Meals in the Mail: How Blue Apron Got Started and Where It’s Heading
It took Matt Wadiak just a few minutes to whip up a summer green salad with green beans and carrots in a mustard shallot red vinaigrette. In about a half-hour, Wadiak, with my (very little) help, had prepared the main course—grilled barramundi on top of an heirloom-tomato salad, with smashed crispy fingerling potatoes.
If Wadiak had his way, all Americans would be cooking this way at home. “We want to get people back in the kitchen again,” says Wadiak, a 38-year-old cofounder of Blue Apron, a meal-kit-delivery startup. “Food is such an important part of our culture, and sharing that with another person is perhaps one of the most intimate things you can do.”
Launched four years ago, Blue Apron began selling just 20 meal kits (recipes and ingredients); today it is a $2 billion “unicorn” (a private startup valued at $1 billion or more) with 4,000 employees, selling 8 million meal kits a month. Wadiak is the visionary behind the eclectic mix of recipes, which rely on farm-fresh foods and spices.
As a child, Wadiak grew up watching cooking shows like Julia Child’s The French Chef and Graham Kerr’s The Galloping Gourmet, and he fell in love with the craft. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he worked for revered chefs Charlie Trotter and Paul Bertolli. In 2004, Wadiak founded a New York catering company. Then, in 2012, Matt Salzberg, a Harvard MBA with venture capital experience, and Ilia Papas, an engineer who had previously worked as a consultant for Walmart (WMT), hit on the idea of launching a food startup, and Salzberg’s wife suggested they meet Wadiak.
“It was as simple as saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone could deliver a recipe and all the ingredients we need to make a meal?’ ” says Salzberg, explaining the premise behind the company. (Salzberg was so passionate about the idea that it became part of his wedding vows: His wife pledged to always wash and dry the fresh produce.)
Blue Apron aims to satisfy American consumers’ desires both for fresh and healthier foods and for convenience; it cuts out the grocery store and yet is generally less expensive than dining out. Blue Apron meal kits, which come with a mix of proteins, raw produce, and precise oils, spices, and other cooking ingredients, cost $9.99 per person or $8.74 each for a family plan (including the cost of delivery).
The service’s popularity across the U.S. has helped the company secure $193.8 million in five rounds of venture capital funding, according to CrunchBase, and led to talk of an initial public offering. It has also inspired competitors: More than 150 meal-kit-delivery services are vying for business in the U.S., including rivals like Chef’d and HelloFresh.
There is room for the sector to grow, however. Only 3% of U.S. adults have tried a meal-delivery service within the past year, says the NPD Group. Blue Apron hopes to stand apart with another selling point: It takes sustainably sourced food seriously. It works directly with 150 farms, partnerships that yield fairy tale eggplants, nettle pasta, and other ingredients not often found at the local grocery store.
For more on the Blue Apron CEO, watch this video:
That said, with Americans spending, on average, $4 per meal when cooking at home, it remains a question how big this segment can get. “You are going to have to convince consumers there is added value if you are going to spend more than twice as much for that meal,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD.
With that important budgetary calculus in mind, I set out to test the kits for myself. I substituted my usual homemade dinners of grilled cheese and frozen pizza for eggplant tagine served with couscous, or brown-butter gnocchi with summer squash and almonds. In short: no comparison.
After cooking with the kits for three nights, I saw some other benefits too. I learned that foods I had avoided—like eggplant and soft-boiled eggs—I actually enjoyed. Blue Apron’s team tells me that was probably because I had been cooking those foods improperly or hadn’t found the right recipe yet. “Any ingredient can be delicious if composed as part of a great dish,” says Salzberg.
That is part of the vision inspiring Blue Apron’s creators. “It isn’t about creating foods that are extra fancy,” says Wadiak. “It is about creating foods that are tasty, good, simple, and fun to cook with.”
A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Bring Home-Cooking to Your Kitchen.”