Web Exclusive | August 2017 | By Kevin Hardy

What's Driving the Meal-Kit Movement

At-home delivery meal kits have disrupted the entire spectrum of the American food market.
Tijuana Flats' "Hardly Homemade” take-home taco meal kits include about six servings of protein, jalapenos, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, tortillas, and chips. Tijuana Flats
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The new “Hardly Homemade” take-home taco meal kits at Tijuana Flats are not the fruit of detailed customer surveys, in-depth focus groups or sophisticated market research. The easy, portable meal kits came from personal experience.

Monique Yeager, the 130-unit brand’s CMO, wanted to bring dinner to a friend whose husband was being treated for leukemia. Her friend was busy running between home and the hospital and had little time to think about getting dinner together for the kids.

So Yeager resolved to stop by a local Tijuana Flats store and bring dinner over. The fast-casual Tex-Mex concept is known for customizable nachos, tacos, burritos, and salads, among other items.

“But I didn’t want to have to burden her with, ‘what all do you want?’” Yeager says. “So the general manager at the restaurant put together a kit for me with all the ingredients that would be needed to make different kinds of tacos. It was great. I took it to them and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awesome.’”

Yeager soon took the idea to the company’s CEO. And in July, the “Hardly Homemade” kits hit stores. Priced at $31.99, they include about six servings of protein, jalapenos, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, tortillas, and chips.  

Aside from being better suited for travel than already-assembled tacos and nachos, Yeager says the price point makes the bundle a better value than buying six individual menu items for a family dinner. And the convenience allows the company to compete with at-home meal delivery kits like those offered by Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. That market is estimated to have already topped $5 billion annually, with some industry analysts predicting annual growth upward of 25 percent.   

“For us, we look to break into the space and focus on what our customers really want and need instead of what everybody else is doing,” Yeager says. “We’re serving our current customer base, who we felt had a need. I think there’s a lot of people out there who have these kinds of experiences—single moms, single dads, families on the run. It’s just a busier lifestyle now. So this makes for an easy meal at home.”

For Tijuana Flats, the meal kits allow the brand to still provide plenty of options for customization, since family members can pick their own taco toppings and fillings around the dinner table. But that customization comes in the form of one simple, convenient menu item.

“Our brand is by its nature very customizable,” Yeager says. “I think that’s what’s so appealing to people is the fact that we customize everything and everything is made to order. This is no different. It’s made-to-order in a meal kit.”

At-home delivery meal kits have disrupted the entire spectrum of the American food market, from restaurants to grocery stores. And with the entrance of online giant Amazon into the marketplace, experts are predicting even more growth.

Robert Jones, senior VP of Business Development for meal kit service Chef’d, says some predict the market could reach $35 billion by 20205. 

“I think that might be low. We’re seeing a lot of retail and other players like Amazon get into the space,” he says. “We see growth and accelerated interest in meal kits even as recent as the last 90 days. With Amazon getting into the market, it’s really turned up the volume across the board.”

Jones says meal kits are increasingly appealing to a wide array of demographics: both young and old, the health-conscious and indulgent eaters, and the budget-conscious as well as those looking for more premium foods.

“I think there’s definitely an experiential component of meal kits that differentiates itself from traditional grocery or restaurants,” he says. “You’re educating, it’s a family experience and you’re interested in food and making new foods in an entirely different way and breaking out of the traditional 10 to 15 meals that families usually cook at home. It allows you to step outside those normal dinner-time options and try something new.”

Chef’d has sought to appeal across the market, offering both inexpensive and high-end options. The brand offers vegan, vegetarian and paleo options, as well as comfort food staples like burgers. For the youngest consumers, Jones says, the company’s research has found that convenient, quick and easy meals are a must. That’s why Chef’d offers special options geared specifically toward busy college students.

“We altered some of the recipes to curate specific meal solutions and recipes that really made sense for that college consumer,” he says. “And as you kind of go up the food chain―pardon the pun― millennial moms still have the same problems with time, how to manage a household, soccer practice everything else, to get dinner on the table.”

The ever-busy lifestyles of Americans led Chick-fil-A to introduce take-home, fully prepared meal kits. The brand is currently testing its Family Style Meals in three markets.

“I think it goes back to people feeling busy with so many daily responsibilities but still wanting to maintain a sense of normalcy and consistency,” says Matt Abercrombie, manager of menu development. “Mealtime is meant to be a time of happiness, but for some the logistics of finding time to grocery shop and prepare a meal take away the joy of dining. Through this test, we wanted to see if providing a one-stop shop to our customers could simplify their lives and enable them to enjoy more quality time with their families.”

Starting at $29.99, the meals include an entrée that serves four plus two side items and eight mini rolls. Customer response will dictate whether the meal kits stick around, but Chick-fil-A says it designed the kits in partnership with a group of parents yearning for a simple meal solution or the whole family.

“Many of them told us they simply don’t have time to sit down for dinner as a family, and they helped us create Family Style Meals as a solution,” Abercrombie says. “Family Style Meals is about more than just the food. It’s an easy meal kit that can be ordered inside the restaurant or through the drive-thru, but it’s also about connecting over a shared meal, instead of individual orders.”

Aside from meeting the growing needs for everyday family dinners, bundled meals can help win over customers looking to take the hassle out of at-home entertaining. Wing Zone CEO and co-founder Matt Friedman says customers―including himself―love the simplicity of the brand’s Pack Meals, which come with wings, sides, dipping sauces and celery.

“I’ll order from Wing Zone and bring everything home for everyone,” Friedman says. “To me, it’s a better experience than going out. I think entertainment at home is a very strong trend.”

The Pack Meals range from $19.99 to $49.99, feeding just a couple people to groups as big as nine. With bulk meal solutions, consumers are not necessarily just looking for the cheapest option, Friedman says.

“I don’t think it’s so much about price point. It’s about a fair value and it’s about simplicity,” he says. “Someone may say that party pack you do is $49.99. I understand that, but that is a lot of food to bring home that could feed six to nine people. So you start breaking it down per person and it actually becomes an affordable option.”

Wings are an obvious fit with sporting events, so Friedman says it’s no surprise that Wing Zone outlets receive lots of big orders on NFL Sundays and NCAA Saturdays.

“It’s not uncommon for us to get $50 orders constantly on a Friday, Saturday Sunday. People are home and they want to entertain,” he says. “A lot of it is related to convenience, people having busier lives, them wanting to stay home. I even relate it to a sports environment: There’s still the sports bars that do well, but there’s a lot of people that like to entertain at home.”