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Hearth & Home July 2018

Blue Apron.

Meal Kits
They're What's for Dinner.

By Lisa Readie Mayer

If you’re a retailer of barbecue equipment, here’s a trend that bears watching.

It’s 4:00 p.m. Do you know what your dinner is? Do you know where it is? The likely answer: no. According to market-research firm Food Genius, 80% of Americans still don’t know what they’re having for dinner by 4:00 that afternoon.

That scenario is one of the reasons behind the growing interest in meal kits, those boxes of pre-selected, measured, prepped, and portioned ingredients that can be cooked into a quick, tasty, and even somewhat gourmet meal by following the enclosed step-by-step recipe.

Meal kits make cooking from scratch convenient by handling meal-planning, recipe-sourcing, shopping, and ingredient prep, and providing a turnkey way to get a fresh, healthy dinner on the table on a hectic weeknight.

Fans say the wide variety of menu choices encourages them to try new dishes and break out of a cooking rut. Users also praise the waistline-friendly, portion-controlled servings as a way to avoid over-eating, while sticking to diet plans, and avoiding unhealthy take-out.

According to a report by market research company Packaged Facts, the meal kit category hit $5 billion in sales in 2017, up from $1.5 billion the year before. It projects the category will grow by about 20% annually for the next five years to a total of $11.6 billion by 2020.

Though usage remains low overall – a study by Nielsen Research indicates 9% of Americans (10.5 million households) purchased a meal kit in the last six months – more than 36% of consumers express interest in meal kits, and 25% say they are considering trying one in the next six months.

Interest is not limited to east- and west-coast early adopters; a Harris Poll shows the trend’s appeal is pretty evenly distributed across the country. Consumers earning more than $70,000 annually, and Millennials – particularly Millennial men – have the highest rates of trial, adoption, and reordering. Though meal kits are ideal for culinary newbies, studies show one-fourth of users consider themselves to be accomplished cooks.

Another benefit of meal kits – at least in theory – is that they prevent or greatly reduce food waste. Since the kits provide only the exact amount of ingredients needed to prepare the number of servings ordered, they eliminate the common issue of excess food spoiling in the fridge.

A study in the Lempert Report found that consumers threw out about 24% of ingredients when grocery shopping and cooking the traditional way, compared with 7.6% of ingredients when using meal kits. Food-waste prevention actually starts early in the meal-kit supply chain, since companies typically work directly with farmers and suppliers to forecast the type and quantity of the ingredients they need before food is even brought to their packing facility.

According to the report, grocery stores, on the other hand, “buy a lot of perishable food, put it on (the) shelf, and hope that someone shows up to buy it before it rots.” Food waste at a meal kit facility is estimated at 5.5% versus about 10.5% at grocery stores.

Hello Fresh meal kit.

Who’s in the Game?

Category leader Blue Apron has about 43% of the market share, according to Statista. Other key players include Hello Fresh, Plated, Sun Basket, Green Chef, PeachDish, Purple Carrot, Martha and Marley Spoon, Chef’d, and Home Chef. Most started as subscription services where users commit to two, three or four recipes per week, choosing the specific dishes they want from a rotating menu of options posted online.

Once selections are made, the company packs a box with step-by-step photo recipe cards, and enough portioned, prepped, and ready-to-cook ingredients for the desired number of servings (usually a minimum of two servings per recipe), and ships it to the customer’s door. Some services even allow subscribers to order bottles of wines paired to the meals.

But the subscription model may already be phasing out. Trends monitor “eMarketer Retail” reports 68% of consumers would be more likely to use meal kits if there were no subscription requirement. Similarly, 69% said they would be more likely to try meal kits if they were available in grocery stores. In fact, a host of new, non-subscription meal kits have recently emerged, allowing users to purchase at will, with no minimums.

Grocery stores are now taking a leadership role in the space. According to trends report “SupermarketGuru,” sales of in-store meal kits grew 26.5% last year to nearly $155 million. Albertsons, which also owns Safeway, Shaw’s, and other chains, bought Plated for a reported $200 million in 2017, making the meal kits available to 35 million weekly shoppers in its 2,300 stores.

Kroger and its subsidiary Ralphs launched their line of Prep+Pared meal kits, and Costco is testing True Chef Meal Kits. Walmart is expanding its meal kits to 2,000 stores this year, and Amazon is expected to roll out meal kits in its recently purchased Whole Foods stores.

Since in-store meal kits are ready for pick-up on an as-needed basis, they eliminate the need for advance planning and subscription commitments, and better accommodate families’ last-minute changes to schedules and serving counts. Supermarket availability also should help counter some of consumers’ other complaints about meal kits. Research firm Morning Consult reports that price is the main reason 49% of people canceled their meal kit subscription, and 59% said the cost prevented them from trying it. Most in-store meal kits cost less; for instance, Walmart meal kits range from $8 to $15 for two servings of dishes such as Stuffed Pork Florentine with Quinoa and Zucchini, or Steak Dijon with Roasted Potatoes and Asparagus.

In-store kits also eliminate the need for insulated packaging, shipping cartons, and ice packs, offering both cost-saving and environmental benefits. Additionally, according to the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, in-store kits offer food-safety advantages because they are more likely to be prepped, packed, and stored at proper temperatures throughout the entire pack-to-plate process, something that can’t always be guaranteed with home-delivered kits that may sit on doorsteps all day.

Plant-based, frozen meal-kit program by Zoni Foods.

Niche Kits

Though the category is still relatively new, there are already an estimated 100 meal kit companies on the market, with many of the newcomers built around specific cuisines or dietary plans. Nonna Box delivers a monthly assortment of carefully curated Italian foods from a specific region of Italy, along with information about the region’s cultural and culinary traditions, and a profile of a local “nonna” and her favorite recipe using the ingredients in the box. My Cajita is a monthly subscription box of packaged foods, cocktail ingredients, and gift items inspired by the cuisine and culture of Mexico.

Meal kits for vegan, paleo, organic, vegetarian, gluten-free, and “clean-food” diets are becoming extremely popular, as are those built around meal-plan requirements for Atkins, Weight Watchers, and diabetes diets. Superstar quarterback Tom Brady is behind TB12 Performance Meals, and celebrities such as Serena Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun White, Bobby Flay and Haylie Duff are investors in Daily Harvest, a vegan meal service delivering frozen fruit smoothies, grain bowls, soups, and veggie burritos.

Zoni Foods is a plant-based, frozen meal-kit program created by recent Yale graduates, with options such as Spiralized Carrot and Zucchini Noodles with Coconut Curry Sauce and Spicy Chickpeas, and Soba Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Black Bean Fritters.

There are do-it-yourself kits for making specific foods, such as bacon, mustard, hard cider, corn tortillas, fresh mozzarella cheese, or even growing your own mushrooms at home. Cultures for Health’s kits for making fermented veggies, kefir, yogurt, and kombucha, are catching on with people who have gut-health issues and diet-related conditions.

Monthly packages of frozen meat from Karv.

Karv delivers monthly packages of frozen meats to customers, complete with recipes and optional side dishes. The heritage pork, grass-fed beef, and organic free-range chicken are all sourced from U.S. farms and delivered in corn-based packaging that can be dissolved in a bathtub or bucket, and used to water plants. Ocean’s Table is a subscription-box service that ships fresh fish to customers’ doors within 24 hours of being caught by fishermen based in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Restaurants are introducing meal kits. New York City steakhouse Strip House offers Steak-to-Go weekend steak kits to customers, including steaks, seasonings, vegetable sides, and cooking instructions. Dos Caminos restaurants sell “GuacTailing-to-Go Kits” providing all the ingredients (except the tequila) needed to make guacamole and margaritas; Katie’s Pizza & Pasta in Rock Hill, Missouri launched its Vero Pizza & Pasta meal kits with ingredients needed to make pizza or pasta at home, including handmade pastas and pizza dough, fresh vegetables, sauces, and other ingredients.

Food magazines are getting in on the act, too. Meredith Corporation, publisher of Allrecipes, Better Homes & Gardens, and EatingWell, partnered with eMeals on a meal-planning app that lets users choose from a selection of recipes developed by the magazines’ food editors and nutritionists, save the recipes for reference, and create shopping lists. Users can shop for these ingredients themselves, or use the app to order groceries for pick-up or home-delivery from Walmart, Kroger, AmazonFresh, Instacart, or Shipt.

Meal kits are evolving in other ways, too. Hello Fresh found its sales dipped when the food photography on recipe cards and online order forms showed images of artfully plated, restaurant-quality meals. Customers, who felt like their own results didn’t measure up to perceived expectations of how the dish should turn out, were often disappointed. But when the company started using “messier” photos, depicting food not plated perfectly, or a hand in the shot, sales went up. The reason, according to a “SupermarketGuru” report: “The meals look more realistic. People can imagine themselves actually cooking something imperfect.”

Chef’d’s Myron Mixon meal-kit for competition-style ribs.

The Impact on Barbecue Retailers

So, what does the meal-kit trend mean for barbecue retailers? Well, for one, if ready-to-cook kits continue to grow as expected, they will influence not only what your customers eat for dinner, but how that meal is prepared.

Currently, a relatively small percentage of meal-kit dishes involve grilling. Notable exceptions, however, include meal kits from Chef’d produced in collaboration with grilling and barbecuing experts Steven Raichlen, Myron Mixon, BBQ Queens Karen Adler and Judith Fertig, and television grill-chef David Olson. The meals are created from recipes developed by these celebrity barbecuers, who receive royalties on sales of their branded kits.

Barbecue author and authority Steven Raichlen’s Chef’d meal-kit collection features dishes such as Grilled Chipotle Pork Tenderloin with Farmer’s Market Salad, and Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce and Herb-Butter-Grilled Corn.

Karen Adler and Judith Fertig’s BBQ Queens meal kits include light, colorful, and flavor-packed dishes such as Grilled Baja Fish Tacos, and Arugula, Ricotta and Olive Oil Pizzettes. Adler says the menus are designed to “have style, yet be simple enough for beginner grillers to prepare the meal in under an hour.”

Chef’d’s Myron Mixon meal-kit collection deviates from this quick-cooking paradigm. His kits for competition-style ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken, and side dishes, take up to 12 hours to prepare, but let backyard novices turn out barbecue like Mixon, known as the “winningest man in barbecue.”

Should retailers pack and sell their own perishable meal kits? Adler advises against the idea for most retailers. She says, “It’s not as easy as it looks. They would need a full prep-kitchen staff and lots of refrigeration to be able to pull this off.” Instead, she suggests partnering with a local butcher shop or specialty food market to offer grilled meal kits on weekends. “The food store would supply the food, and the barbecue retailer supplies the grilling gear,” she says.

Chef’d meal kit.

Themes might include traditional barbecue, with a focus on one of the four key competition meats (chicken, pulled pork, ribs, and brisket), or a different regional style of barbecue (e.g. North Carolina, Texas, etc.) each month. Or you could create grilling kits for other types of dishes, such as paella, New England-style clam bakes, kebabs, fajitas, pizza, and salt-block cooking.

Kits would include the rubs, sauces, wood chips, tools, accessories, and step-by-step instructions – everything but the perishables – to create the dish. Customers could swing by the butcher-partner to pick up the meat, or simply purchase the perishable ingredients on their own. Demo-ing the kits on weekends and through social media would help to promote them in-store.

If you offer cooking classes (and therefore, presumably, have some refrigeration), you could offer to-go grilling kits so attendees can prepare the dishes at home after the class. The kits would be ordered in advance, at the time the customer makes the cooking-class reservation, so you only need to bring in enough extra ingredients to fulfill orders. Kits could be assembled by instructors as they prep for the cooking class.

Another – and possibly simpler – approach may be to keep tabs on the types of grilled meal kits being offered in your local grocery stores and through companies such as Chef’d, promote them on your website and social media, and remind customers that you have the necessary gear to create those dishes.

Meal kits may or may not be a recipe for success for barbecue retailers. But savvy retailers should be aware of this new trend and how it is disrupting the way America shops and cooks.

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