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Mark Bittman

You Can't Be All Things To All People

Customer feedback is useful, but you can't satisfy everyone—& at some point, you have to choose your values over your customers' requests.

[Photo: Ivan Volozhanin via Shutterstock]

I have been developing, testing, writing, and publishing recipes for more than 35 years, and it’s safe to say that nothing I’ve ever done touches the challenges presented by my current situation at Purple Carrot, my meal kit startup. Not only am I doing all of those things here, I’m at least indirectly responsible for sourcing our ingredients and then packing and shipping them. Furthermore, they’re being cooked by (presumably) very nearly all of our customers, who now number in the thousands. And these customers know how to email.

The main question is not whether I like these recipes. I do, and I’ve rarely been as pleased as I am with our recipe development process. And the customer response is overwhelmingly positive; they also like the results.

But we have a number of limitations (and, until we can figure out 3-D printing of cooked recipes, we always will). We can’t, for example, pre-prepare everything the way we might someday; we can’t ship on demand; we must contend with shelf life and other factors. Our customers have limitations as well: They don’t have enough time, their skill and comfort levels vary, and there are other factors of which I’m sure we’re not aware. As long as they’re our customers, these will be issues.

As I’ve said before, there is a fair amount of guesswork here. But then there is the email, which is a constant reminder that our customers are well-educated, demanding, and quite specific. This is likely even more so for our customers than for those of our competition, because I imagine that the subset of meal kit customers who are looking for plant-based meals is one that thinks more about the qualities of the food they’re receiving than those who are simply looking for convenience. We get loads of questions about whether our food is organic (it often is, but it’s not a fetish; we’re constantly evaluating and redefining our standards) and where it comes from (this, too, changes, but our sourcing standards become more clear each week).

We also get scores of queries every week about allergies (yes, we think about them, but we don’t really "accommodate" them, except to the extent that we list our ingredients). There is, especially, the gluten question; in our early days, we made an effort to make certain that half of our recipes were gluten-free; now it’s more like a third, and it may actually go down rather than up. As one of our investors just reminded me, "You can’t be all things to all people."

We also get some complaints that our calorie counts are too high. My feeling about this has long been and remains that in high-quality food like ours, which contains few or no hyperprocessed products and nothing that comes from animals, calorie counts are a red herring. There are reasons why vegans are less likely to be overweight.

We are not, of course, maniacally vegan (we’ve never once said we’re out to create a vegan society, or even increase the number of vegans, because we’re not); we’re simply a company trying to make it easier for more people to eat more plant-based food. The reasoning behind that is straightforward: the evidence is strong that if we eat less junk and fewer animal products we’ll be healthier, and calories are only a measure of the energy in food, not of the food’s quality or effect on your weight and health.

This is why I’m arguing internally at my startup (and eventually I will have this conversation with our customers) that it’s counterproductive for us to provide nutritional information with our meal kit deliveries because the food we ship comprises whole, real ingredients and our recipes combine them in ways that produce delicious meals. At the end of the day, you don’t really need to know more. This isn't about withholding information; it’s about making things simpler. Just as we’re trying to take the "worry" out of shopping and planning and even out of cooking, we should be telling our customers "This food is good for you; if you want more information than that, you’ll find it on our website."

Finally, beyond the contents of our food, some customers feel the portion sizes are too big, while others feel the portion sizes are too small—and we are definitely getting some pushback on our unusual recipe-writing style. This is something I’ve thought about for years, with the result that Purple Carrot's recipes are untraditionally written. My recipe-writing style came about around five years ago: When I was working on How to Cook Everything Fast, we recognized that most experienced cooks don’t work the way most recipes are written. They don’t chop an onion, measure oil and salt and chili flakes, mince a clove of garlic, wash and dry and chop parsley, chop a tomato, put a pan on the stove, add the oil, add the onion, and so on. (Some do, of course; but they’re in the minority.)

Rather, they put a pan on the stove, put some oil in it, begin heating the oil, chop the onion and put it in the oil, and proceed from there. My team and I began writing recipes that way—a kind of prep-as-you-cook method—and we have adapted that style for the recipe cards we ship with our food each week. (One of our competitors—my favorite, actually—has essentially adopted the How to Cook Everything Fast recipe-writing style, which is both annoying and flattering.)

The bottom line is that I’ve realized that much as we want to be responsive to customer feedback, we can't be all things to all people—not just because that is impossible, but because I have my own values about food, values that I believe in and am expressing through our products. And there's something to be said for sticking to your values in a business—after all, we’ve successfully reached our first big goal: We’re shipping really good food that produces delicious plant-based meals. Now it’s time to fine-tune.

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