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Amazon helped me make a nice roast chicken for dinner last night. (GeekWire photos/Kevin Lisota)

Is Amazon about to crush Blue Apron and completely change how Americans purchase, prepare, and eat dinner every night?

Probably not — well, at least not yet.

But I certainly enjoyed my experience testing out the company’s new meal-kit service, which delivers pre-packaged ready-to-cook dinners to your doorstep.

GeekWire first reported about Amazon’s new meal-kits on Monday, after a reader said he’d been trying the meals for a week. As it does with many of its services, Amazon is testing the meal-kit deliveries on a limited basis in Seattle.

It’s clear that the Seattle-based tech giant sees opportunity in a vertical dominated by newly-public Blue Apron, which saw its shares fall more than 11 percent this week on the news of Amazon’s attempt to enter its playing field that is already crowded with many other competitors.

In short, my experience ordering, preparing, cooking, and finally eating what Amazon delivered was enjoyable. The packaging was neat; I didn’t have to go shopping; the food was fresh; it was fun and comforting cooking at home; and each serving came out to about $9 or $10 on average, which is comparable to Blue Apron.

All the ingredients for our “Steak au Poivre with Parmesan Fries & Snap Peas.”

A disclaimer: I’m a first-time meal kit purchaser, never having tried Blue Apron, Sun Basket, HelloFresh, or the other meal-kit delivery companies.

But I’ve heard from others who have experience with those startups, in particular Blue Apron, and based on my test last night it seems Amazon offer a very similar service in regard to price, packaging, and quality of food.

The box for our “Steak au Poivre with Parmesan Fries & Snap Peas

It’s still early days, though, and knowing Amazon, the company could have a few tricks up its sleeve — especially if its pending $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods is completed.

All in all, I’d probably buy another Amazon meal-kit. But the price — $20 per package, with two servings each — seems a bit steep for me to spend on a daily basis. And the excess of packaging, which worries many environmentally-conscious folks who use Blue Apron and comparable services, is a concern.

“Steak au Poivre with Parmesan Fries & Snap Peas.”
“Roast Chicken with Tarragon-Mushroom Sauce.”

Meal-kits aren’t for everyone. For example, GeekWire co-founders John Cook and Todd Bishop both agreed that while they enjoyed the food, they wouldn’t think to use the service in the future.

“Meal kits are for people who don’t particularly like to shop for ingredients or don’t have time; who are creatures of habit and want to get out of a rut; who want to have a guide in the kitchen to improve their cooking skills; who don’t want to figure out what to do with leftover ingredients; and who don’t want to make decisions at the end of the day,” said Hsiao-Ching Chou, a Seattle-based food journalist and founder of MyChineseSoulFood.com.

But if Amazon can get the price down, figure out a way to keep packaging waste minimal, and maintain a high level of food quality, its offering sure beats spending an hour at a busy grocery store or picking up some unhealthy takeout meals on the way home.

Read on for a more detailed review of my experience.

Ordering

Ordering online was simple and quick — not too surprising given that this is Amazon, after all.

To order meal-kits, you have to not only be an Amazon Prime member — $99 per year or $10.99 per month — but also a subscriber of Amazon Fresh, the company’s grocery delivery service that costs $14.99 per month. I signed up for a 30-day trial.

There are 42 meal options in the “Fresh Meal Kits” category under “Grocery & Gourmet Food,” 17 of which are made by Amazon. The other 25 are from Tyson Tastemakers and Martha & Marley Spoon.

The Amazon meal-kits provide two servings and range from Tacos al Pastor with Pork; Veggie Burger with Harissa Aioli & Smoked Eggplant; Wagyu Beef Burger with Bacon Jam & Sweet Potato Fries; and more. Vegetarian options are the cheapest at $15.99 each; meat options go as high as $19.99.

Most dishes were available; some were ready for purchase the next day. I went with three meat options:

Roast Chicken with Tarragon-Mushroom Sauce — $17.99

Steak au Poivre with Parmesan Fries & Snap Peas — $18.99

Togarashi-Spiced Salmon with Soba Noodles — $19.99

Given that my order exceeded $40, Amazon axed the $9.99 Fresh delivery charge. I also received $5 off my next meal-kit purchase.

The only way to receive my meal was via delivery — Amazon wouldn’t let me pick up the meal kits from its new Fresh Pickup locations in Seattle. I selected a 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. delivery window.

I had the option of either having the delivery left at my doorstep, or require that I be present when the meal-kits arrived. I went with the attended delivery.

After placing my order at 8:35 a.m., Amazon emailed me at 12:54 p.m. notifying me that the meals were being prepared.

At 4:10 p.m., a deliveryman showed up at our office door with the goods:

A few hours later, it was time to cook — and eat.

Preparing

GeekWire co-founder John Cook assists me as we open the Amazon meal-kit. GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop awaits, hungry, in the back.

The meal-kits came enclosed in a sturdy paper bag and silver-bubble wrap. Several plastic ice chill packs, filled with water and reusable/recyclable, helped keep the meat and fish cool.

The brown boxes were packed neatly. John’s neighbor Meredith, a long-time user of Blue Apron and Sun Basket, liked how the boxes could easily fit into the refrigerator.

Each ingredient — from chopped onions to parsley to garlic to parmesan cheese — was in an individual container or bag. Everything seemed fresh.

The chicken, salmon, and steak each were vacuum sealed with plastic inside their own silver bubble bag. The chicken and steak came from Corfini Gourmet, a food distributor in Seattle that is “dedicated to supplying the best local, sustainable and natural meats,” according to its website. The salmon came from Ocean Beauty Seafoods, a wild Alaskan salmon distributor with a Seattle location.

It’s unclear where the vegetables or dairy are sourced from. Amazon seems to lean more on the organic side, as the chicken stock, for example, was from Pacific Foods.

Amazon includes a nice print-out in the box — one side shows the ingredients included and some that you’ll need to provide (basic items like salt, pepper, oil, utensils), while the other details the recipe instructions. It notes a prep time of 30 minutes; the whole process of cooking one meal took me a bit longer.

Cooking

The flat iron steak searing on the stovetop.

If you can follow directions, you shouldn’t have much difficulty preparing an Amazon meal kit.

I decided to cook the chicken and steak, and leave the salmon for another day — according to the labeling, it could store in the fridge for another four days.

There’s something about having pre-portioned ingredients ready at your disposal that makes meal-kit cooking easier than trying to follow a traditional recipe with items you’ve purchased at the grocery store. I usually wouldn’t add some tarragon to my chicken broth or whip up a cream sauce to pour over steak, but the meal-kit made it simple. There is also little-to-no food waste.

Having ingredients in individual packages also may be wasteful, but it gives you flexibility — if you don’t want something that the recipe calls for, you don’t need to include it.

I really enjoyed the cooking aspect of the experience. Despite being laborious and somewhat time-consuming, it’s almost therapeutic for me. And I appreciate knowing exactly what’s going into my meal, from the type of oil to the garnishes to the seasoning.

After slicing potatoes, I garnished them with oil, garlic powder, salt, and pepper before placing them in the oven.
Giving the snap peas a sizzle.

A medley of vegetables ready for the oven.

Eating

The meat quality was excellent. These weren’t the best steaks or chicken breasts I’ve eaten, but they were juicy, flavorful, and tender. They paired well with the sauces — a cream/peppercorn/djion mustard mix for the steak, and a mushroom/taragon/chicken broth on top of the chicken. The veggies and potatoes came out nicely.

Clearly, my presentation didn’t quite match what Amazon showed in the photo. But that’s part of what makes it fun, right? I’m looking forward to another try.

Final thoughts

(Amazon Photo)

I’d use this service again. But will I rely on Amazon meal-kits for each dinner? Not until the price drops a bit. Amazon will also need to diversify their offerings, or else I’d get bored.

But what about everyone else? There is certainly a market here. The Walker Sands Future of Retail report found that 1 in 5 consumers are extremely likely to make an online grocery purchase in the next year. That percentage goes up nearly two-fold for millennials, a quarter of which already use a grocery subscription, branded recipes or meal-delivery.

However, getting customers to commit to a service like this long-term may be a challenge for Amazon. Chou, the Seattle-based food journalist, said her friends who used Blue Apron “had cycled through the menus they liked, and had picked up enough new cooking skills that they felt they could quit it.”

My colleague Nat Levy also tried Blue Apron for several months but decided to cancel his subscription.

“Eventually, we stopped getting Blue Apron because of cost and the tendency for some ingredients to go bad quickly,” he noted. “Additionally, the program used a ton of packaging. But to this day, I still have a few Blue Apron recipes in my personal cooking rotation.”

Regardless, investors are bullish. Packaged Facts noted $650 million raised by meal kit delivery startups in a report last year, and that number has surely risen since then.

The question is, how can Amazon be different from a company like Blue Apron or others — Sun Basket, HelloFresh, Plated, Home Chef, Peach Dish, Marley Spoon, Gobble, Munchery, Chef’d, Green Chef, Freshly, and even traditional grocers like Kroger — that offer their own differentiated take on meal-kit deliveries, from paleo diet-focused services to meals that can be cooked in three minutes. What will give them a competitive edge?

The answer could very well be Whole Foods.

The Whole Foods Market on Westlake Avenue near Amazon’s Seattle campus. (Whole Foods Photo)

Here’s recent analysis from CBInsights:

With Whole Foods stores potentially becoming Amazon fulfillment centers, little is in the way of stopping Amazon from devising meal delivery kits in the same vein as Blue Apron, and Amazon has already selling kits through AmazonFresh in limited trials. Whole Foods’ reputation as an organic retailer put further pressure on Blue Apron, given its emphasis on a sustainable farmer network. Not to mention, Whole Foods has a formidable and complex supply chain connecting it with farmers country-wide, and has even experimented with its own proprietary farming operations. This puts it in a strong position, one coupled with Amazon’s logistics reach, to deliver fresh ingredients in meal kit form.

Amazon also doesn’t need to be too concerned about turning a profit on meal-kits — one issue that many competitors are dealing with — given how much money is generated by other parts of the company. In fact, that may not even be a long-term goal. Perhaps Amazon will take a loss on meal-kits as a way to draw more Prime members.

On top of the pending Whole Foods acquisition and meal-kit service, Amazon’s other food-related ambitions include a lunch delivery service called Daily Disha restaurant delivery service for Prime membersa new cashier-less grocery store concept called Amazon Goa private food label business; and the original AmazonFresh grocery delivery service that launched in Seattle nine years ago.

You get the feeling that the company’s ambitions to control how we purchase and eat food are sky high. Meal-kits would only be a small part of a larger strategic play that could include other parts of Amazon’s business, from supply chain management to artificial intelligence to fulfillment. It’s hard to predict how Amazon will tackle the $600 billion grocery industry — “as we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time” is a core leadership principle — but clearly the company sees big opportunities.

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