The meal-kit industry is at a crossroads


It was going so well for Blue Apron, until it wasn't. The company, which set nationwide trends with its mail-order subscription meal kits, delivering ingredients and instructions to hundreds of thousands of Americans, had valued itself at $3.2 billion weeks before its initial public offering.

But a few days before Blue Apron shares entered the market on June 29, Amazon.com announced that it intended to buy Whole Foods. That $3.2 billion valuation shrank to $1.98 billion, and shares that were supposed to sell at between $15 and $17 began trading at $10 and closed out the day rising less than one cent. Share prices eventually dipped as low as $5.12 - less than the price of one serving of a Blue Apron meal. Its co-founder stepped down, the company instituted a hiring freeze, and then it began laying people off. Some of its investors are suing the company, saying they had been misled. 

Its fortunes are beginning to change: Upon the news that Blue Apron competitor Plated was bought by grocery giant Albertsons, share prices began to rise again, and Blue Apron was given a "buy" rating from the investment company Guggenheim. 

Is it the worst time or the best time to be in the meal-kit business? There seems to be a different answer to that question every day.

Here is what people like about meal kits: They like not having to grocery-shop or think about finding recipes. They like being exposed to recipes they wouldn't have thought to make on their own. They like cooking as a special occasion, like a casual date night. 

Here is what they don't like about meal kits: They don't like the excessive and wasteful packaging that comes with each delivery. They don't like how long it can take to prepare the meals. They don't like the limited selections some kits offer. They think they're too expensive. They don't like being locked into a subscription - even one you can pause for weeks at a time - preferring instead the ability to decide last-minute whether to cook.

"I think meal kits are here to stay. Do I think everybody will be cooking like this in the future? No. But it fills a need," said Brita Rosenheim, an industry consultant. 

Many industry experts agree. But the industry is going through a reckoning: What will the meal-kit business, which research firm Packaged Facts values at $5 billion, look like in coming years? And who will perfect the model? 

"One thing we know for certain: The composition of the market in terms of key players will change in the next few years," said Eric Thoresen, principal of Technomic, a consulting and research firm that predicts meal-kit subscription revenue worldwide will top $10 billion by 2020.

Despite its difficulties, Blue Apron is still the most prominent of those major players, which includes Hello Fresh, Home Chef and Sun Basket. Blue Apron has reduced the amount it spends on acquiring customers, which has resulted in a decline in customers, Ad Age reported.

Rosenheim isn't sure what's going to happen to Blue Apron. "It could easily be a crash-and-burn situation," she said. "I think it's too early to tell." Blue Apron declined to be interviewed for this story. 

Blue Apron's growing pains have affected the industry in myriad ways. 

Some experts have described the industry's trajectory as being similar to another former tech darling, the daily deal, particularly in the way that it attracts customers with promotions.

"Similar to the Groupon model, we see people going from meal-kit provider to meal-kit provider to get free food, and not necessarily going back to the people that gave them free food," said Phil Lempert, a supermarket analyst. And, similar to the brief period of daily-deal madness around 2009 or so, we're seeing dozens of new companies being founded despite considerable hurdles. All of these companies' fortunes are, in a way, intertwined, and Blue Apron's difficulties have cast a pall on the industry. 

"A lot of investors have been burned by the on-demand delivery space or the meal-kit space or any of these hot categories that have been extremely active and had some crash-and-burn failures in the last couple of years," Rosenheim said. "On a weekly basis I'm hearing anecdotes of investors that are telling [companies], 'I have PTSD in this space. . . . I can't go back to my partners and advocate for a food-tech deal.' They're done."

But those intertwining fortunes work both ways. That's why Blue Apron's stock rose at the announcement that Albertsons, which owns Safeway, Shaw's and other grocery brands, purchased Plated for $200 million.

And it's also why competitors such as Gobble, which markets itself as being faster to cook than Blue Apron, has found it easier to attract subscribers. 

"Because the industry is so hot, that coverage is helping to lift us," said Ooshma Garg, founder of Gobble. "It's really like the gold rush of the food space, but via the direct-to-consumer channel." 

Despite some companies' very public difficulties, there is more competition than ever, including from corporate behemoths such as Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeffrey Bezos, owns The Washington Post. Everyone thinks they can build a better meal kit.

Some companies have focused on more choices and customization: Chef'd offers more than 600 meals through partnerships with brands including Campbell Soup, media including the New York Times and chefs such as Dominique Crenn. The kits don't have to be tied to a subscription, either.

Others go after another consumer complaint: The amount of time a meal kit takes, and the number of dishes it dirties. Gobble sends kits with prepared sauces and pre-roasted garlic, for example, and all of its recipes are 15-minute, one-skillet meals. 

And a few companies offer subscription meals that are almost entirely pre-made, so they couldn't be called a "kit." Tovala, a Chicago company, sells a steam oven and subscription to ready-made meals that can be cooked automatically in just a few minutes - all consumers have to do is add finishing touches, such as a sauce. Nomiku, a company that sells devices to help consumers cook sous-vide, also offers a heat-and-eat meal subscription. 

Still other subscription services are pointing out that the fastest way to cook is to put your mail-ordered meal in the microwave. It's a new take on freezer-aisle convenience: Instead of preservative-laden and frozen, they're fresh and "chef-driven." 

"We look at meal kits as work in a box. There's twice as much packaging, [and] it's going to take even an experienced cook every bit of 45 minutes" to prepare, said Mitchell Roth. His company. Roth Premium Foods, partnered with the stars of "Extreme Weight Loss" to launch Fresh by Transform, a diet-oriented microwaveable meal subscription service with meals that stay fresh for 30 days in the refrigerator. "We really try to overemphasize the fact that we're not a meal-kit delivery business. We're sending you fully chef-designed ready meals."

The real future of meal kits - or perhaps their demise - may not be in the mail but in the grocery store.

Kroger offers kits in select Ohio stores. Amazon could not confirm whether its kits will be sold in Whole Foods, but the chain has experimented with kit-like recipe displays before.

There are big advantages to supermarket meal kits, Lempert said: "It's not overpackaged, you can buy it on impulse, and it's less expensive."

Josh Hix, co-founder of Plated, doesn't think that putting his kits in Albertsons stores will affect his subscription business. Rather, he sees them as supplementing each other, and appealing to different types of consumers. 

"We've always wanted, up from the beginning, the option to pick [kits] up at the store," Hix said. "But like most people our age, we buy stuff online, too."

It's likely that the coming months will see other meal-kit companies purchased by grocery chains, wrote the Street. Some kits also have attracted investments from consumer packaged-goods companies such as Nestlé and Unilever.

U.S. grocery stores generated $80.6 million in sales of meal kits, up 6.7 percent over year-ago sales, for the 12 months through March 4, Supermarket News reported. But grab-and-go meal kits haven't been a home run everywhere. Giant Eagle, a Pennsylvania-based grocery chain, experimented but ultimately decided they weren't worth it. 

"We heard pretty consistent customer feedback in terms of sales," said Dan Donovan, the chain's spokesman. Because of a robust prepared-foods section, "folks visiting our stores just didn't have a need for it."

Furthermore, with the rise of "grocerants," or restaurants in grocery stores, some consumers may go to the store without intending to cook at all.

Lempert said that companies that specialize in niche audiences - like those who want diabetic meals or the ketogenic diet - will continue to grow. "It's less about impulse," he said. 

But if convenience and time aren't their driving factor, the odds may be against some up-and-coming meal-kit companies. According to the Harvard Business Review, only 10 percent of consumers in a recent study said they love to cook. Forty-five percent said they hated it. 

"What I think these companies don't understand is it's not about the food," Lempert said. "If companies see it as 'I can make better food,' they're going to lose."

The elimination of cooking altogether, some speculate, will be the final outcome of this conflation of factors affecting meal kits: busier lives, a demand for more convenience, the availability of high-quality, cheaper prepared food. Even Oprah Winfrey is getting into the game with O, That's Good!, her line of prepared foods launching this fall.

"You have the customers who really enjoy cooking and preparing foods," Lempert said. "And then you've got people who are just looking for convenience, and they've tried Blue Apron and they're saying . . . 'It's not really convenient.' They're going to wake up and say, 'Hey, I can buy Lean Cuisine.' "


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