Alumni Award News

Matt Davis '07: Building a More Sustainable Food Supply Chain

One of the joys of writing for Postscripts is meeting alumni from Thornton Academy’s more than 10,000 graduates. Each magazine issue takes both writer and readers to new walks of life all over the country. Exploring the theme of innovation led me to Matthew Davis ’07 who finds himself working at the heart of a national food revolution that’s been described as “reinventing the grocery supply chain.” A Saco native and Duke University grad, Matt is the Director of Operations at Blue Apron, a cook-at-home meal delivery service whose mission is “to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.” They aim to develop a more sustainable food system in the process. 

Founded in 2012, Blue Apron employs over 2,500 people nationwide, many of whom measure, package, and ship the precise amount of fresh ingredients - veggies, spices, herbs, seafood, and meats (with corresponding recipes) - to your door. If you’re thinking pizza delivery, stop right there. We’re not talking about the spaghetti and red sauce that many of us might manage on a work night, but Seared Steaks &​ Peanut Noodles or Jamaican Curry Chili or Cod Kedgeree with Basmati Rice, Eggs &​ Frizzled Onion, all made yourself from scratch. Of course, I didn’t want to stop at just interviewing Matt, so I signed my daughter up to receive the meal deliveries as she’s off on her own in an apartment for the first time. She raved about the food and so I plowed on to learn more.

Matt explained what the back end of this operation looks like and his role in it. “For me, the day-to-day operation is all about the boots on the ground in Blue Apron’s Fulfillment Centers. There are three of them nationwide in Jersey City, Arlington, TX, and Richmond, CA. This is where we portion ingredients and create Blue Apron boxes (Matt is holding one in the cover photo). Over the past two years, I’ve seen that footprint grow substantially with hundreds of thousands of square feet of additional space and thousands of new employees. Now we’re shipping out over 5 million meals per month.” 

I asked him how this home delivery system is changing the food supply chain. “We’re taking the usual farm-to-table inefficiencies out of the system by creating and concentrating demand first. You see, normally, farmers guess on which product will sell best or pay the most, and then they decide what to grow. All farmers play that same game. Many sell to wholesalers. The food is then stocked, stored, and distributed to retail groceries or restaurants, then the food gets to consumers. Then, that day in the grocery store or restaurant, consumers decide what they want. There is a percentage lost at each step of the way due to spoilage and damage. The whole food system works based on guessing what the demand is in the next step.  

“At Blue Apron, we start with the seasons and decide what we want to cook and plan that months in advance. We know how many people want to cook, because it’s a subscription service. We tell farmers directly how many thousands of pounds of fresh produce we’re looking for while they are still planning their growth cycles. This changes how they grow food and reduces risk and waste and is a win-win for both Blue Apron and the farmers we partner with. We might let the farmer know that we want honeynut squash instead of butternut squash. Or heirloom carrots. These are things farmers won’t normally grow. It diversifies the food supply. We draw from over 100 small to mid-size independent family farms, just to acquire produce. We have captured the spirit of ‘Buying Local’ even though we source from across the country and from selected farmers who are taking care of the soil and growing crops properly.”

I was curious how the supply chain worked for the seafood and meats. Matt explained, “For salmon, we contract with Alaskan fishermen who have signed off to us entire catches in the wild. This is a huge quantity of salmon, and we work with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to ensure that we are sourcing only sustainable seafood. These sorts of arrangements don’t come easily and we invest a ton of effort as a business in doing the right thing from a sustainability perspective and in sourcing top-notch ingredients for our customers.

“A lot of what I do is come up with new tools and software systems to create efficiencies. We’re working with software engineers in New York, developing our own in-house warehouse management software rather than buying something off the shelf. Our operation is extremely unique, so if we’re building software to help a manager in the Fulfillment Center plan a shift more efficiently, we benefit from custom solutions. In my job, I’m often asking: What do we need to run more efficiently and with greater stability? How could a mobile app make a receiver’s job easier? How could a dashboard motivate the team?”

What was Matt’s journey to Blue Apron? Management consulting at Bain was his first job out of college. “I was consulting clients on mergers and entering new markets. It was an amazing opportunity and showed me a lot of industries, which helped me choose my next step. I wanted to work in operations in a company that I felt passionate about. I found Blue Apron through a connection at Bain. I ordered the product myself to try it. First time out, I cooked pan-roasted hake with roasted fennel, fresh grapes, and a brown butter vinaigrette on farro. It was unbelievable. I had never cooked with fennel and never heard of farro.  I thought, if this is what cooking at home is like, why do it any other way?

“Since I majored in biomedical engineering at Duke, my training there helps me with a lot of the automation initiatives under way at Blue Apron. When we buy bulk soy sauce or flour, we buy large quantities, but we distribute just a few ounces per meal, or whatever is needed for that one recipe. The Fulfillment Centers focus on portioning. Currently, many of the ingredients are still portioned by hand. This is open for some level of automation. My engineering background helps me evaluate automation opportunities. But, honestly, the most relevant thing in business is being good at math and statistics. At Duke University, I took five math classes. I don’t use any of them. Multivariable calculus, linear algebra. No. The math I took in high school at Thornton Academy? I use it every day. You have to understand rates, return on investment. The stuff I took from Mr. Verrier, like statistics, and calculus from Mr. Clark, these are the things I use most in business.”  

Now that you’ve heard of Blue Apron, you might notice their ads are everywhere on television and the Internet. When you see one, think of Matt.

Matt lives in Brooklyn where he is newly married to Nikita who he met at Duke and who is in her medical residency at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel. He loves to go on golfing vacations, wine tasting, and, of course, cooking. 

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