I don’t, of my own choice, watch television. By this I mean, I never pick up a remote and turn on a TV, regardless of whether I’m at home or at a hotel. However, I’m occasionally exposed to TV when I’m in a room where someone else has turned it on, and this is essentially my only exposure to big-screen advertising, as I adblock ruthlessly on all my computers. Part of the reason I avoid TV is that I detest all advertising to a degree that’s hard to verbalize. Many of the ads I’m forced to endure via this sort of secondary exposure I find not merely annoying, but also baffling. In particular, the idea of advertising Internet-native products like Namely (HR) or Rover (Uber for petsitters) on TV seems very 2000-dotcom; very “capturing eyeballs”. I’m not even talking about whether or not the products themselves make sense – I’m simply talking about whether it makes sense to advertise them on TV. If your product exists only on the Internet, and can only be purchased there, and is targeted at the app generation of cord-cutters, then TV advertising seems like a strange way to burn investor capital.
One product category that neither makes sense in general, nor makes sense to see advertised on TV, is meal kit delivery plans such as Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Home Chef and many others. The details of these different offerings have slight variations, but they generally adhere very closely to the following game plan:
- They almost universally focus on providing the components and recipe for a home-cooked evening meal; typically only one main course, or one main course and a side. Breakfast and lunch are not typically part of the plan. Beverages, dessert and appetizers are also not included.
- Each week, there are a set number of recipes available from which you can select the ones you prefer and how many servings you require for each recipe.
- There is an option to ship fewer than 7 meals per week (3 meals is a common package size).
- These are subscription services; you sign up, and you are charged recurring fees (typically every week) until you cancel.
- You have the ability to skip one or more scheduled deliveries without canceling service, in order to handle things like vacations, work travel, and other circumstances that might preclude you from cooking for a week.
- Pricing is variable, but overall you’ll probably find yourself paying between $10-$15 per serving.
- These plans are vigorously promoted using low-cost (e.g. $10) Groupon/Livingsocial/etc coupons for the first week of food, followed by recurring billing at full price.
The products are pitched to people who want a home-cooked meal and claim to have around 30 minutes of prep/cook time as a rule. They appeal to sentiments of wanting to bond with your family by making something by hand for them, while avoiding the inconvenience of having to figure out recipes, go shopping, bring the food home and prep everything. I’ll pause here to refer you to a book I greatly enjoyed: Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. This book talks about (inter alia) the evolution of products like boxed cake mixes, and how companies like General Mills gradually edged these into the lives of American housewives who were previously used to cooking from scratch using flour from a sack or barrel. The TL;DR here is that marketing people discovered that adding a few simple steps (add three eggs; measure a cup of oil; measure a cup of water) and giving people suggestions on how to “personalize” a recipe (bake according to directions, then put strawberries and whipped cream on top! Or maybe pineapple! You’re the cook; you decide!), people reach a much higher level of satisfaction and feel that they contributed significantly to the end result, even though practically all the “cooking” work was really done by a few industrial baking engineers and a couple of million dollars worth of automated mixing and packaging equipment. To a large degree, meal kits ride on the same wave of perceived personalization.
This digression aside: each week, you receive a cardboard box delivered by various shipping carriers. Within this box is:
- An insulating layer. This varies from a solid Styrofoam “box within a box”, to an aluminized freezer bag, to a six-walled polyethylene sachet filled with fluffy paper pulp (basically another “box within a box” except that in this case, the inner box is sort of a floppy plastic sleeve stuffed with fluffy brown paper waste).
- Typically two large 2lb+ frozen gel-paks the same size as the top and bottom of the box, to keep the food cool in transit and while sitting on your doorstep.
- Meats, shrinkwrapped by cooking portion size (i.e. if the particular vendor lets you choose 2, 4, 6, … servings for each recipe, then the meat will be packaged in chunks sized for 2 servings, so for example you’ll get 3 packages if you chose 6 servings).
- Fresh produce, variously packaged according to its transport needs. This may vary from being completely loose in the box (potatoes) to being shrinkwrapped (individual garlic cloves). Within the constraints applied by being portioned (e.g. the aforementioned garlic cloves are broken out of their parent bulb), this produce is exactly as you would buy it in the supermarket; it is not cut, peeled, washed or otherwise pre-prepared.
- Ingredients like tomato sauce and broth, usually in Tetra Brik juice-box style containers but occasionally in cans.
- Herbs and spices in heat-sealed plastic bags.
- Ingredients like cooked beans, either in cans or in retort (MRE style) packaging.
- A glossy printed step by step recipe card for each recipe in the box.
- Cardboard separator(s) to keep the meats and produce apart. A typical packing order (bottom to top) in the box will be: freezer pack, meats, second freezer pack, separator, produce, paperwork.
Now, I am pretty much the exact opposite of an environmentalist, but it’s pretty self-evident that these kits are the K-Cup of food, in terms of packaging and other waste. Most if not all of the purveyors of these products have a recycling program for their packaging (including the gel packs), but this doesn’t negate the fact that you’re burning diesel to ship cardboard boxes and pounds of water-soaked gel to your door, then more diesel to ship it somewhere else for disposal. And it doesn’t even touch the ludicrous over-packaging of the ingredients, necessitated by portioning and picking/packing logistical requirements. Buried in this tornado of shipping and packaging is also, of course, an insane cost structure.
However, this isn’t even why I find these services so silly. The real problem I have is that they don’t actually save you anything; neither time, nor money, because what they are literally doing is shipping you a small portion of your regular supermarket shopping list in a big, expensive, chilled box. Nothing is peeled, chopped or otherwise prepared for you. All the ingredients need to have exactly the same effort applied to them, to be useful in the recipe, as if you had bought them from your local market. Further, these kits do not preclude the necessity for shopping elsewhere. Even if these are the only meals you eat at home, you still need to acquire beverages, appetizers, paper towels and other household items.
A couple of people I have spoken to about this topic said “Well, I can get all my other stuff delivered from (grocery delivery service), so I never need to go to the store”. Certainly – but if you’re ordering your groceries for delivery anyway, you could simply add the ingredients for these kit recipes to that delivery order and skip all the packaging and the embedded cost of the kit. I should also add that the people in question do not, in fact, get their other groceries delivered – they still shop at regular markets. In fact, two of them do their grocery shopping at several locations – regular supermarket (Publix), boutique-ish supermarket (think Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods), and price club.
Perhaps the one factor I can see in favor of the kit is that people who have spent money on the kit are, potentially, slightly less likely to waste this food, because they spent so much time picking it out online and waiting for it, and they paid so much for it. Food waste guilt is a slender thread from which to suspend a business model, however.
Let’s suppose that the kit vendors have an expertly curated set of proprietary recipes that are hyper-optimized for minimum effort and maximum success rate by inexperienced cooks. I doubt that such a set can exist as a saleable article, by the way – it would be almost impossible to protect it from duplication, and the Internet is festooned with sites giving away free recipes. But anyway, if this collection existed, I could see it making some kind of sense to offer an EDI link to your regular grocery delivery service so you can say “I want to prepare this meal this week”, and having the appropriate ingredients added to your cart, perhaps with a referrer fee paid back to the recipe curator.
In summary, then: Meal kits are resource-wasteful and – once you factor in what’s required to actually make a meal kit into dinner, pretty expensive – and they don’t save you anything over and above shopping for groceries in whatever way you normally do (be it at a market, at several different stores, or via a delivery service). You’re much better off simply using one of the myriad free recipe sites to do your meal planning, and purchase groceries as normal.
(* SLaP = Solution Looking for A Problem)