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Innovation and Digital Food Landscape, Part Two: Home Meal Delivery

What can the fate of yesteryear’s meal-assembly kitchens teach us about today’s digital home meal assembly?

mushroom noodle casseroleSolution-based marketing is arguably the oldest tool in the marketer’s arsenal. 

Industrialization led to the creation of an entire category of household appliances, labor-saving devices, and tools and gadgets, all designed to make domestic life easier and less burdensome. Of course, the kitchen was a primary target. All manner of refrigerators, stoves and ovens began being marketed as “dream solutions” to meal preparation needs. 

Soon to follow were the modern incarnations of packaged foods and grocery stores that continue to play a fundamental role in household food needs and meal preparation activities. And while the quality and variety of ingredients and food preparations have evolved considerably, problem solving and convenience remain the target of most marketing platforms and propositions. 

Convenience was surely the primary driver behind those meal-assembly kitchens that began popping up in strip malls all across America about ten years ago. As a reporter on NPR explains:[1] 

“The idea is pretty simple: you pay $150 or so for a big pile of chopped ingredients. Then you spend a few hours in a restaurant-style kitchen putting together a week's worth of ready-to-cook meals you take home and stick in the freezer.” 

Unfortunately for the proprietors, many of these meal-assembly retail franchises haven’t fared too well. The biggest thing most of these franchises failed to understand is that their version of convenience is not so compatible with the way many American households live, shop, cook and eat. 

We live complicated lives. Our food preparation and meal needs are increasingly dictated by a wider variety of occasions – many more than these solutions could have foreseen. Likewise, our tastes and preferences are much more fluid, subject to the whims of every member of the household, every day of the week. Gone (mostly) are the days of meatloaf Monday and catfish Friday. 

A large container of enchiladas may have seemed logical when assembled in one of these kitchens and stuffed in the freezer. But when your week evolves into an unforeseen series of events like rescheduled softball practices, late work meetings and sick children demanding macaroni and cheese, those enchiladas quickly begin gathering freezer dust. 

Now we are encountering a new breed of these propositions in the form of home delivery meal solutions more closely aligned with contemporary food occasions and cooking habits, and our diverse tastes and preferences. 

Start-ups like Blue Apron and Plated operate as subscription models, with weekly deliveries of typically two or more uncooked meal kits. These kits contain just the right amount of ingredients and spices needed to prepare an interesting home-cooked meal with only minimal time and effort. In addition to eliminating the need for shopping (at least for the meal), premeasured ingredients mean that you can save money by not having to buy several bottles of obscure spices just to make one Thai dish. 

Speaking of Thai, another selling point of these services is that their unique, often global, recipes and ingredients help consumers build culinary expertise and hone cooking skills, and encourage food passion at all levels. 

Blue Apron and Plated are currently attracting a lot of attention and buzz. But to avoid the fate of those meal-assembly kitchens, these services must find a way to stay relevant once the buzz begins to fade. 

The challenges of a subscription service offering creative, unique meal solutions are many. 

Our lives often cannot guarantee twice weekly sessions of culinary exploration and inspiration. Shifting occasions place different demands on our meal preparation needs. Sometimes we may just decide that we aren’t interested in cooking for a week or two. A review of both Blue Apron and Plated (found here at echoes some of these points. 

The recipe currently featured on Plated’s website is White Pizza with Buffalo-Sriracha Chicken and Yogurt Ranch and comes with 16 different ingredients and requires 40 minutes of preparation.  

Some of us think this sounds awesome, others less so. But how often can we find the enthusiasm and energy to dive into something like this? We may well have selected this from the menu for our weekly delivery, but what happens if there is an unforeseen week of sub-freezing weather and we decide we just want to dine on soup and stew for the week? 

We could go on, but you get the picture. 

To be clear, we believe these services do, in fact, have legs. And they will likely influence, at some level, the evolution of digital home delivery in the near term. 

But our goal here is to move beyond the realm of prediction, conjecture and opinion. We’re demonstrating how consumer and cultural insights can allow us to better understand and evaluate the crowded landscape of digital food delivery.  

Without question, things are heating up in this arena. But if you don’t understand how we are living, shopping, cooking and eating, the chances are good that your model will prove no more successful than those meal-assembly kitchens of a bygone era that never had much in common with our own kitchens. 

DIGITAL FOOD LIFE 2014: The definitive report about the cultural framework for understanding how consumers interact and integrate digital technologies into their lives and the resulting influence on broader food culture. 


Consumer Package Goods Culture Retail/Shopper Insights Technology/Social Media Foodservice/Restaurant


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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