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New breed of eat-at-home options vie for restaurant dollars

My relationship with my kitchen is, well, complicated.

As a millennial, I came of age in the era of the farmer’s market, so I have a deep appreciation for a nice locally sourced carrot or a slightly imperfect organic pear. I dutifully read Mark Bittman’s columns and Michael Pollan’s books, so I am well aware that I will live a sad, sub-par, probably bloated life if I refuse to eat at home and choose, instead, to consume the processed junk peddled by America’s industrial food complex. I admit to occasionally binge-watching MasterChef.

But this love of food hasn’t translated into a love of cooking. My mother is a fantastic cook, but she worked full time and in the rush to get dinner on the table by 7, she often relied on semi-prepared foods, like pre-marinated meats or curry mixes. From where I sat, cooking seemed like a drag, something that took time and effort in the midst of an already overcrowded schedule. To quote Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the food studies program at New York University: "Caregiving comes at a cost. Whenever there is a labor of love, there is also a labor of resentment."

When I moved into my first apartment years later, my stovetop seemed foreign and intimidating. At one point during graduate school, in a particularly tiny Bay Area apartment, I used my oven as a filing cabinet.

Now, at age 32, after three years of marriage, my husband and I find ourselves wanting to sit down to a nice home-cooked dinner at the end of the day. But we’re too busy and too inexperienced in the kitchen to make that happen. We eat out a lot, often hitting up Chipotle or our local Vietnamese place on the way home from work, behavior fairly typical of our demographic. Millennials spend more on food outside the home than any other generation, averaging $50.75 a week. As the two of us consider starting a family, we worry about how our culinary ineptitude will impact our future children. We are beginning to wonder whether we even have what it takes to put a proper, nutritious dinner on the table for our little ones.

Enter the meal kit, our partial solution to getting ourselves fed healthily. Every Sunday, we receive a box full of individually wrapped and labeled ingredients for five dinners complete with detailed—and, fortunately for me, idiot-proof—recipes. Just Add Cooking, the service we use, exclusively serves the Boston area and uses largely local produce; it saves us time planning meals and shopping for groceries, an especially gruesome task during winters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While we do not have much choice over the meals we receive, our box is slowly helping us to acclimate to our kitchen (for purposes other than document storage, that is). Although my mother laments that we are paying far more for each meal than she ever spent on groceries for our family, we’ve calculated that we spend slightly less than we would if we were eating out for those meals.

And I'm hardly alone. Technomic, a food-industry consulting firm, predicts that the meal-kit service segment of the market will grow to between $3 billion-$5 billion over the next 10 years based on current adoption rates. People like me are the reason venture capitalists are fire-hosing money at the space in a fairly spectacular fashion: Since boxed-meal startups Blue Apron and Plated launched in 2012, they have raised $58 million and $21.6 million, respectively; the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Blue Apron is in talks to raise a huge new round from investors that would value the company at $2 billion. And HelloFresh, a European meal-kit company founded in 2011 and backed by notoriously competitive startup copycat Rocket Internet, just closed $126 million in Series E funding with the goal of making incursions in the U.S. market. Blue Apron delivers more than two million meals a month, and HelloFresh claims it's already doing twice that volume.

U.S. consumers have a plethora of other meal kits to choose from, each with a slightly different gimmick: ChefDay offers step-by-step videos so you can cook along with chefs (though the company recently announced it would temporarily suspend deliveries for a "crucial phase of transition"); Din cuts up some of the ingredients for you; Peach Dish brings you Southern-inspired cuisine, and smaller, regional companies are popping up around the country like so many shiitake mushrooms.

With all these companies duking it out for the boxed-meal consumer, the question remains: Just how many are there of us to go around, anyway?

Given that restaurants and grocery stores sell $1.2 trillion of food every year, even in the most optimistic scenario meal kits currently constitute one quarter of one percent of food sales—and some think they will remain an extremely specialized solution for a sliver of the population. "I have a hard time believing that this is the way we will eat every single day," says Darren Seifer, food and beverage analyst at the consumer research company NPD Group. "This is a very niche option that is barely even showing up in the data."

Brian Todd, president of the food intelligence nonprofit The Food Institute, says that even if the boxed-meal industry does hit the $5 billion mark, it's still, relatively, peanuts. "It’s important to keep the numbers in perspective," he says. "Even if meal kits grow to that level—which strikes me as extremely rapid growth in one category—it’s such a small portion of the overall food business."

Some food scholars are skeptical as well. "I'm betting that much of this hype is investor-led," says Nina Ichikawa, the policy director at the Berkeley Food Institute. "Basic everyday food is not as profitable as luxury take-out. Investors are excited that there's now a higher-margin item on the horizon. But that doesn't mean there will be an avalanche of customers. I certainly can't afford this stuff."

But investors are betting big that the naysayers are wrong. They are wagering hundreds of millions of dollars that these companies can triumph, in part, by playing on Americans' nostalgic ideas about home and hearth—even if it means higher price tags, packaging waste, and convincing a generation to overcome any qualms it may have about this new way of putting dinner together.

The meal kit is a relatively recent innovation. It was born in Stockholm, Sweden, when Kicki Theander, a mother of three, observed that many families wanted to eat home-cooked dinners but struggled to manage the logistics of meal planning, purchasing, and cooking. In 2007, she launched Middagsfrid (roughly translated: "dinner time bliss"), a service that brought bags of groceries to people’s doors. It was an instant hit. Theander’s brand quickly spread to Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland, and spawned a range of competing companies. At least 10 different meal-kit companies now operate in Sweden alone, and the country's population is under 10 million people.

In the U.S., boxed-meal services were initially adopted by millennial urbanites. "These are people with more expendable income who are looking for convenience and perhaps do not know how to cook on their own," Todd says. Plated, Blue Apron, and HelloFresh are all headquartered in New York and although they are available nationwide, they tend to do particularly well in cities like New York and San Francisco where grocery shopping can be a challenge because many people don’t have cars. "Our customers are primarily living in and around major metro areas," Nick Taranto, Plated’s co-CEO and cofounder tells Fast Company. "They are largely college-educated, dual-income families with no kids."

Nicole Marshall, a marketing professional in her early thirties, first started using Blue Apron when she was living in New York City, but found it less appealing when she moved to Denver. "The idea of cooking at home in New York is a pain because you’re hauling groceries all over town," she says. "But in Denver, I pass by three grocery stores on the drive home from work, and there’s a thriving farmer’s market scene on the weekends. None of my colleagues here had ever heard of these boxes."

Big-city dwellers are also used to spending a lot of money on food, since the cost of living tends to be high where they live. This is another reason they might be more amenable to boxed meals, which are an expensive proposition. Taranto says that his target demographic is what he describes as the "evolved eater," which is, according to Plated's proprietary research, a 31 million strong segment of the American population that cares deeply about the quality of their food and has enough disposable income to invest in eating well. Taranto says that while $12 a meal is a costly dinnertime time option for many, it is a reasonable expense to a segment of consumers whose alternative options include eating out, either at fast casual chains like Panera Bread or at fine dining establishments, or buying groceries from upmarket grocery stores like Whole Foods. "We’ve been very deliberate about going after the high end first," he says. "As our logistical network expands we will be able to deliver at lower price points to more and more people."

Of course, the urban, dual-income, no-kids demographic is a limited and fleeting one—when my husband and I have kids and a mortgage, for instance, will our weekly box still seem like a worthwhile expense? Will boeuf bourguignon and seafood paella go down well with the toddler set?

This is something the boxed-meal companies are thinking about, too. In December 2014, Blue Apron announced it was offering a Family Plan that would feature kid-friendly dishes designed to serve four people at a cost of $8.74 a person, or $34.96 per meal. In its press release, it announced that this new product would allow it to start "doubling its addressable market." Given that the average American family spends $151 on groceries for the whole week, or $21 for an entire day, Blue Apron’s program is over many families’ budgets. Still, Matt Salzberg, Blue Apron’s founder and CEO, says that the family plan has quickly become a sizable proportion of the company’s overall business, although he declined to provide hard numbers. He also insists that the box offers customers good value. "It’s very affordable," he tells me. "Try to go shopping for our recipes at Whole Foods or at any other grocery store. Besides not being able to find many of the ingredients, it would cost you 60% more." (This may well be true, but the products at a supermarket would almost certainly come in larger sizes and could be used for multiple meals, and one could shop for recipes requiring simpler and more affordable ingredients.)

For some upper-middle-class families who are already shopping at premium grocery stores like Whole Foods or eating out a lot, though, meal boxes are a viable option. Take Stella Loven, a working mom in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her job as the president of the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce in New England keeps her days full, but when she comes home, she wants to create nutritious meals for her four-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. "The pressure is on: you want to be a good mom, you want to lose the baby weight, you want to be a good wife, all while being super fun. It’s just very hard," she tells me. "Sometimes I wish I hadn’t read all those books about what processed food does for your body: It just adds more anxiety when I come home and need to prepare dinner for my kids."

oven’s stresses are fairly typical: according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working women spend more than twice as long as working men cooking meals and cleaning up afterwards. Loven's weekly meal box cuts down on time spent meal planning and grocery shopping, although there's still the prep time of 30 minutes, give or take 15 minutes, a meal. She tried Blue Apron for a while and eventually settled on Just Add Cooking. Every week, she spends $139 for five four-person dinners, which translates to $6.95 per person per meal, or $27.80 for each dinner. Jan Leife, Just Add Cooking’s co-founder and managing partner, says that family boxes represent 60% of the company’s sales.

As boxed-meal companies grapple each other for control of the American dinner plate, it is worth asking just how, exactly, they may be changing our relationship with food. After all, food is not just about nutrition: it is also about culture, community, family traditions. My conversations with the founders of meal-kit companies demonstrate these companies are not just thinking about the practical needs of their clients, but also the emotion tied to preparing food and gathering around the table to eat it. While Americans may feel nostalgic for the romance of the family dinner depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings, many don't feel equipped to cook due to lack of time or skill.

"Part of why this is such a big idea is because we’re connecting our aspiration to cook and share food to the reality of a busy modern life," says Taranto of Plated. "We have this primal desire to eat food together. But a lot of people in our parents' generation did not learn how to cook, so many of us did not have the opportunity to learn from them. In some ways, the family dinner stopped with our grandparents."

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