How They Do It
Inside the Blue Apron Test Kitchen with Chris Sorensen
In just four years, meal-kit service Blue Apron has matured quite a bit from its early days testing recipes inside its founders’ home kitchens. Today, the New York-based company has delivered well over 159 million meals to households across the United States, employing some 5,000 people across the U.S. and it’s partnered with more than 300 farms to grow ingredients for their dishes — using an on-staff agroecologist to guide sustainable practices such as crop rotation and natural pest control. With alumni from elite restaurants like Blue Hill, Per Se and Le Cirque, the recipe development in Blue Apron’s brand-new north Brooklyn test kitchen is a far cry from its humble beginnings. Under the helm of Chris Sorensen, senior director of culinary, the team is constantly evolving its twelve weekly menu options to meet the needs of a growing national customer base.
Out of the entire Blue Apron recipe lineup, sautéed chicken breast with honey nut squash is an all-time fan favorite.
Q: What’s the process for developing recipes?
A: One of the things we assume is that people don’t have too many tools in their kitchens other than a knife, a cutting board, pots and pans and a working oven. We let the combination of our supply chain and our farm partnerships inspire and drive the menus, but our customers’ insight takes us over the finish line. We have a very talented crew. At this point, they sit down and come up with the recipes. It’s like a brainstorming session on a weekly basis. By the time they get into the kitchen, they have a good idea of what they want to do. If anything has to change, it’s usually small tweaks. We have a really talented staff with a high pedigree.
Q: What do you take into account in the development stage? Who is the customer?
A: We’re covering the whole country, so that’s a big question, and it’s one that we’re constantly answering. I’ve been with the company four years, almost since the beginning, and the customer we served four years ago is very different from the customer that we serve today. We’re adapting. We take in a lot of feedback. We learn through trial and error, and then we have twelve menus each week to touch all those customers. We also do a lot of box surveys. What are your likes and dislikes; what are your pain points; what are your entry points for meal-kit services like ours; what has turned you off, turned you on? One example is quick cooking; we just launched a 30-minute meal campaign. People come home on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, they’re tired. They don’t necessarily want to spend 45 minutes to an hour in the kitchen. We show them that we hear them. But it’s still delicious, still whole foods and inherently healthy food. You’re cooking for your loved ones, your family or yourself — either way, it’s a good experience.
Senior Director of Culinary Chris Sorensen in the new Blue Apron HQ.
Q: How do you source the ingredients?
A: We plan six months, if not nine months in advance. We have a lot of farm partners. We have an on-staff agroecologist, Alison Grantham. She’s brilliant. She helps us inform farmers how to better farm through regenerative practices. One of the things we do is crop rotation and pest management through natural ways. She is their sage, if you will. We do a lot with data to help them as well. Our Farm Partnerships Manager Beth Forester really handles the relationship part. Then she’ll communicate that stuff to the chefs.
Q: Do the recipes change geographically?
A: Our supply chain team is really focused on farm relationships. They really work across the whole country, so we try to grow things at the same time in different regions. For the most part, we can do that. We can hit areas around Texas and have them grow peppers for us and then we can grow either the same or a similar pepper in California, and the same in New York. We might do some regional variations on things — you might get a physical recipe card in Texas that might have a different pepper than a recipe card in California. Things like fish, meat, grains, dairy, those are national items. We aim to use domestic products and producers, but search for the best internationally as well.
Q: At the end of the day, what’s your hope for Blue Apron?
A: We just want to get people back into the kitchen. We really believe it’s valuable. It’s a valuable act. In places like New York, there’s so much good food that can be delivered to your door. But most of that food isn’t really good for you. They’re putting stuff in it to make you come back: the butters, sugars, sauces. Besides the health lens, getting you in the kitchen — whether it’s solo, and you’re listening to a podcast, or with loved ones — in a world that is over-engaged in technology, it’s nice to put all of that away and have an analog experience. We’re hoping as a company that we can get people excited about cooking. We can help people do that because I think one of the big barriers for cooking is, “I don’t know how to do this.” We have the ability to break that down. We’re not magicians. We’re just craftsmen. We’ve been doing it for a while, and if you do it with us for a little while you’re going to learn very quickly. It’ll go from being an intimidating thing to something that’s easy, inspiring and empowering.