Happy Birthday, FreshDirect: A Misty, Water-Colored Look at Five Years of Grocery Delivery

20070718freshd.jpg
Photo: Getty Images

FreshDirect, the (largely) beloved grocery-delivery service, turns five today. It's hard to believe it's been along that long — doesn't time fly when you're noshing on home-delivered organic vegetables? To mark the milestone, the company suspended deliveries for the day, so that its employees could have a picnic. (Yikes. What about the rain?) We know more than one person distraught that they wouldn't be able to get their order today, but, surprisingly, when we started asking around the office we discovered that seemingly as many people who don't much care for Freshy D as those who can't do without it. After the jump, four New Yorkers reflections on five years of FreshDirect — two who love it, one who doesn't like it, and one who hates it.

The Eager Early Adopter: I Get Groceries Plus Party Conversation
FreshDirect turns five today, a fact for which I feel personally responsible. I live on the East Side, not too far from the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and therefore the company’s warehouse. When FreshDirect was beginning its slow debut and subsequent slow expansion, my neighborhood was its test bed, and I was its word-of-mouth. Friends in the rest of the city were intrigued. Does it really work? Do they show up on time? How’s the stuff? I was ridiculously enthusiastic then, and why not? The local supermarket produce and fish were (and are) second-rate, and Citarella and its ilk were (and are) too pricey and far-off for picking up, say, a simple piece of salmon. I managed to become the central figure in several cocktail parties merely by discussing grocery shopping, and that’s worth the $4 delivery fee right there. Since then, of course, FreshDirect’s ubiquity has made its particulars mundane. One must probe deeper for cocktail-party tales, and a good source seems to be FreshDirect’s occasional weird mistakes. The peculiar experience of opening someone else’s box of food feels mildly transgressive. I once received three gallons of apple juice that I hadn’t ordered, which is a lot of apple juice, particularly if you don’t have a toddler. (A guy can mix only so many apple martinis.) And after nearly a decade in my building, I met a neighbor for the first time after one box of his groceries arrived along with mine. I can report that his breakfast habits are far healthier than mine but that his weakness for M&M’s may even things out. —Christopher Bonanos

The Lower East Side Mom: I'm in Love With FreshDirect
"Look, Mom. There's a tomato." It was a sunny morning, and a human tomato greeted my daughter and me on our way into school. I didn't think much of it, as costumed teachers, parents, and friends often entertain the little ones at her fancy-pants private school. But the Mr. Tomato handed me a coupon for $50 off my first delivery from FreshDirect, and I was entranced. I returned home and logged on, ready to order a bundle. But it was not to be. A window popped up apologizing that the company did not deliver to 10002. No FreshDirect for me or anyone else on the Lower East Side. The other moms at school — from Zip Codes like 10010 and 10021 — were converts; even the Parents' Associate used the service for school events. I felt abandoned. Then one day I was walking in the neighborhood, and as I crossed the intersection of Grand and Clinton, there he was: the human tomato. "It's about time you got here," I shot at the puffy-red-suited dude as I eagerly took a $50-off coupon. "Listen, if you order from two different e-mail addresses, you can get 50 bucks off each of your first two deliveries," he said. "Don't tell 'em I told you." I love the Lower East Side, but the markets, well, blow. FreshDirect changed my life, and they've done right by me ever since. And if you'll excuse me now, I need my organic chicken. —Susan Avery

The Unhappy One-Timer: Need Some Chili?
After several years of clinging stubbornly to the belief that it's just not grocery shopping if you don't push a cart with a balky wheel, my wife and I broke down and tried FreshDirect a couple of months ago. There was little point in lugging cans of beans up four flights, we figured, if someone else would do it for us. Plus they'd sent us a $20 coupon. So we ordered some Boylan Colas, bottles of water, tortilla chips, and other nonperishables, and scheduled a Sunday-evening delivery. I first suspected something was gone wrong when none of the boxes the delivery guy handed me were very big or very heavy, but he assured me all my stuff was there. He left, and we opened the boxes to find very few things we'd ordered and many things we hadn't. I chased the guy down at the corner, where he told me to call an 800 number. I don't know whose groceries we had — Hormel Beef Chili in a can, Vanilla Jell-O pudding cups, and cans of tuna — but, whoever it was, we didn't have the same taste. (The pudding cups brought back fond memories of middle-school sack lunches, though.) After my wife rehearsed our story on the phone, FreshDirect comped us the groceries and offered to reschedule. We declined. The two cans of beef chili still sit in our cupboard, and every so often we get a call from a friendly FreshDirect associate offering us apologies and more free groceries. For now, we're sticking with Fairway. —Ira Boudway

The Park Slope Skeptic: FreshDirect Is a Tragedy of the Commons
FreshDirect is a classic example of our market economy’s failure to account for the true cost of natural and common capital. It’s far from the only one, but it’s really blatant. Every community “served” by FD in fact subsidizes the company by absorbing costs in the form of wear and tear on streets, emissions from idling trucks, increased danger to pedestrians from those trucks speeding in residential neighborhoods, and all those never-ending boxes and cartons and inserts of excessive packaging. FreshDirect isn't an urban salvation; it's anti-urban. It takes people off the streets while putting those trucks and boxes on them — Jane Jacobs would hate it. Yes, yes: I'm a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, as my editor insists I mention. But that doesn't make me a fanatic. I just prefer buying better food at lower prices — and without destroying my neighborhood. —Ian Adelman