When COVID-19 hit, Blaze Pizza chief culinary officer Brad Kent found himself—like many of us in the early weeks of the pandemic—working at home.
“I am a parent as well as a chef, and while working from home and seeing my wife homeschool our kids and try to entertain them throughout the day, meal time became much more challenging,” Kent says. “I thought it would be fun to have a kids’ activity surrounding a meal, to give moms and dads a reprieve from the question of what’s for dinner.”
As a result of Kent’s experience, Blaze began testing DIY pizza kits in April, and then rolled out the offering system-wide in May. The kits allow customers to pick up the ingredients for one, two, or four pizzas from their local Blaze store, then assemble the pies in their own kitchens.
Blaze isn’t the only brand offering at-home creations as a pandemic response. Dunkin’ began offering DIY doughnut decorating sets in May. Bamboo Asia, a four-unit fast casual based in San Francisco, immediately pivoted to kits when its dining rooms closed in March, fully cooking all ingredients via sous vide and packaging them safely and separately for guests to prepare at home.
Off-premises has been the hot-button topic in the industry for some time now, and the pandemic fully drove home the importance of carryout and delivery platforms. But DIY kits take traditional off-premises options a step further. With meal kits, customers can not only bring tastes they crave into their homes, but they can also play a role in the creation process, allowing them a small distraction from the ongoing crisis.
Similar to Blaze, the idea for Dunkin’s kits—which include plain doughnut rings and a variety of frostings and sprinkles—was sparked by personal experience. Matt Cobo, a Dunkin’ franchisee in Concord, California, developed the kits after one of his employees, Norma Valkenaar, asked to bring home some plain doughnuts, frosting, and sprinkles for her two nephews. Cobo then began offering the kits out of all of his franchise stores. Soon after, Dunkin’ began selling the kits across its system, and Jill Nelson, Dunkin’s vice president of marketing strategy, says the brand plans to keep them on offer for the foreseeable future. “This is a small way our brand and franchisees can brighten someone’s day,” she says.
All the components of Bamboo Asia’s meal kits are delivered fully cooked to allow for ease of assembly, wider delivery range, and peak safety. The concept uses a sous-vide method to steam its veggies and proteins and, in the case of the meal kits, steams its ingredients’ packaging as well as an extra sterilization measure. The unassembled ingredients are delivered cold, which increases the amount of time the components can spend in a car.
While these measures result in a meal kit that isn’t exactly labor intensive for the customer, the brand still includes a custom instruction card that includes heating times for each ingredient.
“We also ask our guests to please share any videos or pictures that they have, and their feedback has really encouraged us and made us smile,” Bamboo Asia CMO Hannah Wagner says.
Blaze Pizza’s kits require a bit more effort. Customers receive uncooked dough balls, cups of sauce, cheese, and up to seven toppings. To inform the customer on how to properly bake the pizza, a sticker is attached to ingredient packaging that directs consumers to the company’s site. These online instructions are supplemented with Instagram Live videos of Kent cooking; sometimes he experiments with a traditional pizza recipe, other times he uses the kit’s components to create a different dish, like a pita or panini. “We’re helping families get creative with our ingredients,” he says.
The success that meal kits garnered through the thick of the pandemic doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Kent says that, while Blaze has been doing strong sales of its regular pies due to their portability, the chain is in talks to keep meal kits on as an added offering.
“People are going to be trepidatious about dining out for a long, long, long time,” he says. “We’re talking about keeping these on the menu, maybe even expanding to DIY grilled pizzas.”
The beauty of the meal kit idea, even post-pandemic, is the win-win scenario it presents to both brands and guests. For starters, kits are easy for concepts to assemble, and require minimal labor.
“We were able to launch so fast,” Kent says. “We were already focusing on third-party delivery and piloting tamper-proof packaging, so we had leads on everything we needed for the kits.”
Meal kits also require less assembly on the part of restaurant staff, but are priced competitively with prepared options. At Blaze, a personal pizza kit is $8.95; the Double DIY Pizza Kit charges $15.95 for two pizzas; and the Family Fun kit (four small pizzas) rings up at $18.95. Dunkin’ charges $5.99 for four DIY doughnuts and $9.99 for nine. Bamboo Asia’s kits, which feed two adults, range from $30 to $36.
The price points of all three kits hit slightly higher than the cost of equivalent in-store orders, but customers seem to be willing to pay for the reward of an easy, entertaining dinner experience. Plus, the kits meet customers where they are; as we all continue to deal with the crisis, we can all anticipate spending more time at home.
“Consumer spending has always been evenly distributed between groceries and restaurants in the U.S., but the way customers plan meals has shifted dramatically,” Bamboo Asia’s owner Sebastiaan Van De Rijt says. “They’ve shifted to patronizing grocery stores more, and meal kits can help restaurants recoup some of that shift in spending. So I really think these kits can help restaurants because, if there’s one thing we know for certain right now, it’s that, until we have a vaccine, we’re all going to be spending more time at home.”