Rotten Tomatoes

Our man Sietsema orders Fresh Direct

Five years ago, when Fresh Direct trucks first hit the streets, certain people I knew—mainly lawyers and advertising types who worked hard, stayed late, and had little time for the minutiae of life—were elated at the prospect of ordering groceries online. I was instantly pissed. I get around town on a bike, and Fresh Direct trucks soon appropriated bicycle lanes as their personal parking lots. The hulking trucks hogged residential streets normally devoid of commercial traffic. And Fresh Direct trucks idled as they parked, spewing diesel fumes that bathed entire blocks in carcinogenic stink.

Those were not my only objections. Fresh Direct groceries came swaddled in excessive packaging. I felt the company was commandeering city byways as their rent-free place of business, rather than renting storefronts as grocers conventionally do, reaping profits as the public suffered increased congestion and wear and tear on the infrastructure. Would Fresh Direct cause neighborhood supermarkets and specialty grocers to go out of business? The jury is not yet in.

It was clear, too, that Fresh Direct was redlining much of the city, refusing to service neighborhoods based on what seemed like race and class considerations. Go to the Fresh Direct website, and the first thing you're asked for is your zip code. Punch in Cypress Hill, Brooklyn (11208), and the message instantly appears, "Home delivery is not available in your area." Ditto for Sheepshead Bay (11235), East New York (11207), and Woodside, Queens (11317)—the latter a stone's throw from Fresh Direct's Long Island City headquarters. The entire Bronx is snubbed by Fresh Direct—with the exception of its northernmost island of wealth, Riverdale.

Fresh Direct in LIC
photo: Cary Conover
Fresh Direct in LIC

Other zips are more ambiguous, with Fresh Direct only delivering to certain addresses. In Washington Heights, the computer said Fresh Direct would not deliver to 536 West 175th, a building in a Dominican neighborhood, but it would send a truck to a middle class co-op a few blocks west, 360 Cabrini Boulevard. Is there anything illegal about this sort of discrimination? If not, there ought to be.

Luckily, I live in a zip code served by Fresh Direct. So I decided to see just how good the groceries were. I placed my order online on a Thursday afternoon for delivery the next day. A few things I noticed immediately: Fresh Direct doesn't sell fresh bread; you're allowed to buy no more than three cases of mineral water or soft drinks; and they sell charcoal, but only of the ecologically disastrous self-lighting variety. Oh, and Fresh Direct does not take cents-off coupons or vouchers from the federal government's WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) food program.

It's hard to think globally and buy locally, or curtail your carbon footprint at Fresh Direct, because the origins of many products are not revealed. Lettuces and other organic greens come from Earthbound Farms in San Juan Bautista, California, the corporate behemoth that recalled its spinach recently because of E. coli contamination. Needless to say, their products come ensconced in plenty of plastic.

Despite a promise of 8,000 groceries on its website, it lacked many seasonal things I expected to find. There were no raspberries, Tri-star strawberries, sour cherries, or arugula. There were no heirloom tomatoes, either, even though heirlooms are at the height of their season. Heirlooms come in odd shapes and sizes and are super- perishable. The website is a master of manipulation, seemingly steering you away from low-markup and easily spoilable items to those that create a higher profit margin. They do this partly by piling on or curtailing color pictures of products; you can figure that the pictured items are the ones they most want to sell. Hit the button marked "Dairy" and take a peek—only two of the five products pictured are dairy- related, which are perishable and expensive to store. Pomegranate juice? Not a dairy product by any stretch of the imagination. And does hummus really come out of the bovine teat? Yes, according to Fresh Direct.

The pricing structure was rather complicated. I was to enjoy a 25 percent discount on my first two orders, which would expire in one week. The minimum order was $50. On top of the cost of the groceries, Fresh Direct charges a $4.99 delivery fee and a 54-cent surcharge for gas. Why should I pay for Fresh Direct's costs of doing business? Or indemnify them against the vicissitudes of the petroleum market? The website also managed to suggest that I should tip the delivery person, by telling me it was optional. Early on, Fresh Direct had a no-tipping policy. That tip would be another $5. With all these add-ons, my nine-item order was becoming rather expensive.

My purchases arrived right on time. Originating in Grand Junction, Michigan, the pint of blueberries ($2.39) was good, but not as good as farmers' market berries. My Earthbound organic baby lettuces ($4.19 for five ounces) arrived in pristine shape, with the package assuring me they didn't need to be washed. I washed them anyway. The apricots ($3.99 a pound) from Red Jacket Orchards, which also sells at the farmers' market, were tender and sweet, but the so-called Jersey peaches ($1.99 for three, no point of origin discernible) were hard as rocks and wouldn't be ready to eat for several days.

The one-inch-thick porterhouse ($17.48, at $15.99 a pound) was superb—well-marbled with fat, and exceptionally tender for meat rated "Choice." I also got a rotisserie organic chicken ($9.99), which tasted steamed after I'd reheated it in the oven as instructed. The flavor of a beefsteak tomato ($1.88, origin unknown), further lessened by its having been refrigerated, was woody and bland. A ball of fresh salted mozzarella ($6.47), made at the redundantly named Fromaggio Italian Cheese in Hurleyville, New York, was better than supermarket Sargento, but fell short of the fluffy homemade product at places like Faicco's and Joe's Dairy.

I'd have to say the only real disaster in my one-box-plus-one-plastic-bag order was the bread. Since Fresh Direct offers no completely baked bread, I'd ordered a "par-baked" baguette ($1.99) which, the label said, had been half-baked in the company's Long Island City plant. The simple instructions dictated that I further bake it in a 350-degree preheated oven for 15 minutes. Well, after 10 minutes sitting in front of my computer in an adjacent room, I smelled smoke wafting out of my kitchen, and I opened the oven door to find the bottom of my baguette incinerated. Bakers usually bake their breads all the way till they're done, for obvious reasons. Imagine if you went into a restaurant and the food was only half cooked—and you were expected to finish the job.

Despite what I think, Fresh Direct is obviously doing something right: The number of trucks and volume of business have zoomed. Forbes reported last year that 150 trucks generated $200 million in sales per annum (others reported 200 trucks generating $240 million). According to Forbes, these trucks carried two million orders, encompassing 60 million items, packed in eight million boxes—that's a lot of trash! While regular supermarkets pay commercial haulers to take away their packing material, Fresh Direct gets a free ride on the city's garbage trucks. We all subsidize Fresh Direct, whether they'll deliver to us or not.

A Fresh Direct spokeswoman, Samantha Freeman, refused to confirm these figures. Since Fresh Direct is a privately held corporation, there is no public annual report. She did claim that Fresh Direct has serviced 30 percent of the households in those parts of Manhattan that appear on its gerrymandered map, filling over five million orders since its inception. According to her, Fresh Direct has 1,500 employees.

Based on my order, Fresh Direct groceries are good but not great. The biggest problem remains that you can't pick and choose what you're buying, something serious cooks insist on. Shopping in person for the best of this or that is also the foodie's greatest pleasure, and a quintessential urban experience. Fresh Direct diminishes the quality of life in the city, by removing consumers from the streets and replacing them with trucks, by squandering city resources, and by consciously separating shoppers according to social class—and turning the Fresh Direct class into online grocery-buying hermits. And please, Fresh Direct, stop parking in our bike lanes!

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