It's not every day that a 30-year career journalist drops everything to enter the startup world. So it came as a bit of a surprise when New York Times food columnist, minimalist-recipe developer, and cookbook author Mark Bittman abruptly announced his departure in September — trading in his writing desk for a role at an unnamed food startup. What sort of offer could prove attractive enough for Bittman to abandon his pulpit at America's paper of record? The answer, it seems, is in Purple Carrot.
"It's not as if I'm abandoning my ethics."
If you haven't heard of Purple Carrot, rest assured you're not alone. The startup launched in 2014 as a plant-based meal kit delivery service touting a "New American Diet," one based on humane and healthy eating practices that have a low impact on the environment. According to a recent SEC filing, the company has raised just under $2 million to date. After years of advocating for an increased proportion of plants to meat on American plates, Bittman says he saw an opportunity to put his "philosophy into action" as partner and chief innovation officer at the company.
With Bittman on board, Purple Carrot officially relaunches today with new meal plan options, revamped recipes, and an expanded service to the West Coast. Eater spoke with Bittman about his decision to leave the Times, why he sees a future in meal kits, and what Purple Carrot will look like under his creative direction:
On why he decided to join the Purple Carrot:
"It's not as if I'm abandoning my ethics. It's probably, in truth, not as if I'm abandoning journalism. I'm sure I'll keep writing, but what's happening more is that I have here an opportunity to deal directly with farmers, to deal directly with doing sourcing, to have a direct impact on the way people eat... by shipping what I hope are beautiful, inviting, alluring, complex, fantastic plant-based recipes. Every issue that I've talked about is an issue that we are dealing with directly. It's an opportunity, in a way, to put some of those principles into action."
On how Purple Carrot will set itself apart from its competitors:
"We're not suggesting anyone become vegan. We're never going to say that. We're never going to think that. What we are suggesting is that most people know that it would be healthier for them and healthier for the planet if we ate more plant-based meals. I think most people know that; people have trouble doing that. We're trying to fill that need. That is not like what the other meal kit companies are doing."
On his plans for Purple Carrot's recipe development:
"Why don't you ask me in six months? I'm serious, I'm not being glib. Part of that nature of the launch is that we have to see if people say, 'This is really awesome,' or if people say, 'This really needs a lot of work. We don't know what Bittman has gotten himself into.' I think those are extremes and I think we'll hear from both of the extremes. Right now, it could be that my recipes miss the mark. I'm trying to do a really wide assortment here, from extremely simple and straightforward to quite complex and sophisticated. I'm trying to make them all welcoming, beautiful, and delicious of course, and pretty easy to cook.
I'm making judgments based on the appeal of what I've [already created]. In a way it's like a cookbook. I've done cookbooks that have not done very well, and I have done cookbooks that have done spectacularly well. I like all of them. My judgment's not infallible. We're going to put this stuff out there and see what people think. And we're going to make what adjustments we need to make and hope for the best. I'd love to have answers about what's going to be popular and what's not going to be popular, but it wouldn't be very challenging if that was the case."
On his strategy for developing meal kit recipes:
"I think that everybody will say they want to cook as quickly as they can. I'm hoping that the people subscribed to Purple Carrot will find the elements of joy in cooking that exist — and that there will be some kind of sweet spot that's between not cooking at all and doing the full-blown figuring out a recipe, going to the store, etc.
I think there's a great deal of convenience in meal kits. We're going to try to combine that convenience with really appealing, beautiful, super-healthy food that doesn't take too long to cook. Again, I'm reluctant to say every [recipe will take] under 30 minutes or under 45 minutes; although I think many things will be under 30 minutes, most things will be under 45 minutes. If something takes an hour and I think it's worth putting out there, we'll put it out there. If our customers think that's a terrible idea, I'm sure we'll hear about that."
"We're not talking about supplanting anyone's diet. We're talking about people improving their diet in a way that most of us know should happen."
On convincing Americans to eat more plants:
"It's something I've long cared about, whatever you want to call it "less meatarianism" or part-time veganism or whatever — "flexitarianism." It just means eating more plants, eating animal products more sparingly, using animal products as a condiment, which we're not going to do because we are shipping all plant-based meals. We're talking about two or three nights of plant-based meals. We're not talking about supplanting anyone's diet. We're talking about people improving their diet in a way that most of us know should happen."
"We intend to be as principled as we can in dealing with our sourcing. We like to get the best ingredients that we can and treat our suppliers as well as we can, same with our workers and so on down the line... Everything that we talked about in the column is fair game for me to talk about within Purple Carrot and with our customers. I hope to do that."
On the issue of waste associated with meal kits:
"In defense of meal kits, they cut down on food waste because we are sending pre-measured ingredients and the amount that you need to make a meal is what's in the box. You're not over-shopping, which we know a lot of people do. There is some waste avoidance in the nature of meal kits. That doesn't address the packaging. I'm not using that as an excuse, I'm just saying there is another side of that.
The packaging issue is a big issue, as I said. It's industry wide — it's not just us. To the extent that we can help lead towards a solution, we will. For now, not only we're using as much recycled materials as we can, we're including return labels so that our customers can send the box and all of its non-edible contents back to us. We'll reuse or recycle them as appropriate, which is going to cost us a lot of money, obviously. You have to take this stuff seriously, and we do."
In response to critics who say meal kits are elitist:
"If [people who accuse meal kits of being elitist are] saying that there are people in the United States who can't afford Purple Carrot or can't afford other meal kits or can't afford good meals, that's certainly true. That's a big issue, and that's an issue of income inequality and that's an issue we all have to grapple with and an issue I've written about...
[Some] may say that it's an issue [and] that I should be doing different work. If people want to have that discussion with me, I'm happy to have that discussion. It doesn't say that Purple Carrot shouldn't exist. That would be an argument like saying cars shouldn't exist because there are people who can't afford cars or meat shouldn't exist because there are people who can't afford meat. We are trying to make a really good product and pricing it fairly. It's true that not everybody is going to be able to afford it, but you can say that about almost anything."
On whether he'll continue to author cookbooks:
"I'm still writing cookbooks. Cookbooks as we know are one of the few segments of books that still sell well ... Again, Purple Carrot is two or three nights a week. Wouldn't it be awesome if people ordered that and the rest of the week they cooked from cookbooks? That would be quite ideal."