No one got into meal kits for the fun of it. Packing up pre-prepared food for a customer perhaps hundreds of miles away was not the reason why most chefs got into the profession. And adding a series of logistical headaches — reallocation of space, different quality-control standards, appropriate packaging, national distribution — to an already tenuous business model was no restaurateur’s idea of a good time.

And yet as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified during the second half of 2020, more and more of London’s restaurants found themselves moving toward some form of prepare-at-home option — often in addition to more conventional delivery, but in many cases entirely separate from it. Fast-casual brands like burger and pizza chains Patty & Bun and Pizza Pilgrims led the way, with the Pilgrims’ frying-pan pizza kits reportedly selling out in 37 seconds; in time, even Michelin-starred restaurants like Kitchen Table, Core by Clare Smyth, and Lyle’s were offering customers the opportunity to prepare a multicourse tasting menu in the comfort of their own homes.

Today, meal kits are ubiquitous enough that they can be summarised in handy listicles — Eater London’s own contains 70 entries — or purchased in online marketplaces (one aggregator, Plateaway, offers kits from 45 restaurants, including big hitters like Shake Shack, Berenjak, and Tou).

As 2021 moves forward, though, the meal kit faces an uncertain future. If all goes to plan — and with this government, that’s a big “if” — the country should be returning to restaurants by early summer. Meal kits found their way into the nation’s homes in the absence of an experience that should, if all goes well, be readily available again relatively soon. So can they really be here to stay?

In many cases, being able to keep the lights on was all the reason restaurateurs needed to join the meal kit revolution.

Early in 2020, Troy and Jarrell Johnson had made the difficult decision to close down their Juici Jerk takeaway sites in Tooting in favour of a growing events business and a so-called “dark” kitchen — one that operates purely to service delivery rather than customers in the flesh. When the pandemic hit just weeks later and their entire slate of weddings, birthdays, and other festivities for the year was wiped clean, “We just had to find a new way to survive,” says Troy. “We were operating on Deliveroo and Uber Eats, but that wasn’t sufficient enough to make us stay afloat.”

Inspired by Pizza Pilgrims’ overnight success with their frying-pan pizza offering, and noting that there wasn’t a Caribbean kit available in a meal-kit market still very much in its infancy, they decided to launch a range of DIY jerk chicken kits early in the first lockdown. They initially considered partnering with Great Food 2U, which distributes kits from the likes of Franco Manca, Rosa’s Thai, and Bleecker Burger, but these discussions fell through, and so they decided to go it alone. In the end, acquiring the right packaging when scores of other brands had the same idea meant that it took several months for their product to reach the market.

Now the kits are delivered nationwide via courier every fortnight after a weekly cadence was found to be too demanding on the team; even if the current model doesn’t compare to the thrill of catering a massive party, it at least offers a little more human contact than banging out orders in an impersonal, isolated dark kitchen.

Juici Jerk’s kit, cooked and plated, a meal kit which emerged out of the coronavirus crisis in London

Juici Jerk’s kit, cooked and plated
Juici Jerk [Official Photo]

The majority of orders to date have originated from outside London, allowing the Johnsons to cater to hungry punters as far away as Edinburgh, and feedback has been enthusiastic — one happy customer even credited the kit with saving her relationship. Social media affords another opportunity to interact with and share footage of customers prepping their food and enjoying the end results; it’s “bittersweet”, Johnson concedes, but at least it offers some form of “human connection”.

Human connection was, clearly, one of many collateral casualties of a pandemic that has already claimed over 100,000 British lives. And for the Woodhead Group (which owns Portland, Clipstone, and the Quality Chop House extended universe), the sudden severing of bonds between staff and customers in March last year meant that co-owner Dan Morgenthau was suddenly confronted with the question of what to do with the entirety of his staff. If IRL restaurants offer, per Morgenthau, a “perfect balance of front of house and back of house”, the initial wave of takeaway offerings kept the kitchen busy whilst offering little to occupy the rest of the business. Meal kits presented a neat solution: Chefs liked the reassurance that their food would not be left sitting around on the back of a scooter, getting cold, for one thing. But “the higher price point of a meal kit — and, more pertinently, the number of ‘hospitality’ touches within it (a printed menu, instructions, in some cases a restaurant playlist)” also resulted in “something that is as dependent on front-of-house involvement as back of house.”

But as well as giving him the opportunity to provide gainful employment to staff, meal kits allowed him and his team to reconnect with the people who make the hospitality business worthwhile in the first place: their customers. “As much as you feel an attachment to a restaurant, I genuinely don’t think you can underestimate the extent to which we as restaurateurs and chefs feel a sense of attachment to our guests,” he says. “It’s not the same, but at a time when we really have nothing else to do, it’s probably the closest thing we’re going to get to that interaction.”

Since the start of the first lockdown last year, the Woodhead Group has launched a range of kits and heat-at-home options, from pies and deli staples from the Quality Chop House shop to Quality Wines at Home to more elaborate (and expensive) multicourse feasts under the Quality Chop House and Portland brands — plus Arrosto, a totally new brand specialising in roast chicken.

Morgenthau sees the increasing fragmentation of the meal-kit market — its widening price points, the presence of kits catering to every level of customer skill and culinary sophistication — as evidence of how meal kits have (perhaps only temporarily) replaced restaurants in people’s minds, or emerged as a new, more accessible option for those for whom price and distance might have acted as deterrents in times past. Just as people went to restaurants for different reasons pre-pandemic, they are increasingly looking to kits to provide everything from a fun diversion (think Dishoom’s DIY bacon naan kits) to high-end “special occasion” dining (such as the “Hélène à la Maison” menu offered by three-Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, which with added extras run an eye-watering £383).

The staff at the Woodhead restaurants see the preparation of their kits as a chance to practice a form of socially distanced hospitality, to try to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle specialness of eating in a restaurant dining room. As Portland general manager Gabor Papp notes, the team caters to allergies and dietary restrictions as they would for dine-in customers; gratis desserts, petits fours, and half-bottles of wine frequently find their way into kits as a way of thanking loyal customers or apologising for suboptimal experiences. Papp also points to the personalised cards that he and the team write for each customer — an endeavour that takes them five or six hours every week — as another reason that over a quarter of the meal kits Portland sends out every week are to repeat customers. “How can we maintain a rapport and a relationship when obviously we’re not allowed to see each other or talk to each other?” he found himself asking as the latest lockdown set in. “I think the best way is just to add extra personal touches that we would normally offer in the restaurant. The more effort you put into something, the better the return. I think people really miss that connection — the response has been amazing.”

But, however personalised and thoughtful the service, a meal kit can never truly replicate the enjoyment of dining in, and it is for this reason that Morgenthau doesn’t see kits playing a fundamental role in the Woodhead business model once restaurants fully return. “The thing that most people get a kick from when they work in hospitality is the immediacy of the feedback, and knowing that you have — in a very, very small way — given someone a memorable experience. And I can’t really see a world in which, the second we’re allowed to return to that, that wouldn’t occupy the entirety of our plans and our focus. I guess the key question is: Are we returning to that world?”

Jyotin Sethi has prepared his business for a variety of answers to that question. Sethi — the “J” in JKS, the restaurant group that owns or has invested in some of London’s landmark restaurants, including Gymkhana, Sabor, Lyle’s, Berenjak, and Bao — has spent most of the last year heading up a highly complex, deeply diversified meal kit offering across nine separate retail platforms. At one end of the spectrum is a bao kit for just over £20; at the other is a £250 tasting menu from two-Michelin-starred Kitchen Table’s James Knappett — and then somewhere in the middle are the hybrid online concessions Ambassador General Store and Kash and Kari, which allow punters to buy anything from a £3 jar of cucumber raita to a £180 “Gymkhana Food and Drink Club Experience” home feasting kit.

So perhaps Sethi is understandably bullish on the future of meal kits. But he points to broader changes that have occurred during the pandemic as additional evidence that they’re here to stay. “There will be certain segments who — because they’re working from home more, or because they’re being generally more cautious, or because they’ve made a permanent lifestyle change — instead of four times a week, will eat out three times.”

Berenjak’s kabab meal kit, one of the first in London to gain traction last summer

Berenjak’s kabab meal kit, one of the first in London to gain traction last summer
Berenjak [Official Photo]

For those fortunate enough to remain in good health and steady employment, months of lockdown have also served to subtly tweak the economics of how people consume food in the home: “Because they’re not going out, people have more money to spend, and are spending their money on quality ingredients, and even in their deliveries people want better quality of food at home,” says Sethi. Because of this, he believes that there will be “a permanent place” for meal kits in JKS’s business — one that will, necessarily, replace one of any number of food experiences: an Ocado meal, a takeaway, even a meal in a restaurant.

But with the choices available to consumers now rapidly increasing, maintaining loyalty requires constant innovation (the same level of research and development, according to Sethi, as a bricks-and-mortar enterprise), which adds even more cost on top of the labour and space required to operate in parallel with a functioning restaurant. Without the services of a third party like Dishpatch or Restokit, it is perhaps better to think of meal kits not as a handy additional source of revenue but an entirely distinct business unit.

Coronavirus has shown a remarkable aptitude for disrupting even the best-laid plans. Flexibility and responsiveness to change will also remain vital attributes for any business looking to make it through to the end of 2021 unscathed — as Charlie Mellor, owner of the Laughing Heart and co-founder of the restaurant platform Big Night, knows all too well.

Big Night started off with a model similar to that of sites like Slerp, predominantly geared around offering hot food for collection or delivery. But Mellor has always insisted that what sets his business apart is its abiding love for restaurant culture. And so when Mellor started seeing an “exponential” increase in enquiries from his partner restaurants about expanding into meal kits, he had to listen.

“There’s a lot of research to suggest that this is a market that isn’t going anywhere,” Mellor notes. “I’m not suggesting that in six months’ time, fingers crossed, if we’re all open and things are back to normal, the volume of demand is going to be the same as it is now, but there’s a viable business there. And I think that as an income stream for restaurants, moving forward, it’s valuable.”

The value that meal kits add is not just measured in dollars and cents: It has to do with the format’s ability to offset the often-wasteful ebbs and flows that a buzzy evenings-only spot like the Laughing Heart will inevitably encounter during the week. “The great thing about meal kits,” in Mellor’s eyes, “is that if you cut it off 48 hours before delivery, what you then do is chalk up everything you need and you order that, so there’s no wastage, and you programme your scheduling of staff management around the reality of those 48 hours leading up to delivery. The turnover is there, and if you stack it up against your wage bill, it looks good.”

In the short term, at least, it appears that more restaurateurs are coming to a similar realisation: The aggregator Restokit noticed a four-times increase in incoming enquiries from potential partner restaurants since the third lockdown was announced in January.

The Laughing Heart’s Valentine’s Day meal kit, which included a guinea fowl pithivier, heritage carrots, and a salad of raddichio with blood orange—from one of Hackney’s best restaurants

The Laughing Heart’s Valentine’s Day meal kit, which included a guinea fowl pithivier, heritage carrots, and a salad of raddichio with blood orange
Joe Woodhouse for the Laughing Heart

This provokes an obvious question about how the market will evolve and consolidate in the months to come. Already, it is clear that things are becoming more sophisticated, with kits that include playlists, wine pairings, and even video tutorials — perhaps this is evidence that the market is starting to mature and become more attuned to consumers’ needs. Certainly, restaurants that once offered a single kit are now offering four or five; vegan and vegetarian options are becoming more widespread; kits catering to special occasions like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day are now commonplace. In the likes of Lyle’s midweek box — a simpler, streamlined offering that aims to minimise accompanying faff — there is also a suggestion that operators are course-correcting on the fly, and adjusting in response to some of the more frequent customer bugbears (so many pans, so much washing up).

For Mellor, certainly, it’s evidence of the industry reaping the rewards of some good old-fashioned trial and error. “We’re not chasing our tails entirely anymore. We’ve had a bit of headspace,” he says. “Everybody’s figured out what’s working — you streamline your supply chains; you understand how to get things working, you start to collaborate, either with your distributor (like Big Night) or with other restaurants; you know how to get things; you know how to do things. You’re not trying everything for the first time now.”

Now that the groundwork has been done, Mellor feels that the biggest danger to the growing market is the increasingly “prescriptive” nature of some of the offerings out there. “We all have an opportunity to bring a bit of flair and theatre to the offerings,” Mellor contends. “It’s never going to replace the restaurants — it’s impossible to replace a restaurant; they’re the most magical places on earth — but it can bring a few more loving details to people’s homes.”

Sushi Tetsu, a meal kit available through Big Night. One of London’s finest Japanese restaurants, which has been forced to close as a result of the coronavirus pandemic

Sushi Tetsu, a meal kit available through Big Night
Big Night [Official Photo]

Darjeeling Express’s biryani meal kit by chef Asma Khan

Darjeeling Express’s biryani meal kit
Big Night [Official Photo]

Saturated in pro-restaurant sentiment as Mellor’s worldview might be, it nevertheless chimes with a more rational, cold-hearted view of the market for meal kits. At the moment, the market is fragmented and hard to navigate: Customers looking for a product from a specific restaurant might find it on any number of aggregators, on the restaurant’s own website, or on both. Television’s ongoing Streaming Wars might be a useful point of comparison: In time, perhaps the U.K. will see fewer, larger platforms curating their offerings to appeal to customer groups. And among those surviving big hitters, there is absolutely space for one differentiated by its sense for the theatrical, human flourishes that make dining in some restaurants such a unique pleasure.

But just as consumers visit different restaurants for different reasons, so different restaurants will need to consider different solutions as lockdown restrictions lift and things get back to something approaching normal. They will also have to consider whether it is worth continuing their meal kit offering at all. Mellor insists that, when managed correctly, meal kits can be a viable source of additional income even with the return of dine-in customers. But is everyone so confident they won’t just be playing a zero-sum game?

By definition, every meal heated at home is one not consumed in a restaurant. Meal kits, with their branded packaging, printed menus, and additional flourishes, are clearly designed to mimic the restaurant-going experience in a domestic setting; even the term “kit” carries with it a sense of commitment and effort on the part of the consumer. The end result may only be a simulacrum of restaurant food, occupying a liminal position between two very different sorts of dining room, but receiving a kit and taking the time to prep, consume, and dispose of it is still an activity that happens instead of going to a restaurant.

Mandy Yin is well versed in the quandaries facing restaurateurs as customer demand continues to evolve. When her first restaurant, Sambal Shiok, opened in Highbury in 2018, there was simply no space to operate as anything other than a dine-in operation. The opening of Nasi Economy Rice next door in early 2020 meant that as the first lockdown hit, she finally had additional space to run a takeaway business across both sites, which soon found its way onto Deliveroo, too. Finally, in autumn last year she began to sell a range of meal kits via the online aggregator Pezu.

For her, meal kits were “a way of keeping staff busy earlier on in the week,” before the “fucking manic” peak delivery hours of 7 to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The cut-off for orders on Pezu was 5 p.m. on Mondays; on Tuesdays, Yin and her team would “run like the clappers” to fulfill everything before Pezu sent it out via overnight delivery on Wednesday, to reach customers on Thursday and Friday, in time to reheat and enjoy on the weekend.

In a world without dine-in, this arrangement worked “quite well”, but once Yin’s staff and customers start feeling safe enough to come back in through her doors, she can’t see how it will be possible to keep an additional plate spinning. “I would like to keep takeaway for sure, and delivery, but I would probably have to move it into Nasi’s venue to allow space for the kitchen at Sambal to allow in-house dining again,” she says. But “the amount of work that goes into packing meal kits does not justify the sales. If I’m making more money from in-house and takeaway, I’m going to focus on that, rather than stretching my staff really thin.”

Assam prawns, centre, and curry puffs top-left in the meal kit created by Sambal Shiok’s Mandy Yin

Assam prawns, centre, and curry puffs top-left by Sambal Shiok’s Mandy Yin
Sambal Shiok [Official Photo]

The emergence of brands like Dishpatch, which takes delivery of pre-prepared dishes in bulk and manages everything from portioning to packaging to delivery, suggests a third way for restaurateurs, one which removes a lot of the operational costs and logistical complexity.

For Chantelle Nicholson, chef-owner of Tredwells in Piccadilly and All’s Well in Hackney, it made clear sense for Dishpatch to handle the more arduous logistical aspects of her meal kit offering. “If you’re doing meal kits yourself, they are a huge amount of work, and I doubt the resource will be there when people reopen. With Dishpatch, I just send them everything in big containers, so I don’t portion or pack or anything. That’s why it’s such a clever concept, because it’s the bits that I don’t want to do and the bits that would take me a lot longer to do.”

As some sort of recovery starts to take hold, the model will need to continue to evolve — Nicholson points to the possible slowdown in delivery times that may occur as more and more cars return to the roads; she acknowledges it will be difficult for smaller restaurants to keep their meal-kit offering going without some form of centralised prep space provided by Dishpatch (or one of its competitors). But she can certainly see a world in which remaining in partnership with Dishpatch continues to be worthwhile, especially whilst the path out of the pandemic remains uncertain: “We’re all very nervous about another lockdown even if the vaccination goes well; I think it’s always going to be in the back of our minds as operators. So if you can de-risk that by saying ‘Okay, this is a steady stream of income that I can have each week’, potentially that would be a sensible way forward.”

It is Dispatch’s national reach that is most important here. After all, for something initially adopted as a temporary stopgap to continue to make financial sense for restaurants, what really needs to happen is for meal kits to unlock parts of the market previously inaccessible to them. Many of the people interviewed for this piece suggested that over 50 percent of their meal kits were delivered to addresses outside London; even for restaurants doing less business nationwide, there is the opportunity to delight customers from further afield, growing brand loyalty.

Shortrib raviolo: Part of the Mother’s Day meal kit from Tredwell’s, the central London restaurant by Chantelle Nicholson, which is closed as a result of coronavirus lockdown

Shortrib raviolo: Part of the Mother’s Day meal kit from Tredwell’s

Nicholson herself remarks on how Dishpatch has been a good thing from a marketing perspective, allowing her to broaden her reach to people outside the capital; even though she presides over restaurants never designed for a national rollout, the fact remains she has been able to build a brand outside London without spending the vast sums of money usually associated with this sort of expansion. Add in the power of Instagram and there is a clear “sense of community — albeit on a virtual level.”

The potential for virtual roll-outs outside restaurants’ “local” catchment areas indicates that meal kits’ impact on the restaurant industry may be far more complex than a simple top-up to flagging sales. If restaurants can find a way to manage the logistics of in-house dining and nationwide meal kits in parallel, and if those nationwide kits can coexist alongside dine-in services, then there are undeniably some interesting ramifications for the hospitality industry at large.

For an industry not averse to occasional bouts of mania for The New New Thing, could meal kits disrupt or otherwise undermine that most hallowed of PR-driven rituals, the buzzy Central London launch? If restaurant merch has indeed become the new band T-shirt, could the “drop” of a new meal kit become the new restaurant opening, as gleefully fixated-upon by industry hypebeasts keen to show their bona fides and gain first-through-the-(front)-door bragging rights?

Perhaps not even some of London’s most-entrenched hierarchies are safe. Pre-meal kits, a lot of the perceived prestige conferred upon certain restaurants was a function of scarcity: a single dining room at a specific address which was frequently booked up months in advance, or had a 90-minute walk-ins queue seconds after opening its doors. Now, diners are entering a reality in which a Pizza Pilgrims kit can be delivered (almost) anywhere on the U.K. mainland; now, diners are entering a reality in which a customer so inclined can eat an entire feast from Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant Gymkhana on the sofa in their pyjamas.

Like an influencer flatlay of a #gifted meal kit, everything’s on the table. The only open question is how long it’s going to last.

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