By Nancy Weingartner
In the mid-2000s, the rage was make-and-take concepts, where people drove to meal preparation storefronts to assemble a week’s worth of dinners using bulk ingredients and recipe cards. The idea was for customers—mostly working moms—to make it into a party, drink wine with friends, all while turning the often solitary work of making meals into a communal activity. The number of franchised concepts and independents grew quickly, but few were able to overcome the reality that cooking is work—even if you get a head start on the preparation.
While this trend was more along the lines of misery loves company, a new twist on cooking at home has the ingredients already waiting for you at home to prepare. The concept of easier home-cooked meals has been reengineered for the tech-savvy group who likes its meals delivered — prepared or unprepared. And there’s a plethora of companies willing to box up groceries, one tomato and one sprig of dill at a time. Some of the more colorful players are Blue Apron, Green Chef, Purple Carrot and PeachDish, but the list goes on.
Technomic, a restaurant industry research company based in Chicago, estimates that there are about100 meal-kit companies, including regional, national and international. The number keeps fluctuating as new players come into the market and unsuccessful ones exit. Meal-kits generated more than a half billion dollars in 2015, says Erik Thoresen, principal with Technomic, and while they’re still debating 2016 figures, he predicts it will be north of $1 billion.
A plus for this new model is the subscription aspect. Customers sign up for three meals a week, which in most cases they can select from a menu of options. The tech platform allows customers to skip a week her and there, but you have to be proactive to stop an order from being shipped. Ways to differentiate themselves from the competition vary from all organic food to vegan options to inclusion of a celebrity chef, such as Jamie Oliver with HelloFresh. Blue Apron has a wine-pairing option for an additional cost, of course.
The one downside to the make-and-take meal industry is the number of people cooking from scratch at home is dwindling. And some millennials were never taught to cook at home or at school. An optimist might interject here that the detail cooking instruction could be the teaching tool millennials need to learn that skill.
Note that the segment we’re addressing here is only the meal-prep version of food on demand, separate companies are racking up sales delivering already-cooked home-cooked meals.
Meal-kits are designed for a generation that doesn’t like to see food waste: Americans throw out 28 percent of the produce they buy, according to Consumer Reports Dietician Amy Keating, who tested a variety of the kits for the magazine. Meal kits only provide enough ingredients for two meals or a family meal.
But these consumers are also ones concerned about recycling—and individual packaging creates an abundance of paper, plastic and cardboard. Blue Apron handles that objective upfront by giving recycling tips or allowing users to mail back the wrappings from two weeks’ worth of meals in one of the delivery boxes, which Blue Apron then recycles. There’s also the carbon footprint concerns of shipping individual meals to consumers, instead of bulk shipments to grocery stores.
We decided to put our money where our mouth is by ordering from two of the players. Since we weren’t quick enough to cancel our second week before it was shipped, we shared our Blue Apron meals with coworkers for their options, along with quizzing others in a variety of demographics. Here’s what they said about Blue Apron:
Dennis (60-something tax lawyer): Didn’t like being told what to cook and how. Thought it took the creativity and freewill out of cooking, and the step-by-step instructions were insulting. But in fairness, he is that rare person who loves to grocery shop and missed squeezing all the tomatoes himself.
Liz (30s, works fulltime, two children): I keep seeing it pop up in my Facebook feed and I’m tempted. I like the idea of a box being sent, the excitement for the kids. I could use the picture instructions or online videos to teach my elementary-age kids how to cook, something they’re interested in right now. She also likes the idea of not wasting food, if you only need one green onion for the recipe you don’t have to buy the whole bunch. (Reservation in pushing the send button: the cost.)
Kendall (grad student): Subscribed because she wanted to make a home-cooked meal for her boyfriend who worked late three times a week. While he finds cooking relaxing, chopping up all those vegetables was stressful and time-consuming for her. Plus, in a small NYC apartment, the massive amount of packaging took up valuable living space until it could be recycled.
Mary Jo (50+, busy professional): Thought the meal she prepared tasted good, and was easy to do. Could see getting the service because she hates grocery shopping.
Danielle (newlywed): Prefers Hello Fresh because the meals come packed in individual boxes. Less packaging, plus if she’s running late, she can hand her husband (an inexperienced cook) a box and ask him to get started on it. Recipes were a bit hard to follow (“steps out of order, even for an experienced cook”).