The Covid-19 pandemic inspired an unprecedented wave of innovation and creativity throughout the restaurant industry, as businesses struggled to stay afloat while reducing capacity limits and practicing social distancing. Now that the world is starting to open back up again, industry experts have been speculating about how many of these Covid-era innovations will stick around for the long haul. Home meal kit services and grab-and-go options are two of the most popular trends of 2020, but will they continue to be viable in 2021 and beyond?
In this Article:
What is a Meal Kit or Grab-and-Go Option?
Home meal kits come in a variety of forms, though most involve some sort of DIY element. Customers might have to assemble several components, reheat or cook a center-of-plate protein, or follow a recipe to prepare the entire meal from scratch. Not only do meal kits vary in the complexity of their preparation, but they also span a wide array of cuisines.
Subscription meal kit delivery services, such as Blue Apron and HelloFresh, had already made their mark on the foodservice industry prior to Covid-19. These meal kits are tailor-made for the average home cook, spotlighting relatively simple and wholesome meals that are easy to prepare. The restaurant industry’s economic spiral during the pandemic inspired many chefs and restaurateurs to jump on this bandwagon in order to create new revenue streams. From local bakeries selling take-and-bake cookies, to Michelin-starred establishments like Alinea offering reheatable fine dining options to go, the meal kit trend quickly transformed into one based on a one-off purchase model with some real gourmet street cred.
Similarly, grab-and-go meals increased in popularity during this time. Unlike meal kits, grab-and-go options typically come already prepared and packaged for transport. These meals are designed for optimal convenience, nutrition, and portability. Prior to the pandemic, a 2019 survey by FMI found that 68% of consumers were interested in grab-and-go options. The recent spike in off-premises dining only accelerated this demand, with sit-down restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and even schools creating new grab-and-go options.
Is Adding Meal Kit Service a Good Investment?
Well, that depends. Some industry experts have argued that these trends are destined to decline now that the country is opening back up and customers are eager to start dining in again. Others suggest that meal kits and grab-and-go options were on the uptick prior to Covid, and their popularity has only accelerated given the restaurant industry’s new normal. Either way, there are several factors to consider before deciding whether to add grab-and-go or meal kit services to your business.
Type of Cuisine
Some foods lend themselves to these trends better than others. For grab-and-go options, the food must stay fresh and appetizing-looking for an extended time, and the meal must also travel well. Sandwiches, salads, wraps, spreads, and cheese and charcuterie trays are a few of the most popular offerings, which makes grab-and-go a good option for fast-casual restaurants.
Meal kits present their own unique challenges. If required, the assembly and cooking of any components should be simple enough for a home cook to master. Cost is also a huge factor to consider here. Few consumers are willing to spend fine-dining prices on something that comes in a to-go box and requires extra preparation. This is why it’s a good idea to keep things simple. Take-and-bake pizzas, pastas, and baked goods are easy to cook, and these always-popular menu items are a more reliable way to drive revenue.
If you want to offer more upscale meal kits, take a cue from some of the chefs who have mastered the form and get creative. Transform the meal kit into an experience that’s worth a premium price. Consider Chef Eric Rivera, who developed a series of themed meal kits such as Ballpark at Home, which included popular baseball concessions, beer, and a Zoom meet-up to watch a game. Whether you pair the meal kit with a bottle of wine or to-go cocktail, or you promote the act of cooking it as a fun group activity (rolling sushi, for example), the key to success in this space is offering something unique that customers can’t get by dining in.
Labor and Product Costs
Given the strain that Covid-19 has put on both the labor and supply chain, it’s crucial that any new delivery or takeout kits don’t exacerbate these issues. Most grab-and-go options can be prepared using the kitchen staff and food supplies your business already has available. In many cases, you can simply repurpose many of the sandwiches, salads, and soups from your dine-in menu. It might be as simple as serving the item in a to-go container and eliminating any ingredients that quickly brown or wilt. As a bonus, this method can also help reduce food waste.
Meal kits of off-menu items require a bit more strategic planning. Restaurants should consider devising meal kits that use as much current inventory as possible to avoid adding extra food costs to their budget. Likewise, preparing the components and any necessary instructions for the home cook shouldn’t tax your current staff or require hiring additional support. Try adding creative or experiential twists to signature items that already have ample inventory, or offer a pared-down version of an upscale dish that a broader spectrum of diners can afford.
There are a handful of ways to get meal kits from your kitchen to the consumer. Clearly, takeout—whether from your storefront, a pop-up, or a ghost kitchen—is the most cost-effective solution, and it’s also more doable now that pandemic restrictions are beginning to loosen up. Third-party delivery services are another option, though associated fees and surcharges will reduce profitability. If you want to jump into the meal kit pool with both feet, nationwide delivery is another alternative. Goldbelly, an online purveyor gourmet eats, recently collaborated with several celebrity chefs, including David Chang and Marcus Samuelsson, to deliver their meal kits across the country. Though this option might not be viable for some smaller operations, it has the potential for established restaurants to expand their customer base beyond any geographical limitations.
Equipment You Need to Join the Meal Kit Industry
After you’ve answered the questions posed by the previous section, it’s time to equip your restaurant for success. The kitchen supplies you need will vary depending on whether you choose to offer home meal kits or grab-and-go options, as well as the scale of the operation. Here are a few of our recommendations.
Select from disposable bowls and to-go boxes, compostable takeout containers, utensils, and more. These containers are ideal for most fast-casual meal kits and grab-and-go options, and many of these items are designed to be recyclable or eco-friendly, too.
These open display merchandisers provide one central, eye-catching location to stock grab-and-go options or chilled meal kits for customers. Their open construction allows consumers to select items without any additional point-of-contact with a server or staff member.
Glass door merchandisers keep meal kits and grab-and-go items at a cooler temperature. These merchandisers are available in refrigerator and freezer models, making them ideal for foods that need to be kept frozen or chilled.
If you’re offering meal kits or grab-and-go options that need to stay warm, these heated shelving units are perfect for staging merchandise. These versatile heated shelves are also suitable for most takeout, delivery, and curbside pickup operations.
Adriane works as a Content Specialist at Central Restaurant Products. She has more than a decade of experience as a copywriter and e-commerce strategist, with most of that time spent focusing on the restaurant industry. When she’s not writing about foodservice, Adriane enjoys cooking, hiking, traveling, and hanging out with her dog.