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Making a meal from scratch is, at its best, fun and rewarding. It also takes a lot of time and effort, and as the pandemic drags on, cooking fatigue has set in for people who are constantly in the kitchen.
Meal kits, which rose to popularity in the last five years and are most commonly available via direct delivery, occupy a convenient middle ground.
They provide the instructions and ingredients; you provide cooking equipment, and, in some cases, basics like oil, salt, and pepper. Without needing to wrack your brain and the internet for recipe ideas or schlep to and from the grocery store, you ideally end up with a delicious and creative meal. While most meal kit dishes are pretty foolproof — or at least claim to be — there's still enough effort involved that you feel some pride and satisfaction in the final product.
In the wake of the pandemic, which has changed the way people cook at home, online meal kits are receiving the boost they need. The meal kit format is also being used by restaurants as a way to pivot and stay afloat during difficult times.
How traditional meal kit delivery services have fared during the pandemic
Though meal kit delivery services initially made a big splash, in recent years, analysts have questioned their growth and long-term potential. Consumer interest seemed to be declining following the hubbub surrounding Blue Apron's IPO in 2017, and major services struggled to retain consistent subscribers. The future of meal kits was murky.
A representative from Home Chef told Insider Reviews that in addition to a boost in first-time customers, the service has also seen increases in subscription re-activations from paused accounts and the number of meals ordered per week. While the standard box contains three meals for two people, more members are ordering four to five meals for two or four people. The service experienced record-breaking revenue numbers in March.
Meanwhile, the pandemic helped lift Blue Apron to profitability ($1.1 million) during the second quarter of the year and HelloFresh raised its revenue growth guidance from between 55% and 70% to between 75% and 95% for the remainder of 2020.
Both Blue Apron and Home Chef temporarily reduced menu options as an operational response to unprecedented order volume, but have since returned to full menu offerings. They include special chef collaborations, partnerships with Impossible Burger to address shifting habits towards plant-based eating, and more.
Traditional meal kit delivery services may appeal to people during these times because they offer a large variety of meal options (like HelloFresh's Turkish-Spiced Chicken in Apricot Sauce or Home Chef's Mexicali Cheesy Penne), most of which only take about 30 minutes to cook, and they come with straightforward instructions and fresh, high-quality ingredients.
Menus are available weeks in advance, so busy customers can plan out their meals or skip deliveries when they don't need them. When grocery shopping was especially stressful in March and April and supply chain issues threatened the availability of staples like meat, meal kit delivery services also jumped in to provide bulk packs of pantry essentials, acting almost like online grocery stores. A few services, like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, even have their own wine programs so members can pair their weekly meals with a nice bottle of vino.
While consumers have rekindled their relationship with meal kit delivery services for now, in the upcoming months, with states potentially shutting down again during a second wave of the coronavirus, we'll see whether companies like Blue Apron will retain their enthusiastic new customers, or whether they'll face fresh challenges.
Some people who don't necessarily want to commit to a weekly meal kit subscription have another option — one that's more localized and offers the opportunity to support local businesses.
The new alternative to meal kit delivery services: restaurant meal kits
Nationwide, restaurants of all cuisines and sizes are also taking advantage of and experimenting with the meal kit format.
Takeout and delivery aren't always the most effective way to enjoy fully cooked dishes from restaurants. All too often, once-crispy fried foods arrive soggy after being trapped in a condensating box for half an hour, or dishes with many layers of construction fall apart in transit.
By receiving the individual components and ingredients, customers can make a hot and fresh meal that's virtually similar to what would be served in the restaurant. Many restaurants have found a way to adapt this twist on takeout to their specific offerings.
In New York City, Korean steakhouse Cote offers grill-at-home specialty cuts of dry-aged meat, along with ssamjang (a thick and spicy dipping sauce) and an optional $170 caviar add-on. In Austin, fans craving contemporary Mexican food can order family taco night kits and margarita or paloma mix. Canela, a Spanish bistro and wine bar in San Francisco, sells not only paella kits (plus the pan) but also game and snack bundles and virtual experiences.
The pandemic, while devastating to the restaurant industry as a whole, has provided some restaurants the opportunity to test and execute ideas they've always wanted to try. LDV Hospitality, which owns Scarpetta restaurants in New York City, Miami, Las Vegas, and Newport, RI, among other locations, is one such group that saw potential in the opportunity.
LDV founder and president John Meadow told Insider Reviews, "We had always discussed the idea of wanting to provide an 'at-home' Scarpetta experience for our guests, but we were always so focused on the day-to-day operation and development of Scarpetta restaurants that we did not find the time to execute it. The pandemic shutdown challenged us to think critically and use our time productively to find new ways to bring the Scarpetta experience to our guests even with a closed restaurant."
His team thought about what they would want to order as consumers, what food items traveled best, and the average customer's cooking skillsets so they could make their kits approachable and enjoyable. "We tested cooking instructions and complicated recipes on people in our company that aren't too culinary-focused, like our IT director," said Meadow.
The ultimate result, currently available in Manhattan and planned for nationwide delivery in September, is a three-course meal: salad, ready-to-bake stromboli, a choice of short rib and bone marrow agnolotti or spaghetti, and espresso budino. The kit also includes olive oil and a Scarpetta apron.
Restaurant meal kits like those offered by Scarpetta might be considered more of a treat or luxury is given their higher price point. Blue Apron's weekly plan of three meals for two people is $60. Scarpetta's single kit for two people is $75. However, restaurant meal kits may feel more personal (and they make excellent gifts).
Thanks to sites like Goldbelly, you can even enjoy the food of a famous restaurant located hundreds of miles away from you.
Rather than order through an app like GrubHub or a restaurant's website for immediate delivery, you may opt for a dry ice-packed shipment of an authentic seafood boil from North Carolina or slow-smoked barbecue from Missouri.
Goldbelly founder and CEO Joe Ariel told Insider Reviews that the site's meal kit category has grown more than 100% in 2020. The abundance of enticing meal kit options has no doubt contributed to its success in a time when consumers crave variety and quality.
Several notable names in the culinary world, including Marcus Samuelsson, the chef behind Harlem's Red Rooster and Stephanie Izard, the first female chef to win "Top Chef" and executive chef at Chicago's Girl & The Goat, are on the platform, offering an introduction to dishes and experiences that are either physically far away or typically require reservations months in advance.
"For consumers, people are craving those restaurant experiences they haven't been able to access, so meal kits are a great way to replicate that experience at home. For our partners, meal kits give chefs the ability to reach people beyond the confines of their dining rooms and provide an elevated, at-home experience," said Ariel.
"As we continue to see the restaurant industry adapt to our new normal, I anticipate many of our partners will be excited about coming up with creative avenues like meal kits to continue to connect with people nationwide."
Meadow also thinks that meal kits are here to stay and hopes to expand Scarpetta's offerings throughout the year.
"While the pause in our industry has been the hardest thing imaginable, we're grateful to have had the time to be a bit more thoughtful and put this program together. There is something really energizing about people being able to experience our food in places that we are not available and to enjoy home-cooked meals together — especially during this time," he said.
Here are the best meal kits from online delivery services and local restaurants: