Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

Yesterday I ran across an item over at Mother Jone’s website talking about meal kits, which are supposed to be the hot new thing in the food service industry. These things started up a fairly short time ago, offered by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and many others, and according to the press (some of it anyway, not all) meal kits are the best thing ever.

So what exactly is a ‘meal kit’? The idea is this: Every day a box arrives on your doorstep. Inside of it are all the raw ingredients to make a dinner. Everything you need from the entree, to side dishes, to seasonings,to condiments are pre-portioned and individually packaged. And a recipe telling you how to make it.

And that’s it. You get a box full of raw ingredients and a recipe.

You still have to cook it. You still have to use a stove, oven, etc. You still have to mix and stir. You still have all of the dirty dishes to deal with.

Well, they at least deliver it to your door so you don’t have to shop, right?  Uh, well, no, because these are only dinners. Unless you’re eating breakfast and lunch at a restaurant every day, you still have to go shopping for food.

So you still have to shop. You still have to mix, stir and actually cook. You still have to clean up afterwards and deal with the dishes. So this is useful for, well, who, exactly? People who can’t plan a meal, I suppose?

Then there is the cost. These things seem to be just a wee bit on the pricey side. We’re looking at anywhere from $9 to $50 or more per meal, per person depending on the service you’re talking about. Now I don’t know what restaurant prices are like where you live, but around here that basically means you’d be paying more for a box full of raw ingredients that you have to cook yourself, than  you would pay for a comparable meal at a restaurant, even at the low end of the meal kit price structure. I took a look at some of the menus from these places and figured that one chicken based meal they were sending out for $9 per person could be made for about $3.75 per person.

So just what is the point of all of this? Apparently the only thing this service does is relieve you of the horrible responsibility of — of planning what to have for dinner?

The ads for these places tout the ‘freshness’ of their ingredients. They wax poetic about ‘sustainable’ this and ‘environmental’ that, about how their “chefs” partner with “trusted farmers”. And all of that means pretty much nothing because all of those terms could be applied to just about anything.

The Mother Jones article linked to at the start of this turned up some rather troubling information about these meal kit companies. It seems that I’m not the only one who looks at meal kits with a skeptical eye. Apparently their own customers do as well.

According to independent marketing data that MJ dug up, half or more of the people who sign up for these things cancel the service within the first week. And only 10% or less kept the service after six months. Despite massive injections of venture capital, none of these companies have managed to achieve a positive cash flow from the scanty data I’ve tracked down. They’re continuing to exist only by burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital as they desperately try to attract new customers to replace the customers who almost immediately cancel the service once they’ve tried it.

The companies themselves vehemently deny that their customers abandon them in droves after trying the service for only a brief time, but refuse to show any data that supports their claims.

Still, the hype goes on. Celebrity chefs are hooking up with these places, the food service press waxes poetic about the ‘potential’ of meal kits. There are services that offer specialty kits, like strictly vegan, or “all organic” or vegetarian or, hell, places that only ship their product in ‘free range’ cardboard boxes, I suppose.

I don’t know, is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this whole concept is, frankly, ridiculously silly?

5 thoughts on “Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

  1. Well, as a girl who really does fall apart on the meal planning and shopping stage, there is something attractive to me about having both the plan and the ingredients arrive together.

    However, not having an excessive amount of money, there isn’t any chance in hell that I am going to sign up for it. Its essentially a convenience for people with a lot of income.

    I think if you have 2 working professionals, having this arrive makes life simpler.
    And if you enough money to spend on this sort of thing – you eat out for lunch everyday.
    And Breakfast is an utterly unnecessary meal. So.

    Yeah. If I had a lot of money, I would do it. Although probably not daily. Because I rarely have the energy to cook a meal everyday. Maybe I would get one with 4 portions and cook every 4 days or so… hehehe.

    And since they offer a free trial – its not all that surprising that they have such a high cancellation rate in the first week. I just don’t see how the free trial is sustainable.

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    • I suppose there are some people who would find this kind of thing helpful, but I don’t know… It just seems silly to me. Maybe it’s just my upbringing. Growing up on a farm, raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression and were only a generation or two away from being immigrants themselves, has probably had an indelible influence on me when it comes to spending money, and this whole idea of paying premium prices for food simply for the convenience of someone planning a menu for me and shopping for a single meal doesn’t make any sense to me.

      If you look at meal kits as an overall business model, it doesn’t make any sense either. These companies have razor thin profit margins because of the enormous amount of overhead involved, even at the premium prices they charge. There is a huge amount of labor involved in prepping, measuring, etc. Then there is the cost of packaging and shipping… Their actual net income per meal is probably going to be in the range of cents, not dollars. Then add into that the fact that it costs them an estimated $100 to $300 to attract a new customer, and that 50% of those new customers cancel within a week, and only 10% are still with them after six months, well, it just doesn’t make sense from the business end of the deal either.

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      • OH. It is definitely not a frugal thing. But I think a huge part of their problem is they are marketing it wrong. They need to target their consumer.

        You don’t give it away free to the world and hope for customers. You have to nail a market – a very niche and fairly narrow market. Its power couples without kids.

        Any single person is not going to figure its worth it. People with kids have to make too many specialty things for kids anyway.

        Nope. You market it as a bonding experience. A path to joy in marriage. A way to personal fulfillment and well being. To people who are too busy with their careers to have those things and want it delivered without much fuss with instructions.

        I’m sure however its a contributor to food wastage the world over. And I doubt if these companies will flourish. They feel like they trying to market like Target and they should be marketing like a 5 star restaurant. Charge a fortune, make it feel elite and always get it right. Make the cool couples want them. Instead of begging people to try them.

        Then you get the right customer and they stick with it.

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        • I had a discussion with my wife about this yesterday and she made very similar arguments, that this isn’t something for the average person or family, but a rather limited market made up of mostly youngish, urban professionals, no children, fairly affluent. The kind of people who ware working 60 – 70 hours a week, and don’t eat at home much in the first place. And I think she mentioned the term pretentious in there somewhere too . Her arguments were very similar to yours, that they should be marketing this not to families but what once a upon a time were called DINKS (dual income no kids).

          I have to admit that I wasn’t thinking along those lines. I was only thinking how illogical this was for the kind of lifestyle I’m most familiar with, and much of the marketing I’ve seen indicates that’s the market they’re going for.

          You, and my wife, are right, though. They should be marketing this to a different demographic and in that market it could be pretty successful.

          As for the waste issue, oh yeah. There’s no doubt about that. Especially when you consider all of the special packaging, all of the ingredients being packed separately, the special packaging that’s needed.

          I’d be a bit concerned about spoilage and bacteria, too. To keep things at proper temperatures they’re going to need some very special packaging materials, super-insulation, possibly packing it in dry ice. And I’ve come home from work to find UPS or FedEx had dumped a package on my front steps at 7:30 in the morning and it’s been there for like 12 hours, baking in the sun all day long…

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