business to send fresh recipes and ingredients to people every week. I can’t imagine the logistical, sourcing, and creative challenge. But as a consumer, there’s just no contest.

See you next month with two new challengers. We’ll see if Blue Apron can be de-throned...