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Mark Bittman

This Is Gonna Be Harder Than I Thought

In the first installment of this new series, food writer Mark Bittman opens up about his decision to join a startup.

This Is Gonna Be Harder Than I Thought
[Photo: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]

At first, it seemed pretty straightforward. I met this guy, Andy Levitt, who had started a vegan meal kit company called Purple Carrot. He wanted me to join as a partner because, as our key investor said, "You move us from black-and-white to hi-def."

I did know I was ready for a change. After 20 years of weekly deadlines, including the last five as a New York Times Opinion columnist, I was tired. I felt I was repeating myself ("industrial agriculture is poisoning our health and the planet," written ad infinitum in myriad ways). I was frustrated by my inability to convince people to act, and eager to accomplish some new things myself. It was time to work on changing the food system from within.

Mark BittmanPhoto: Eric Tanner

But there were complications, chief among them that I’m essentially anti-capitalist. In 1970, I described myself as a revolutionary. (I was 20 and, given the era, this was perhaps understandable.) In my heart, I don’t believe making money is an honorable goal, even if it’s ostensibly linked to doing good things. I write cookbooks in addition to my journalism and my career, I’d contend, was primarily focused on doing good things: convincing people to change the way they eat, and educating them about the ethics of food.

On the other hand, I’ve been entrepreneurial. I haven’t had a "real" job since 1987—I was editor of the original Cook’s Illustrated (after six months, I quit and got fired on the same day). Furthermore, my father—who died last year—was a Lombardi-like businessman who believed that money wasn’t everything, it was the only thing. And I’ve spent much of my life selling things ("literary works," as it says on my tax return), even if I pretended otherwise. My writing career has, of course, been a business; almost everyone’s is. (Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.")

Like I said, it’s complicated. You can make a living writing, but you’d be nuts to do it to get rich. A startup might fail, but had rich-making potential. And here was one with a goal of doing good. Was this an obvious sellout? If so, could I justify it, or was I just fooling myself?

On an early summer day, I asked four friends what they thought. These are people who’ve said things to me like, "You can never leave The Times; too many people are relying on you to say what needs to be said." One was my ex. Two were food world gurus. The fourth was a young woman who reminds me of me at her age: super-dedicated to The Movement. I figured I’d get an interesting reality check.

None of them were as critical of my decision to join Purple Carrot as I was. One even said, "This is an obvious continuation of the work you’ve been doing." They all agreed I was ready for a change, and that this was an interesting and compelling direction.

In other words, I was my own harshest critic.

I told Andy I wanted my title to be something like "Chief Ethical Officer" and my job to be prioritizing the mission, which includes things like encouraging part-time veganism, supporting sustainable agriculture and, in general, helping build the good food movement.

I also wanted to work on our packaging; when you tell people you’re selling meal kits, they immediately complain about how excessive and wasteful the boxes are. Our food had to be the best ever, and we could cut no corners in making it so. We had to source our ingredients responsibly. We had to treat everyone right whether they worked for us or our suppliers, and we had to figure out a corporate social responsibility program right away. After all, my reputation was on the line.

In short, we were going to be radically different than the "real" meal kit companies like Blue Apron and Plated. Little of this came as a surprise to Andy; he’d sought me out, and most of what I think was published and in the public record. He unhesitatingly agreed.

And thus began the struggle, with both my conscience and the realities of business.

It turns out sourcing for a new company is tricky; you don’t just call the "best" farmers around and tell them you need all their zucchinis: Those farmers may be hard to find, they may not have enough zucchinis, or they may have sold them to someone else. Figuring out how to transform great recipes into meal kits turns out to be not so straightforward either: There are many steps from sourcing to packing, and the possible pitfalls are many. And if Amazon can’t figure out how to avoid alienating customers with their recycled corrugated containers and box-sizing software, how could a startup with a claimed valuation of only $15 million solve its packaging problems?

Still, I loved the work. I’d wake up every day in a near-panic about the problems that needed to be solved—our recipes weren’t shaping up; a coveted investor fell through; I didn’t have the skills necessary to cope with some of the tasks confronting me—and yet every day there’d be some progress. My mornings were filled with dread, my afternoons hope, and my evenings…well, alcohol.

As our launch date approached, I was deep in the startup world; steep learning curves have always been inviting. But it was also a period of near-despair: We were going to launch without any of the things I thought essential: the ingredients from top-notch sources, the advanced and more responsible packaging, the perfectly executed recipes. I was going to be branded as a hypocrite—at least by myself.

I considered what could be done. I called Andy and said, "We have to pay everyone a minimum of $15 an hour, no matter what. This is something we control, it’s ultimately not a lot of money, and it makes this statement: ‘We intend to do the right thing.’" Andy made that happen.

I also said we should include return mailing labels for all of our packaging so that we, not our customers, would be responsible for re-using or recycling our junk. This, of course, is quite expensive, and more difficult to implement. We couldn’t do it for our launch, which was two weeks ago, but we’re going to make that happen soon.

Here’s how I came to terms with my disappointment: One of my investors introduced me to the "iterative beta," the notion that we had to pick a launch date and stick to it. Of course the launch would be imperfect, but since we believe Purple Carrot has staying power, we could make things better week by week and month by month. He convinced me that my goals are real and achievable, not fantasies—but it is going to take time and work and money to get there. Running a company according to my values is not as easy as I thought it would be, but it’s also possible to relax, to see that the path ahead is long and winding—and promising.

So I’m working on sourcing better food, developing easier-to-follow recipes, setting quality standards for our buyers and our partners, and forging relationships with the kind of producers we want. We’re talking internally about social responsibility, and I’m planning to meet with some of the most influential B-Corp execs in the country in the next few months to shortcut my learning process.

I’m still conflicted. (I recognize this may seem like coy marketing, but unless we’re all going to go to group therapy together, we’re not going to resolve that). But I know a couple of things for sure: I’m not going to stop writing, and my dad would be proud.

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