The idea behind the company Blue Apron is simple: Each week, it sends customers a box with recipe cards and fresh ingredients to make a handful of meals, each of them in just under 35 minutes.
The company has grown quickly since its founding in 2012: It delivers around 8 million meals per month.
Now, BuzzFeed reporter Caroline O'Donovan has uncovered some disturbing details about the company — reports of violence and code violations at one of its main packing facilities, in Richmond, Calif. (Note: Blue Apron is an NPR sponsor.)
O'Donovan spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about her investigation. A transcript of their conversation follows, edited for clarity and brevity.
McEvers: You talked to 14 former employees of Blue Apron. Many of them worked in the Richmond facility where the meals are packed and then shipped. How did they describe working conditions there?
O'Donovan: At least one person said it was the worst job she ever had. Other people said it wasn't so bad — I think a lot of them were happy to have a job. A lot of them said it was cold, which is pretty typical for a refrigerated warehouse where food is being processed.
The thing that caught my attention initially was references to violence amongst the staff members, visits from the police at this particular facility, bomb threats being called in and the facility being evacuated, people threatening to bring guns to work. There was also an incident in which a worker was groped by another worker and that individual was fired and then he reacted by threatening the person that had fired him — which I thought sounded unusual and was something I wanted to learn more about.
So you talked to police officers in the city of Richmond to confirm some of these accounts. What did they tell you?
I started out by looking at police reports and found that, since the facility opened, the police had been called to the Richmond facility seven times because of assault, three times because of bomb threats, twice because of weapons. After [that], I reached out to police and talked with officers who had visited the facility to discuss the frequency of calls being made to Richmond police and the conversations they'd had with Blue Apron security and managers about how to make that facility safer.
What did they tell you?
They told me they'd had suggestions for Blue Apron in terms of what could be done at that facility to make things a little bit more secure. So eventually Blue Apron did install metal detectors, install a surveillance system in their parking lot, get a gate where you have to use a badge to come into the facility. They traded out their security contractor for another company that had more people on the ground that could actually patrol the parking lot — things like that.
Why so much violence at the warehouse?
Between August 2013 — when it opened — and now, this facility has grown to be one of the largest employers in the city of Richmond. The city has historically had problems with crime and gang violence. To some of the police officers I spoke with, a facility that's grown that quickly — some of that violence was not surprising to them. In conversations with managers who had overseen hiring the first couple of years at this facility, they said that because of the general chaos and the speed of growth, they didn't always have the opportunity to interview candidates for jobs as stringently as they would have liked.
In addition — Blue Apron has said this in statements — in order to hire as many people as they needed to accommodate that growth, the company worked with a number of staffing agencies through which they hired temps. And Blue Apron allowed those staffing agencies to do their own vetting and oversee background checks. Blue Apron has said that caused some of the problems with employees and that they terminated the relationships with those staffing agencies as soon as possible.
You cover a lot of startups for BuzzFeed. Is this common — that a company would be hiring people in such a rapid way, and because of that, there are problems?
In tech, in startups in Silicon Valley — in this world, rapid growth is what you want to see. What makes Blue Apron slightly different is that it's not just about hiring engineers or scaling the number of people using your software quickly. You're talking about growing the number of warehouse workers you employ, growing a manufacturing facility at that speed. You're also growing your food-product sourcing network at that speed, which means working with farmers. This is a perishable product. So there are a lot of layers of complexity that make a company like Blue Apron different from some other startups. What makes them the same, of course, is that Blue Apron, like a lot of those companies, is venture-backed.