“One pan. 10 minutes. Countless OOHHs and AHHs,” read the message on one side of the cardboard box. “#DinnerSolved,” proclaimed its other side. The solution it contained was a platoon of individually packaged, par-cooked ingredients for sweet potato and black bean enchiladas. Resting on a bed of ice packs and swaddled by insulated foam panels, it was the meal I’d ordered from Gobble, one of the Bay Area’s burgeoning number of subscription dinner-kit services.
Before trying Gobble, I’d spoken with its founder, Ooshma Garg, who had explained her company’s MO: “We cook just enough so you feel there’s just enough cooking for you to do. You can end up with an exquisite, perfectly made meal that we’ve assured for you.” In other words, it’s the culinary equivalent of assembling an IKEA nightstand. Cooking Gobble’s enchiladas amounted to opening the plastic bags and containers holding the individual components—premade filling, Spanish rice, salsa roja, a few corn tortillas, cotija cheese, and fresh cilantro—spooning the filling into the tortillas, and sticking it all in the oven for a few minutes.
“Exquisite” isn’t the word I’d use to describe the result, which was tasty and inoffensive in the manner of above-average cafeteria food. But that was fitting, I suppose, since I didn’t feel like I’d actually done any cooking. And that, in effect, is the idea at the core of the growing dinner-kit industry, which got its start, tellingly, in Sweden with the 2007 debut of a service called Middagsfrid (which roughly translates to “the calm that you feel when you sit down and have dinner after a long day”). It began gaining traction in this country a few years ago with the launch of companies like Blue Apron and Plated, both of which posed a virtually identical value proposition: Give us your credit card information and we’ll do the grunt work.
What “cooks” get, in effect, is dinner concocted with just enough some-assembly-required exertion to yield a wee frisson of DIY satisfaction. As someone who enjoys cooking, I am inherently skeptical of these companies. But even my somewhat freakish love of grocery store aisles doesn’t fully account for my knee-jerk dubiousness. It’s also a reaction to what George Packer memorably described in the New Yorker as the mission of Silicon Valley’s hottest tech startups: “Solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand.”
The dinner-kit companies may be peddling to time-strapped working people up and down the class ladder, but their real customer base is a cohort with a surfeit of disposable income and an undying need to streamline the crap out of modern life. So it’s no surprise, then, that Silicon Valley investors are funding subscription-dinner kit startups as fast as they can demo their product, each promising a personalized spin on the concept. There’s Gobble, which was founded in 2010 as a sort of dinner matchmaking service for chefs and customers and now delivers precooked components for what Garg calls “Michelin-level meal[s] that you could never have made yourself through your own skills.”
There’s seven-month-old Sun Basket, which employs former Slanted Door chef Justine Kelly and an in-house nutritionist to create lifestyle-specific meals (paleo, gluten-free) that emphasize organic ingredients from local farms and, in founder Adam Zbar’s words, “export California value and bounty” to users. Three-year-old PlateJoy, which has $1.7 million in funding from investors as diverse as SherpaVentures, Foundation Capital, and Jared Leto (!), is likewise focused on healthy cooking. Its founder, Christina Bognet, clarifies, “We are a technology-enabled personalized-ingredient startup that uses algorithms to make you healthy,” which translates to bags of organic ingredients delivered directly from Whole Foods, along with recipes.
Meanwhile, 10-month-old Din uses precooked dinner components, like Gobble, but differentiates itself with mostly organic and locally sourced ingredients and recipes from restaurants like Bar Tartine and Tacolicious. By doing the prep work, explains Din cofounder Emily Olson LaFave, “We’re empowering people who are scared of it not working out.” Fair enough. But there’s something a little contradictory about these elevator pitches, which ostensibly extol the virtues of a home-cooked meal while presenting cooking as a source of stress and unhappiness akin to purchasing a used car. Bognet describes planning and cooking healthy meals as “just too complicated,” while Olson LaFave recalls analyzing cooking’s “pain points” as part of her research.
Granted, cooking may be this anguishing for some people. And it’s plausible that these services have the potential to help more such kitchen apostates across the country cook dinner. Still, cutting through the varying layers of startup bombast (at one point, Garg described Gobble as “lifesaving”), I was left with the question I have about most of the apps and web-based services supposedly created to simplify our lives: How exhaustively do we need to be spoon-fed (in this case, almost literally)?
And while we’re at it, here’s a riddle: How many ziplock bags does it take to negate a company’s claim that it cares deeply about organic/local/sustainable/environmentally conscious food? At this point, complaining that tech startups are turning us into teething infants incapable of handling surprise or discomfort is about as useful as complaining about the amount of sand on a beach. Although none of the companies I spoke with would disclose their subscriber numbers, the growth of their sector speaks to the fact that a significant number of people will pay for the privilege of having someone else do their planning and precooking for them.
I do like that some of these startups appear to be serious about reducing the amount of trash that typically accompanies dinner kits: PlateJoy delivers its ingredients in a grocery bag and uses a waste-reduction algorithm to cut down on unused food; Din packages its goods in a reusable (and returnable) tote lined with disappearing dry ice; and Sun Basket employs recycled blue jeans as insulation for its boxes, which customers can likewise return. A more compelling question for me, though, is where this is going, or could go. Food, after all, is basically analog, a massive market that hasn’t yet been impacted by tech.
Garg, who believes that we’re moving inexorably toward “a delivery culture around commodities,” goes so far as to predict that “all commodity goods outlets, including takeout restaurants, Walmarts, Targets, Blockbusters, and grocery stores, will cease to exist. The only infrastructure worth existing for the consumer will be built around a unique consumer cultural experience like a movie theater or theme park or Michelin-starred restaurant.” Setting aside the fact that Blockbuster’s demise is a fait accompli, maybe that’s what bugs me: Implicit in Garg’s forecast is the belief that something like buying groceries and planning a meal isn’t a worthy experience, and that a restaurant needs a Michelin star in order to be deserving of existence.
Growing up, I got arguably more quality time with my parents from grocery shopping than from going to the movies or watching TV together; it might not have been the most entertaining endeavor, but it was ours, and it had value. I’m sure plenty of families would readily outsource their meal planning (provided they could afford to), but I’m also sure that delivery culture has about as much chance of making us happier as partially built Nornäs drawers from IKEA do. And that’s not even taking into account the convenience economy’s dark underbelly, with its army of low-paid workers who labor to make life easier for the relatively affluent.
Ultimately, I’d be less skeptical of the dinner-kit industry if #DinnerSolved meant putting healthy, easily prepared food in the hands of the less fortunate. I realize that’s not going to make anyone a billionaire, and that it’s unfair to judge these companies for what they aren’t. A lot of their food is actually pretty good. But those entrées would be easier to swallow if they didn’t often come with a side order of baloney.