With the national market for meal-kit services headed into the billions of dollars, a handful of local businesses are trying to tap into consumer demand for pre-made, delivered meals.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 17, 2017
Blue Apron. Hello Fresh. Plated. Purple Carrot.
Over the next half-decade, companies like these are jockeying for position amid a projected multi-billion-dollar industry that delivers the ingredients and recipes for “chef-inspired,” home-cooked meals.
Spurred by lifestyles that have extended on-demand shopping to every facet of consumerism, these services are gaining traction nationally for their convenience, cost, and the variety of dietary options that they provide.
So why shouldn’t local businesses try to crack the same code?
In restaurant-heavy Camden County, nearly every eatery offers takeout or delivery, and dozens, if not hundreds, participate in third-party delivery services like GrubHub. But more than a few are branching out into meal plans: freshly prepared and packaged foods, delivered in bulk weekly.
Not quite the same thing as a boxed grocery service, meal plan offerings nonetheless appeal to similar, on-the-go customers—and to restaurateurs and caterers who appreciate the steady business.
Dan Walther of The Square Meal in Oaklyn said most of his meal plan customers are trying to save time while eating “something that fits within what they believe to be a healthy diet.”
Defining what that means is “different for so many people in so many ways,” but to most of them, it tends toward the paleo diet, he said.
Walther said his plan offers dishes that are mostly grain- and dairy-free; high in proteins and fibrous vegetables, low in carbohydrates. Typical options include pulled chicken or turkey meatloaf with sweet potatoes and seasonal slaw, plus a soup or seasonal green salad. Vegan entrée alternatives include seasonal vegetable stir-fry with basmati rice or quinoa scrambles.
Walther believes the market for pre-made meals “is a lot smaller than everyone would like to think.” With lots of local dining options, planning meals a week in advance can be a hard sell.
“Eating is spontaneous,” Walther said. “You decide what you want in that moment; a lot of people are taken aback by the idea of planning ahead. It’s a tough market to crack.”
For health-conscious subscribers, portion control is a big benefit of the arrangement. Walther’s dishes are vacuum-sealed, which cuts back on packaging waste and conserves space in the refrigerator. The Square Meal also seeks to differentiate itself from competitors by using sustainably sourced ingredients, including produce from Zone 7 organics, and antibiotic- and hormone-free meats.
“We’re one of the only people around here who aren’t using SYSCO and U.S. Foods meats,” he said. “Ethically, we believe in eating food that comes from close to where you are, and economically, regional food production is one of the most sustainable small businesses you can have.”
The Square Meal will focus on its own sustainability by forming affiliations with personal trainers and fitness centers, which has been one of the pathways to success for Meals2Go, an offshoot of Haddonfield caterer Mark Rooks’ Rent-a-Chef, Inc.
In the year since launching the service, which delivers heat-and-serve, family-style meals for four, Rooks’ wife and business partner Ridgway Grace said its most faithful customers have been connected with CrossFit Aspire of Cherry Hill. The gym keeps a refrigerator onsite that Meals2Go stocks twice weekly with its customers’ orders.
“It’s a good concept, and I wish there was someone else that did what we did too, because we run into that issue every night,” Grace said of her own four-child household.
“This is always something we’ve struggled with,” she said. “We’re both in the business. I don’t eat gluten, and at home, I end up cooking with a baby and kids pulling on me until around at 7:00 at night. And ordering takeout’s expensive.”
Grace said her meals cost $32.10 apiece, including tax and delivery. Customers may select from among chicken-, beef-, seafood-, or vegetarian-based entrees, including tacos, fajitas, burritos, and pan-baked pasta and rice dishes. Vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, and paleo options are available. Meals2Go delivers Monday and Thursday for orders placed at least a few days in advance, but all the food is prepared fresh the morning it’s delivered.
In addition to fitness-related customers, Grace said Meals2Go reaches clients recovering from surgery, those who’ve recently moved, and sells meal vouchers to give as gifts.
For the couple, who also recently expanded their catering business to include a food truck, the program is a “really busy” revenue stream, she said, with many customers setting up recurring orders.
“I think it’s caught on really well,” Grace said. “We always hear from people who do Blue Apron and they compared our prices to theirs. They end up using us because it’s less expensive, fully prepared, and delivered. [Blue Apron] was a lot of work and makes a lot of trash.”
Among the newest local entrants to the prepared meals delivery business is Take It Home of Haddonfield, which opened its virtual doors in January 2017. Founder Elena Ciccotelli said the startup is aimed at customers who want a restaurant-quality, heat-and-serve meal at home.
Take It Home offers a broad variety of dishes; things like glazed salmon and grilled vegetables, meatballs and polenta, barbecued beef and ramen, and jumbo lump crab cakes. Meals are priced like restaurant entrees, too, with individual servings ranging from $16 to $19 plus tax and shipping.
Her brother, Nick, former head of catering for Whole Foods Philadelphia and Mount Laurel, is the brains behind the menu.
All the meals are prepared fresh and vacuum-sealed at The Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises in West Philadelphia, and delivery ranges from the Main Line to South Jersey.
Ciccotelli said Take It Home is comparable to regional and national gourmet delivery services like Prepped and Galley Foods, which offer chef-prepared meals for home delivery. She’s hoping to add dishes from Philadelphia-area chefs, like Kenny Bush of Bistrot La Minette, in the future.
“We’re trying to find our X-factor,” Ciccotelli said. “We want to be in the chef scene and the foodie scene.”
Without the sales (or cost) of a brick-and-mortar storefront, Take It Home is subsidizing its operation with catering orders while trying to drive customer interest via social media and social responsibility. For every meal sold, the company donates an additional meal to the Food Bank of South Jersey, and Ciccotelli has built up a YouTube channel that showcases some of its recipes.
“We’re relying on word of mouth and a lot of social media,” she said. “Right now we’re focusing on what is the best way to reach that local market and still deliver a delicious product. But we need to generate enough volume to make it worth our while.”
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