How recipe boxes are getting all kitted out and ready to go
Meal kits: a small but fast-growing market with emphasis on authenticity

How recipe boxes are getting all kitted out and ready to go

Angela Youngman
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Meal kits are rapidly becoming the rising stars of the food sector, appealing particularly to young people who want to be creative in the kitchen yet are uncertain about their cooking skills. Produce Business UK catches up with some of the burgeoning businesses 

Although a very new sector, it is already segmenting with specialist interests emerging such as the first nationwide vegan provision at Mindful Chef for which demand is surpassing expectations. 

Usage of recipe kits has expanded very rapidly. The company’s Giles Humphries says: “When we set up the business we expected it to mainly attract 25-35 year-old urban dwellers who are time conscious. We have been proved half right. It has also been very popular with other groups. We have a lot of people in the countryside who take four or five a week, reflecting the fact that it can be harder to get to the shops. We have couples in their sixties who are some of our strongest customers.”

Meal kits - Mindful Chef
Giles (r) set up Mindful Chef with friends Myles (l) and Rob (c)

According to market research company Mintel, meal kits are a-way-house option that provide a good means to tap into the scratch-cooking trend for prepared-meals manufacturers. Its analysts also believe that products that provide guidance in the cooking process should also appeal to less confident cooks making meal and spice kits well placed placed to function as a learning tool to help home cooks build confidence. 

Interest in cooking rises 

Much of the rise in interest is due to the activities of high profile chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver who have caught the attention of consumers, encouraging them to experiment. Mintel say that 60% of all 16 to 34 year olds enjoy experimenting with cooking trends and ingredients, but lack experience in basic cooking skills. The main reason why young British consumers are choosing to cook is because it is fun, while 49% say it allows them to control what goes into their food. Cost is another key reason with 47% of those questioned say it helps them save money.

Anita Winther, food and drink analyst at Mintel says: “The majority of Brits find pleasure in cooking. Focusing marketing messages on the enjoyment found in cooking should provide ingredient and meal component brands with a means to tap into this emotional aspect of cooking.”

Specialist Italian meal-kit company Gourmio agrees with this assessment. “Gourmio is perfect for busy people who are passionate about Italian food but don’t have time to search for hard-to-find traditional ingredients,” a company spokesperson says. “They work several hours a day and are already used to buying online. People in Gourmio’s target look for time-saving attributes: they are passionate and curious about Italian food and love (or would love) to cook as they would feel gratified by it. However, they do not have enough time to dedicate to cooking and grocery shopping.”

Meal kits - Gourmio new box and ingredients
Gourmio appeals to those with a curiosity about Italian food

Segmentation emerges

Looking at the marketplace for meal kits, there can be little doubt of their popularity with consumers and the way in which the market is starting to segment in order to cater for speciality and niche sectors.

Growing in popularity are recipe box companies which allow consumers to choose, and opt for just a few meals rather than having an entire weekly meal plan as originally pioneered by Hello Fresh. Instead, consumers can make considered choices, they can pick and choose between recipes and have packs delivered for just one or more meals. These companies offer a choice of vegetarian, meat and fish dishes.

Consumers of all ages are becoming more willing to cook and follow recipes. Using a recipe box mean that everything is provided, and there are no extra expenses. With easy to follow recipes, there is little risk of failure. This is particularly popular with consumers wanting to cook special meals, such as the increasingly popular dine-at-home demographic who do not want to go to restaurants. They want the pleasure of a home-cooked meal that is guaranteed to be high quality and will impress other diners, yet are unsure of their own cookery skills. This is proving to be a significant niche market, encouraged by the success of TV programmes such as Come Dine with Me.

“Meal kit innovation reflects current food trends, aligning with the movement towards convenience, customisation and more ethnic cuisines,” says Winther. “In fact, some new ethnic launches contain all ‘exotic’ ingredients which might otherwise be difficult to purchase locally. “

Picking up on paleo

And segmentation has happened quickly too. Mindful Chef only started late last year, but has become known for its specialist provision of paleo and vegan boxes. Founded last year by three friends, their aim is to make healthy eating easy. The company recently successfully sought £400,000 in crowdfunding investment on seedr to expand the business. “We pride ourselves on our innovative uses of vegetables in evening meals that are both gluten-free and dairy free,” the friends’ pitch reads. “We ship nationwide and cater for one-person, two-person and three-person boxes. To our knowledge we also offer the UK’s first and only vegan recipe box, alongside our meat and fish options.”  The crowdfunding campaign was oversubscribed.

It is this vegetarian and vegan sector which is providing the biggest growth and some 20% of Mindful Chef’s boxes each week are 100% vegetarian. “When we look at what the meat eaters are buying, the second most popular recipe they always choose is vegan,” says Humphries. “People come to us saying they want low carb, and there is too much pasta and rice in other recipe box systems.”

Meal kits - Mindful Chef stock photo

Mindful Chef focuses on the premium health end of the recipe-box market focusing on introducing more fresh vegetables into the diet. A Leiths-trained in-house chef provides new recipes each week, none of which are ever repeated on a 12-week cycle – and only then if there is sufficient demand. Each recipe involves no more than 30 minutes to prepare and cook. Typical recipes include Veggie Shepherd’s pie with sweet potato, chestnuts and mushrooms and Beetroot and dill quinoa risotto with parsnip crisps. Costs start at just £6. Within their first year of trading, they were voted the UK’s favourite recipe box company on Trustpilot. 

Keeping it local and authentic

For these specialist recipe-box companies, the stress is on provision of local, authentic produce preferably from within the UK. “We look for good quality, British seasonal products.” Humprhies emphasises. “When we talked to vegetable farmers in the West Country about it, they were quickly interested saying that ‘it was nice to be involved in a new industry’. They were fed up with supermarkets and wanted something different. They like the certainty with us. We work closely with suppliers so we know what is going to be available. It is not quite at the Blue Apron scale as in America where they are acquiring farms, but we will adjust for situations like weather problems.” 

As meal kits take off, they are requiring suppliers to alter their packaging. “We had to talk to suppliers about modifying packaging to allow for two portions of spinach in a bag,” says Humphries. “Greens have to be in a perforated bag to allow them to breathe and tomatoes and avocados carefully packed so they cannot be squashed.” 

Retail repercussions

Retail analyst Daniel Lucht at Research Farm raises the issue of how retailers are beginning to investigate opportunities. “Meal kits are still a very small market, but growing,” he says. “It could ultimately be a good fit for grocers. Last year, we saw a Danish grocer for the first time put meal bags into stores. Consumers could pick up a meal bag with everything needed for that meal. It is relatively straightforward, they could just grab it and go. It does expand cooking skills and encourages consumers to try vegetables and fruits you might not otherwise have tried. It is a way too for retailers to compile simple meal bags as a way of getting rid of fresh produce near its sell by date. I have heard that a US retailer has been doing this. There is a lot of growth possible in the meal-kit sector and it is definitely expanding the market.” 

One meal kit company, Scratch, is already selling its produce within selected Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Booths and Budgens stores as well as online at Ocado. A young company, it has joined forces with Michel Roux Snr, and provides fresh food which is fully chopped and prepared. All the consumer has to do is follow the instructions and cook it. 

Consumer feedback at Mindful Chef highlights the emergence of changes for supermarket shopping. “Mindsets are changing,” warns Humphries. “Consumers have been telling us how it is actually saving them money. They don’t have to go to the supermarket as often, and do not get distracted by all the extras available in store encouraging you to buy more than you want. People are using the meal kits three or four nights a week, and say they have become more disciplined in their shopping. There will still be a need for supermarkets, but it will be much more reduced. What will go into the recipe boxes will increase further in time, a company in America is already providing bottles of wine with the meal.” 

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