Americans have more food choices today than ever before, and a new industry is capitalizing on this cultural shift by offering those who are willing to cook at home easy access to all the culinary world has to offer.
With restaurants offering authentic cuisine (and fusion mashups) from every culture, a proliferation of specialty stores, and online grocery shopping having made even the most obscure foods readily accessible, it can be difficult to figure out where to start.
Some of us may go to an ethnic or health food restaurant to try to learn, and risk the unknown. Others choose cooking at home, which can be even more daunting. First, one must find a recipe that looks doable. Is it a good one? We don’t know. Next, research where to buy the unusual ingredients. Finally, figure out how to execute the new cooking technique. The chances for failure loom large.
Enter the new era of meal kit delivery services, available only since 2012. These businesses invite Americans to explore new food options in the comfort of their own homes. Customers need only go online to choose from a selection of diverse meal options, featuring seasonal, fresh ingredients. A meal kit is then delivered to your door in a cooler pack. Recipes are chef tested, and generally foolproof.
Food industry research firm Technomic said in a press release, meal kit delivery is a niche market that is “disrupting food consumption norms.” It predicts ten times growth over the next five years.
Jennifer Aaronson, culinary director for meal kit delivery service Marley Spoon, said in a telephone interview that she is developing recipes that go a step further than what people usually cook at home. She said their customers don’t need to worry about finding an unusual ingredient because it comes to their door. “I think if they are paying for this subscription they want to be learning and expanding their horizons.”
“It is an added bonus that they are delighted by,” said Aaronson. “Almost like when you go out to a restaurant and try something that you haven’t tried before.”
National meal kit company Plated advertises “adventurous new dinners you can master in just a few steps.” This week, for example, it offers a familiar spaghetti and meatballs, but pairs it with pesto, peas, and fava beans. A vegetarian option is grilled sweet potatoes, with figs, spinach, and goat cheese sauce.
Judith Winfrey, president of PeachDish, a meal kit option offering southern-style food, said via email, “At PeachDish, we aim to elevate dinner as a culinary adventure.”
“It’s not only a chance to gather around the table with family or friends and make new memories, but an opportunity to learn something by trying an ingredient or technique for the first time,” she added.
Blue Apron, another large national company, offered its customers hoisin chicken steam buns with miso-sesame slaw recently. Melissa Yorky, on Facebook, commented on May 21: “I found the buns at an Asian market. Gonna recreate this meal. I’m not a slaw fan, but BA [Blue Apron] has converted me.”
So Many Choices
Not surprisingly, meal kit delivery is gaining in popularity, with increasingly diverse options on offer to satisfy specific dietary preferences and cooking styles. From paleo (Green Chef) to vegan options (Purple Carrot), and from raw food (Green Blender) to southern style (PeachDish), there is something for everyone.
Larger services will offer a bit of everything. Aaronson said Marley Spoon offers a variety of Asian meals, and other ethnic choices, since people replace take-out with their service, and take-out is usually ethnic. People also want healthy options, she said, like low carb, low calorie, whole grains, ancient grains, and lots of vegetables.
When you order, you will likely choose whether you want enough for two, four, or six people. Expect to spend about 30 minutes cooking. Prices range from $9 a meal, to as high as $20. This is pricey if you are normally cooking at home, but potentially a savings if you are replacing eating out.
Ingredients are pre-portioned, and ready to use, and they are matched with recipe cards and illustrated instructions. There’s no public fuss at a restaurant if you don’t like the food, and waste is minimized since you won’t have entire bottles or jars of stuff left in your fridge.
According to market research firm Packaged Facts, there are approximately 150 meal kit delivery services operating in the United States, with an estimated sales volume for 2016 of $1.5 billion. Based on current growth rates, the market is predicted to grow into the multi billions in the next five years.
New players, such as “savvy niche players, retailers, food manufacturers, and restaurants will test their own mettle in this budding industry,” states the report.
Many consumers are familiar with the bigger meal kit delivery companies Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Plated, but there are many smaller players with more distinct offerings that cater to people who are looking to explore different diets, and even lifestyles.
Boulder, Colorado-based Green Chef is one such company. The USDA-certified organic meal kit company has just announced a vegan meal kit option, which will be available for $13.49 per meal nationwide, starting June 6. The company already offers Paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, omnivore, and carnivore options.
Michael Joseph, CEO and co-founder of Green Chef, said in a press release, the vegan option is great for people who want to eliminate meat and dairy from their diets, but find it difficult to access the right ingredients, or they are not sure what to make.
In early May, the New York Times announced it was getting into the meal kit delivery business. According to Bloomberg, the media company will partner with California-based Chef’d to offer readers delivery of the ingredients needed to cook a recipe from the New York Times website.
Chef’d is a meal kit delivery service that offers hundreds of meal options, some of them designed by famous chefs, like Food Network host Alex Guarnaschelli, Man vs. Food’s Adam Richman, and Top Chef alums Angelo Sosa and Fabio Viviani. It also works with other media groups Good Housekeeping, Women’s Health, and Vegetarian Times.
The Cooking Equation
Meal kit delivery is most popular among older millennials. The 25–44 age group accounts for nearly three quarters of buyers, according to Packaged Facts. Seventy-nine percent of buyers have kids under 18 living at home.
Convenience is key, but cooking is also important. There are plenty of take-out and delivery options for cooked food, but meal kits offer the satisfaction of cooking. Case in point is San Francisco-based meal kit service Gobble.
When Gobble launched in 2010, it was early for the meal kit delivery industry. It sold cooked, prepared meals. When sales growth quickly slowed, founder Ooshma Garg understood from talking to customers that people felt guilty not cooking. She conceived of a new offering that would offer fully prepped ingredients that could be cooked in 10 minutes in one pan.
Once she changed the model to meal kit delivery, subscribers increased 20-fold, according to CBS News. She also earned $11 million in new investment.
The Packaged Facts report suggests that meal kit delivery services have the potential to disrupt both the restaurant industry and the grocery industry, since they allow people to cook restaurant quality meals at home without shopping at the grocery store.
While many people go to restaurants to explore food they might not cook at home, now there is another hundred or so options.