Meal Kits: The New Fast Food?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The battle against dinner rut has a relatively new weapon in the form of insulated cardboard boxes that arrive with pre-measured ingredients and an easy-to-follow recipe. Meal kits, or fresh food subscription services, have been all the rage for the last few years by promising busy households a gourmet-ish dinner on the table in under an hour and turning a so-so cook into feeling like a master chef. Now that two traditional retailers offer meal kits, home chefs have more options on the menu than they did before.

Since emerging in 2012, meal kits are now estimated to be a more than $400 million market in the United States, but, by the end of 2015, the global market hit the $1 billion mark. Food industry analyst Technomic Inc. predicts that, at the current rate of adoption, the United States meal kit market is expected to grow faster than any other country; it is expected to grow by a factor of 10 times over the next five years and reaching as much as $6 billion by 2020.

The meal kit delivery business is tricky, requiring complex logistics that includes refrigerated warehouses and insulated shipping that has to take into account urban and suburban residences. What’s become even trickier is the competition, and consumers don’t seem to acquire the same type of brand loyalty one does when it comes to traditional grocery stores. With more than 100 start-ups and established companies jumping into the meal kit game, competition is fierce, and companies will offer free meals to entice people into giving their service a go. Meal kit companies include Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Plated, Green Chef and more. Martha Stewart threw her chef’s hat into the ring at the end of 2016 with the launch of Martha and Marley Spoon, and the New York Times is partnering with Chef’d starting summer 2017 to feature recipes from its NYT Cooking website.

With so many companies from which to choose, two companies are differentiating themselves from the pack, Sun Basket and Purple Carrot, by changing up the normal meal kit business model and involving extra players, including two traditional retail companies and a famous athlete.

Sun Basket

San Francisco-based Williams Sonoma, known for its high-end kitchen supplies and gourmet food products, partnered with Sun Basket in November 2016. Sun Basket specializes in organic and non-GMO meal kits that can be made for a variety of specialized diets, including paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian and breakfast options. Family plans are co-created by Chef Tyler Florence, but the nutritionist-approved meal plans feature recipes developed by Chef Justine Kelly that are ready in approximately 30 minutes. The company, which wants to give customers a farm-to-table experience, boats sustainably-sourced and seasonal ingredients from trustworthy sources; their food includes hormone- and antibiotic-free and grass-fed meats and sustainable seafood. Additionally, Sun Basket packaging is 100 percent recyclable or compostable and the company donates an average of 1,000 pounds of food every week to Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and to the New Jersey Agricultural Society Farmers Against Hunger.

Williams Sonoma doesn’t offer the meal kits in their stores, but it is available online along with a starter kit including the cook’s tools that Williams Sonoma considers to be essential to anyone’s kitchen, such as a garlic press, lemon press, microplane zester and tongs. The starter kit connects Sun Basket to Williams-Sonoma’s core business of selling coveted kitchen items. Additionally, each month, Sun Basket dives into one of the top-rated Williams Sonoma recipes to include in the kit. Williams Sonoma has used its test kitchen for years to feature recipes online and in their catalog that inspire and entice customers, and Sun Basket aids them in continuing that tradition by providing an additional outlet. The retailer has sold gourmet food items out of their stores for years; it’s not unreasonable to think that, eventually, Williams Sonoma could carry the kits in their stores, of which they have more than 200, to provide an additional sales outlet and provide another reason for someone to stop by a store.

Purple Carrot

Following his Super Bowl victory in February, New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady announced he’s getting in the meal kit game. Starting this month, they became available through vegan and plant-based company Purple Carrot. For years, Brady’s diet has been a subjected that fascinated journalists and readers alike, and some have credited his nutrition and diet specifically designed around eating whole foods to his longevity in the game. TB12 Performance Meals (named after Brady’s initials and his jersey number) brings what he eats to anyone’s table (in limited quantities for now). 

It makes sense for Brady to partner with Purple Carrot. After all, the company, which was founded in 2014, promotes a plant-based diet free of processed foods. Recipes include things like sesame crusted tofu steaks with chermoula sauce and spicy jackfruit and bell pepper fajitas with lime crema. The company’s vegan recipes are designed to be made within 45 minutes and do include ingredients that aren’t necessarily common.

Plant-based diets are increasing in popularity, and Austin-based Whole Foods has taken notice. Starting last October, Whole Foods began carrying Purple Carrot meal kits in their Dedham, Massachusetts, store. This test is Purple Carrot’s first foray into non-e-commerce retail, and it’s the first time that Whole Foods has partnered with a meal kit company. The in-store kits, which rotate every few weeks to provide shopper’s with a variety of recipes, do not require a subscription, which allows people to test out the food. Additionally, the store carries all of the ingredients, so, if someone likes the recipe, they can return to purchase all of the ingredients in the future, not relying on the kit if they don’t want to. Neither Whole Foods nor Purple Carrot have released plans to expand to other stores, but, in regard to meal kits, the company did state last July that they have “huge interest” in the meal kit market. It’s possible they are testing the waters and will either launch something that is Whole Foods-branded or expand Purple Carrot offerings into other markets.

Are Meal Kits Here to Stay?

The meal kit market has proven its need, but companies still have to prove profitable past the start-up phase. Blue Apron, which holds the lion share of the meal kit market, put IPO plans on hold in December to focus on its financials, and HelloFresh pulled plans for its IPO due to “unfavorable market conditions.” Hopefully, companies like Sun Basket and Purple Carrot that are thinking outside of their insulated cardboard boxes will have the recipe for success.

By Kimberly Steele, Digital Content/Public Relations Specialist

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