If the only thing standing between you and a home cooked meal is the time and energy to shop and prep, a new breed of would-be cyber sous chefs wants to help get you cooking.
Think of it as Hamburger Helper for the Amazon.com era. A bevy of new online services is angling to be your virtual kitchen assistant, giving you the chance to outsource the tedious aspects of cooking — the shopping, sorting, washing and prepping — so you can focus on the more satisfying assembling and eating parts.
"The idea came out of a need my co-founders and I had in our own lives," says Matt Salzberg, co-founder and CEO of Blue Apron, a 2-year-old New York startup that delivers high-end, pre-measured ingredients to your doorstep. "Our customers love sitting back and letting us do the grocery shopping for them. They know they're going to get home and there's going to be everything they need to create a fresh, delicious meal."
Supermarkets and even online giants such as Amazon and Google deliver groceries. But these so-called "meal kit" services take that model a step further, offering time-starved, convenience-craving cooks the ability to go online, click on recipes that appeal, then have farm-fresh ingredients — pre-measured and sometimes even pre-chopped — arrive on their doorsteps ready for the skillet.
"All these companies make the promise, whether explicit or not, of their ability to pick out exactly what you need," says consumer trends analyst Kirk Vaclavik at the Chicago-based market research firm Mintel. "That's a whole other layer of convenience, of 'Wow, there's an expert I can rely on to pick all the ingredients I need to make a delicious gourmet meal.'"
To appeal to a gourmet-leaning crowd, many of the companies source from farms local to their delivery areas. And recipes also skew upscale, with options such as quinoa patties with pan-roasted mushrooms or togarashi-spiced tilapia with jade pearl rice. Blue Apron, which ships to roughly 85 percent of the continental U.S., specializes in gourmet items, such as fiddlehead ferns and husk cherries.
New York-based Plated, a similar service that also delivers to most of the country, promises premium cuts of meat and chef-designed recipes. Seattle-based Gathered Table generates customized weekly dinner menus and allows customers to enter their own recipes, while Forage in San Francisco collects recipes from star chefs to help people recreate restaurant dishes at home — in 20 minutes. Chicago-based Madison and Rayne delivers ingredients pre-chopped, pre-measured and with sauces already prepared.
"It's like cooking on a cooking show," says Madison and Rayne chef and co-founder Josh Jones. "The onions are minced, the lettuce is washed. It's ready for you to have the fun part. It's just like watching Rachael Ray on TV make a meal."
The Chicago-based food industry consulting firm Technomic predicts that meal kit services like these could become a $3 to $5 billion segment of the food industry during the next 10 years.
"Our hope is that people never have a reason to go the grocery store," says Blue Apron's Salzberg.
And they're counting on price to help them. Meals at Madison and Rayne can run as much as $19 per serving and sometimes include a delivery fee, depending on where they're going. But others are less expensive. A single serving at Blue Apron costs $9.99, a price that Salzberg says is 60 percent less than if you shopped for the ingredients yourself.
Those calculations, Blue Apron notes on its blog, come from not buying a whole bunch of parsley or full jar of hoisin for a single recipe. And from not having to drive between stores to find elusive ingredients. Other savings, the company says, come through buying direct from their farm partners. But some analysts are not convinced.
"Technically speaking that's probably correct, that to make a sauce you have to buy all these ingredients and you only use half of them," says Technomic executive vice president Bob Goldin. "But I don't think consumers think that way. At $10 a serving, I don't think they're going to win the 'We're cheaper' argument."
Alongside meal kit companies, boutique produce delivery services also are seeing growth. They allow customers to select their produce online and have it delivered from a local farm. Relay Foods, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, offers a cross between a farmers market and a natural-foods grocery store.
"The online businesses like Relay will be cost leaders," says Relay co-founder and president Arnie Katz. "The food in the store will be significantly more expensive than the food online. None of these businesses are at that scale yet, but they're getting there. It's coming."
Michele Kayal is co-founder of www.AmericanFoodRoots.com