One of the tasks in my life most in need for a new technology is meal planning. Each week my wife or I figure out how many meals we are going to make, sort through our growing collection of cookbooks or bookmarked recipes for meals that week, and then aggregate the list of ingredients needed before trekking to the local grocery store to shop. This whole process takes at least 2 hours and it often feels like a chore to find inspiring new meals to make. Because of this, I was excited to learn about and try Gathered Table, a new Seattle startup that promises to bring more efficiencies to this very process. The food category is exploding with startups lately, but this format seemed a better fit for us than others because it offered more variety than the meal-kit options (Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh, etc.) or the full-service ones (such as Munchery).
I originally created a Gathered Table account on my PC. The site explains how the process works and asked me my preferences around the amount of cooking I wanted to do, for which days, and the types of meals I liked to eat. At the end of the registration I learned that Gathered Table is normally $10 per month but was being offered 6 months free. Once my account was created, I was shown a list of recipes from Gathered Table and I picked a few of them to add to my account so they would be included in future meal plans. I also had the opportunity to import my own recipes and did so with one from cookinglight.com. This is a feature I appreciate because it allows us to keep our greatest hits in the rotation. Gathered Table also offers an app and I downloaded it onto my iPhone so I could see how their service performed cross-platform.
My initial menu and related grocery list arrived several days after setting up my account. Many of the ingredients were things we already had, so I modified the ‘pantry’ section of the service to reflect this leaving me with a modest grocery list for the 4 meals that were chosen for me. Three of the four were things I had favorited while the other was presumably based on my preferences. All sounded very good and I was excited to try them. Here are pictures of the four things I ended up making (pepper tofu was the best!):
What I liked
- Time Saver!: Based on my experience with Gathered Table, I saved between 30–60 minutes of time looking for recipes and gathering ingredients. The grocery shopping experience was also much easier as I used the app instead of a paper list as all of the ingredients were organized by section (produce, dairy, etc.) and I could check things off as I added them to my cart.
- Takes advantage of seasonal ingredients: The recipes on my menu featured many ingredients like squash and kale that are readily available this time of year in Seattle. I am excited to see how this changes during the seasons as we get into the spring and summer. This is a welcome change from my old approach at meal planning where I often end up paying top dollar for asparagus from South America because it was in a recipe I picked (to say nothing of the carbon footprint!).
- Good recipes: I really enjoyed the pepper tofu, falafel cakes, and curry that were in my first week’s menu. The omelette was also fine considering how quickly it came together. I especially liked how the sides were similar in style to the main courses which led to well-rounded meals that my family all enjoyed. This was a big improvement over the same old salad that used to be paired with my meals because picking sides was something that often got skipped in my original meal planning process.
- Cross-platform: There were several instances during the Gathered Table experience when I went back and forth between the desktop and the app. Every time I saw changes reflected instantly in the other platform, which is important when taking a list with you to the store (or even with shared accounts between family members).
What could be improved
- Incorporate feedback loop into menus and recipes: Several times Gathered Table asked me to provide feedback on their service generally, but I did not see a place to do so on specific recipes or meals. I would like to give each item a star rating a-la Netflix so that future menus can learn from what I like or don’t like. Collecting feedback like this could also benefit new users of the service as their all-important first meals could be tested with past customers.
- Better Social Integration: The current version of Gathered Table has a find friends section where you can get recipes from people you know. I searched for a few people, but was unable to find anyone I know to test this section out. It would be great if Gathered Table integrated with Facebook to bring my social graph into their service. They could provide the option to connect with Facebook upon signup (which can improve signup rates in some cases) and if customers did this in large numbers it could also lead to some interesting marketing opportunities down the line.
- Ability to Generate Menu on Demand: When I sat down to setup my Gathered Table account I was expecting to go through the whole process and come out of it with menus and a grocery list. The current version seems to do the meal planning in more of a batch mode so I did not receive my first menu and grocery list until a few days later. Because they have a captive audience upon signup, I would like to see an option to generate a menu on demand that would satisfy customers like me who were excited to get started shortly after signing up.
- Optimize for email signups: Because of my day job, I spend a fair amount of time optimizing marketing campaigns with landing pages and signup experiences. I like the amount of signup buttons on the Gathered Table homepage, but would like to see them simplify the registration process by creating a basic account first and then asking people to supplement it with their preferences. Email addresses are very valuable and can be used for different types of marketing down the road and asking for as much information as they do likely results in drop-off. I would also remove the coupon code box as I have found that encourages people to stop the registration process to look for promo codes. This is Iikely done to track marketing campaigns, but there are other ways to do this that I have found more effective (you can also see how often people search for coupons by the fact that Google Instant Search shows “gathered table promo code” as the 2nd result).
- Expand Grocery Shopping Integration: Half of the challenges my family faces with getting dinners on the table is meal planning and the other half is grocery shopping. Gathered Table helps with the first and I have also read about efforts to help with the second. Integrating with local grocery delivery services would be a huge win as a menu could be generated with the food being delivered to my home automatically shortly afterward. Adding this could also help bring more transparency to how much each meal costs as I could start optimizing towards more efficient menus that make better use of shared ingredients. This is not available in Seattle right now, but I’d love to see them partner with someone like Instacart to change that soon!
I was very happy that I gave Gathered Table a shot and will keep using it to see how it holds up as it gets deeper into its recipe database and other seasons. They are still an early stage startup with lots of potential improvements, including the grocery store integration that will definitely be worth trying once it gets added to the Seattle market.
Originally published at www.ryanmetzger.org on December 10, 2014.