You’re 14 steps into a complicated recipe, and it feels like you’ve been dicing, mixing, and sautéing all afternoon. You reach for your next ingredient, and then you realize, you forgot to buy the freaking [fill in the blank]. Because a recipe is not a grocery list.
Popcart is the best solution I’ve seen yet. Created by the culinary social network Foodily, Popcart is a free bookmarklet that you drag into your web browser’s top bar. When you come across any recipe on the web–be it on Bon Appetit, Saveur, or Facebook–all you do is highlight the ingredients and hit a button. Instantly, you’re given a fully priced and portioned list full of actual groceries that can be shipped to your door by FreshDirect, Popcart’s launch partner.
“We’re giving people that ability to go from saying, ‘This is what I want to be eating,’ to actually having it on the table,” says Andrea Cutright, CEO of Foodily.
Testing a prerelease version of the software, I began to appreciate how elegantly this simple experience was designed. Highlighting text with your mouse is an extremely natural gesture. We’ve all done it thousands of times. And while the creators of Popcart could have built a whole app with a bespoke user interface, they were smart to keep their interaction lightweight and familiar. It’s embedded in the web browsing infrastructure that you already know.
The tool works. It’s also as smart as you’d hope. When it breaks out a recipe for you, it sticks pantry staples like cooking oil into a separate section below and doesn’t automatically add them to your cart, assuming you already have them around. (To add them, you just click.)
Or consider if a recipe calls for ginger. Popcart will add a few ounces of fresh organic ginger root to your cart. But say you prefer pre-ground ginger paste, or the cheaper, non-organic stuff. Clicking on “Swap” pulls up a carousel of alternatives with pricing information. Just take your pick.
Ultimately, the reason Popcart is onto something good is that it’s been designed to accommodate mistakes that crop up.
For instance, when I Popcarted this New York Times recipe for gong boa chicken, I was surprised to see it priced out to $57. I scanned the list and spotted the culprit: The system had made an error and loaded me up with four times the chicken breasts I really needed. But three clicks on the inventory button fixed the problem immediately. I saw the new price right away, and within seconds, the problem was resolved. I wondered why I didn’t mind this mistake, and I think it came down to three things:
- The error was transparent. Every bit of information I needed to analyze the problem was right there.
- To fix the problem, the buttons were all right there.
- Catching and dealing with the error still took way less effort than parsing the recipe to build a grocery list myself would have.
In the same vein, if FreshDirect doesn’t stock or recognize an item–I had issues with ancho peppers and umeboshi paste–Popcart lists each of those items clearly below your cart. Again, when the UI admits and recognizes a platform’s shortcomings, it’s a lot easier to stomach them, even though in the case of anchos, these should really be in any grocery store’s common stock.
Another issue I encountered was that every recipe I tested came with a bit of sticker shock. This turkey Waldorf salad? $28.42. Barebones spaghetti squash cakes? $23.12. These Cuban sandwiches with zucchini pickles? $60.17. On one hand, seeing what a recipe will cost you immediately is handy, and it can probably help you make different menu planning decisions than blindly filling a cart at the supermarket. On the other, I’m not fully convinced that I couldn’t construct some of these dishes cheaper using any and all strategy of attack at my local grocery store.
Into the future, Popcart and FreshDirect may address the high prices, as they’re a planning to add deeper, personal customizations to just how that recipe turns into the sorts of groceries you prefer. “For some consumers price is really important. For others, it’s understanding that everything can be purchased that’s organic. For others, it’s converting recipes to fit a diet type [like Paleo or gluten free],” says Jodi Kahn, Chief Consumer Officer, FreshDirect. “We want to give people control, and we want to do that in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them.”
One example the team offered was that of cauliflower. A recipe may call for cauliflower, but maybe it only needs a cup and, due to the way produce is sold, you’re left with most of a head. Popcart’s software is smart enough to know a majority of that cauliflower is left and recommends a day-two recipe to make the most of it and your other remaining ingredients. It’s easy to imagine planning and shopping for a week of meals in less than five minutes, while saving a few bucks in the process.
Eventually, Popcart will scale to partners beyond FreshDirect, meaning the technology could come to other apps, stores, and recipe managers you use today. For those of us who still prefer to buy our own groceries at brick and mortar stores, that’s promising news. There’s just no clear timeline on when that will actually happen.