Blue Apron’s Secret Ingredient Is a 100-person Tech Team
Tech to Table
On June 1, meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron filed its public IPO, setting the gears in motion for a debut on the New York Stock Exchange later this year.
Of course, that weekly box of Blue Apron represents a lot more than the efforts of farmers and chefs working together — the company employs more than 5,000 people, largely in fulfillment.
But behind the scenes, Blue Apron’s 100-person tech plays a crucial role in they buying, processing, and packing of eight million meals a month.
“It’s actually super complicated, putting stuff into boxes,” Victor Estevez, Blue Apron’s director of engineering told us. “I think most people think it’s simple, but the reality is doing this at scale, especially with food, is really, really unique, and there’s a lot of operational challenges. Software can genuinely add value to make it a better experience for the customer and for our operations team.”
Estevez’s team has created software and tools that help turn recipes into manufacturing specifications, record where each ingredient is at all times and assure it is kept at an optimal temperature, monitor the produce manufacturing (from cutting ginger to bottling soy sauce), and label and track boxes.
This data used to be recorded on whiteboards at one of the company’s three fulfillment centers across the country. “And of course, there’s human errors that go into that,” said Estevez. “So building software helps us scale our operations, and it helps us separate ourselves from the problems that a smaller company or maybe a newer company would have.”
Blue Apron created their own WMS, or warehouse management system, because there wasn’t anything that catered to the complicated process of managing perishable goods that don’t have fixed yields and required frequent substitutions.
They not only has to figure out how much of every ingredient they need per recipe, but they also have to figure out how many servings are coming from the farm. The WMS figures out how many servings are in pallet of eggplant or a ten-pound chunk of butter, for example.
Shipping fresh ingredients for customers to create weekly recipes is a lot different than shipping widgets from Amazon, where Estevez worked previously.
“If you’re shipping standard products, most customers would want to wait for the exact one then get a replacement,” said Estevez. (If you ordered an iMac and received a Chromebook or vice versa, you wouldn’t be happy would you?)
In the case of food, though, “I think customers prefer fresh, great product than the exact product they wanted, so the decision we’ve made is we’d rather have a substitution than delay a box or potentially have a missing ingredient entirely.” (If you received snap peas instead of snow peas, you’d still be able to make and eat your dinner.)
“What makes our farming relationship unique is that it’s not this industrialized product,” said Estevez. “We work directly with farmers, and it’s a higher variability.”
“One of the things we’re working on next year is integrating this software stack into machinery,” said Estevez. “As the company grows, and we continue to have more and more customers joining, we’re investing in automation. So having this software work for both the human side of cutting something or the automation side of potentially bagging product is where we think this tool is going to be going.”
Every day Estevez and his team try to create stability in the unstable world of perishable foods, where produce loses freshness from the minute it’s picked and where a surprise snowstorm can force the team to substitute ingredients or change an entire recipe.
But really it’s all about those boxes.
“Everything we’re writing is about trying to get the right product in the right box efficiently and on time.”
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