Heather Kaufman recently took over her parents’ apartment in New York while they ride out the coronavirus pandemic in New Jersey. To stock the fridge, “I had to go to the local grocery store, which has very narrow aisles. It was a little tense,” she says. “It reminded me of avoiding the ghosts in Pac-Man, but with other people.” The options at the store were limited — just some pork and “beef chuck, sirloin steak, and ribeye, which is weird but I guess people are still watching their cholesterol,” she jokes. So she signed up for an account with Blue Apron, one of a number of meal kit delivery services that predate the novel coronavirus outbreak, but which seem particularly suited to a customer base wary of grocery runs. Kaufman cooked her first meal and says she loved it.
Until recently, services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh provided guidance to novice home cooks or just simple convenience to everyone else — but the industry has historically had trouble maintaining customers. During the crisis, though, the services have taken on renewed significance for customers staying at home to follow social-distancing recommendations or shelter-in-place orders. What was once a perk of the direct-to-consumer lifestyle has become a lifeline for those avoiding grocery stores, and a chance to learn a new recipe or practice an old skill in the kitchen. “We believe home cooking is an opportunity to find some comfort and joy in this rather uncertain time,” a representative for Blue Apron tells Eater.
Blue Apron and HelloFresh both witnessed surges in demand in recent weeks, and investors took notice immediately. On March 18, while markets fell so fast they triggered circuit breakers, Blue Apron shares were up 140 percent in midday trading. Meanwhile, according to Google Finance, HelloFresh’s stock price was also on the rise, from $20 on March 16 to $26.50 two days later, before continuing on to nearly $30 by March 25. While HelloFresh’s stock price has been consistently rising since late 2019, the increased business is especially good news for Blue Apron. After a rocky IPO in 2017, Blue Apron’s stock declined from $10 per share down to under a dollar in December 2018. According to a representative, Blue Apron is capitalizing on renewed consumer interest with a bevy of social media engagement opportunities, including instructional videos on cooking with pantry staples, a Q&A with head chef John Adler, a primer on throwing a virtual pizza party for kids, and digital wine tastings.
For many, meal kits serve as part of a larger diet, accounting for just a few meals each week. Even when they don’t entirely obviate the need for groceries, they can still help reduce reliance on overburdened, overpopulated grocery stores. Curt Abercrombie, a compliance analyst in Spring Valley, Nevada, and a new customer for health-minded Sun Basket, says meal kits help him do his part to maintain social distance. “I signed up recently because of the high demand at the grocery stores. I try to eat healthy, and I was having trouble putting healthy meals together with what was left on the shelves,” he says. While he’s not too fearful personally about infection, he adds, “I figure with Sun Basket, it will save me one to two trips a week. I’m trying to help flatten the curve.”
When Saqi Mehta, a global recruiting diversity lead at Cloudera in San Francisco, signed up for Blue Apron, the novel coronavirus didn’t yet concern her, but she says she appreciates the variety of meals and fresh ingredients now more than ever. Still, she remains careful with deliveries, explaining, “I’m trying to wait an hour before taking anything out if I can, using gloves and wipes, and throwing away the box as soon as possible.”
Mehta has used Blue Apron on and off, canceling past memberships because she just “couldn’t get into it.” Extra time at home, though, has helped her stick to the routine. Meal kits now represent a quarter of meals for her and her husband.
Kaufman, who tried the service for a week in 2018 while studying for the bar exam, echoes that sentiment, adding, “What better time to try it than right now? I’m in an apartment by myself and my boyfriend is on the other side of the city. There’s only so much FaceTime you can do to occupy your time. TV is great, but at some point even TV gets old and boring.” One of her friends has taken up embroidery, she says, but she’s decided to use her time indoors to improve her cooking skills, which before this were limited to boiling water and microwaving.
Cost has long been a barrier to entry to meal kits for many customers. Blue Apron, for instance, starts at $9.99 per portion, with a minimum of four portions (two meals for two people) per week. For a family of four, the weekly cost quickly mounts to hundreds of dollars.
Mehta is accustomed to high prices for delivery in San Francisco, so pricey meal kits don’t worry her. She even feels it’s worth it to spring for Blue Apron’s premium meals, which bump up the price by $10 per portion, but give customers higher-end options, like chicken wrapped in prosciutto with sage.
The grocery math doesn’t add up for everyone, though. Bridget Halenar, food photographer, blogger, and creator of Optimistic Kitchen, lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf has issued a stay-at-home order. While the order doesn’t prevent her from going out to buy essential goods, she signed up for HelloFresh (one of a number of meal kits she intends to try out for an ongoing project). As a regular cook, Halenar says, “The cost is quite a bit more than I’m used to paying to feed my family and still have the cooking and dishes to do. … Budget-wise it only really helps if it keeps you from eating out.” Still, she has to admit the kits have benefits. “It gives me a break from a couple of meals per week [because] I can have my husband and son make dinner ... the kit has everything they need and they can handle it on their own while I walk the dogs, or [do] yoga, or have some tub time.”
Rachel Duncan, a receptionist in the Scottish Borders, is another recent HelloFresh customer, but she doesn’t intend to remain one permanently. She lives with a partner and her two daughters, and she says she can’t afford meal kits all the time. Duncan picked up a HelloFresh discount code from a friend, which dropped the price on her first box of food, and then shared her own code on Instagram, which netted her another 80 pounds to put toward future deliveries. “I will keep using HelloFresh until my credit runs out, because at full price it does not make financial sense to us,” she says. “I also did this up until last week with a Gousto subscription.”
Other customers have complained about supply. The sudden spike in demand has caused shortfalls in supply chains for a number of companies. On the r/mealkits subreddit, customers of several companies share stories about last-minute meal switches, missing ingredients, delayed deliveries, and reduced selection.
A representative for HelloFresh tells Eater there have been “no major disruptions” to service and that the team is working with suppliers to keep it that way. A Blue Apron representative shared a similar statement, saying the company made substitutions in a small portion of boxes last week and “expects to meet increased demand by the next available weekly cycle, starting on 3/30.” The company is bringing on more help, hoping to hire workers who have lost jobs in the hospitality industry.
Mehta and Kaufman didn’t experience much supply disruption, and both appreciated Blue Apron’s transparent messaging about the situation. They both said they would consider continuing their subscriptions after the pandemic subsides, especially since social distancing helped cement their habit of cooking with meal kits.
It’s unclear whether other customers will stick with them, and the unlikely boon from the novel coronavirus may prove short lived for the meal kit industry. “I think I would pay full price these few weeks if I had to, but not when things are back to normal and I’m able to source things myself and for less money,” Duncan says. “When this is over I’ll use my HelloFresh and Gousto recipe cards, and shop myself.”