The frying pan pizzas sold out in 37 seconds.
“Pizza in the Post,” the meal kit by Pizza Pilgrims which allows customers to make the restaurant’s Neapolitan-style pizza in a frying pan, has been so successful that the food truck-turned-chain has opened a permanent production facility in Herne Hill, south London. The purpose-built unit handles all the prepping, packing and distribution of the kits as well as further product development, with family kits, picnic kits and limited editions in the pipeline. “The future of the kits is being able to have the space. We had a heyday during lockdown and then it came off the boil a bit as the world came back, but I feel like now they will grow. I love that they work so symbiotically with the business,” says Thom Elliot, Pizza Pilgrims’ co-founder. “It’s the first time the brand has been available to people nationwide; we have sold hundreds of kits in Edinburgh, for example. Would we consider opening outside of London in the future? Absolutely, yes.”
Following a sales surge for subscription meal boxes like Hello Fresh and Gousto, restaurant DIY kits like the frying pan pizza flourished during coronavirus lockdown. Allowing diners to recreate cult dishes from some of their favourite venues, the business model originally aimed to provide a vital revenue stream in the face of enforced closure and lost trade. But it has taken off to such an extent that some operators have made meal kits a permanent fixture alongside their reopened restaurants, and with the summer glow of the government’s Eat Out to Help out scheme fading, the new 10 p.m. hospitality curfew, and anticipated local lockdowns through autumn and winter, the meal kits may yet play an even more crucial role in restaurants’ survival. But do customers still want them this time around?
For Bleecker, whose cheeseburgers consistently rank among London’s best, adapting the model opened up a consumer base all over the U.K. Hiring a third party to box and distribute its cheeseburger kit meant burger fans outside of London could enjoy a product before only available in the capital — at just the time when travelling there was infeasible. Director Zan Kauffman says, “We send the sauce and seasoning to the third party and the bun and beef get delivered directly to them. It puts almost no pressure on the business and ticks along in the background. From a profitability perspective, there have been some weeks where it has outperformed even our Spitalfields site.”
She adds, “it was more appealing than offering takeaway during lockdown for several reasons: you are operating in a closer circle of people and the bubble isn’t penetrated — an example of why people would be more willing to cook at home. It’s all about limiting the risk; we would have flown on takeaway but it was a scary time to put our team in that position. But what captures me is that it tastes just as good at home as it does in the shop. It is such a simple product and we are getting people from all over trying it.”
The basic appeal of subscription-only cooking schemes is clear: they take the planning out of cooking for those needing inspiration or strapped for time with other responsibilities. Companies, such as HelloFresh — which operates in 12 countries delivering around 6 million meals a month — and MindfulChef, which saw demand during lockdown rise 452 percent, are thriving. Gousto sold more in the first six months of 2020 than the whole of last year and is planning to hire 1,000 new staff by 2022 to facilitate its expansion, according to the Guardian.
What sets the restaurant kits apart from these competitors is that they are based on recipes that already have a loyal following of regular restaurant punters and — with online platforms like Pezu and GreatFood2U stocking favourites such as Bleecker’s cheeseburger, Sambal Shiok’s laksa, Gunpowder’s Kashmiri lamb chops and Homeslice’s pizzas — ordering is straightforward. Ishtar Mahdi, a meal kit enthusiast and dentist, says, “The more you buy from small businesses, the more these places stick around. London has a real community spirit and wants to keep their independent operators. We have bought kits from all of our favourite operators as it’s better than a takeaway; making it at home doesn’t compromise the taste or quality of the food.”
Steven Tran, behind the popular Instagram account, @tranvfood, agrees. “I wouldn’t order a DIY kit from a brand I haven’t heard of. I am quite London-centric and I think a lot of operators who have an established brand on social media can be an advantage.”
That “Pokémon effect.” being able to collect and try different kits from favourite operators, has become a significant selling point. For Eater London Award-winning chefs Zijun Meng and Ana Gonçalves, it was an opportunity to sell one of London’s most famous sandwiches when lockdown ground their operations to a halt.
Tātā Eatery and Tōu’s celebrated Iberico pork katsu sando meal kit, based on the viral dish, launched in August. “It’s about having something special that cannot be replicated elsewhere,” says Gonçalves. “To make a sandwich like ours is very sensitive. If people take the time to cook it, it is key to maintaining its integrity. As a consumer myself, if I have an interesting product to cook, that really appeals and is something I can’t get with a takeaway. The merchandise element is definitely there, I have seen lots of cute things; it all goes with the packaging.”
Tran adds, “People who buy into kits are those who love restaurants but there is also that “Ikea-bias” which places creative value on things you have made yourself.” Operators say that customers are still looking to add a “wow factor” to their home cooking or to find something different for a special occasion in, even as the restaurants behind the kits have enjoyed returning customers. Pizza Pilgrims’ Elliot says, “With our product, there is a sense of a magic trick in there, making it in the frying pan — if we can give you the feeling that you have got the gold medal — that’s the key.”
But not every dinner needs a gold medal. The kits have faced challenges, with novelty — and its corollary, disposability — among them. Co-founder of Shad Thames pasta specialist Legare Jay Patel, who introduced pasta and sauce kits, is unconvinced about longevity. “For some, it is a really strong revenue stream but it’s difficult to predict the novelty factor. I’m not sure they will ever be as popular as a straightforward takeaway. Will people get bored? Why will people buy them frequently if they can dine out? Though, I think people may order home kits with a constantly evolving menu.”
Restaurateurs and consumers alike attest to their success being product dependent. Sally Abé, chef at The Harwood Arms, which discontinued its Sunday lunch at home kit, offering the gastrooub’s legendary roast beef, describes a “disconnect” that still exists with consumers expecting pre-packaged food and not anticipating the risk that goes with cooking a hefty, and expensive, cut of beef just like the Michelin-starred restaurant from whence it came. Patel agrees — “We provide everything pre-portioned to the customer and just leave the assembly to them, as we believed people did not want to spend too much time cooking their own food” — and influencer Kar-Shing Tong, alias @ks_ate_here, thinks the disparity between cooking and convenience may become a sticking point:
“I know some restaurants who started doing at home kits and as the market has become more saturated, they have stopped. From a consumer perspective I have enjoyed them; I am confident enough in the kitchen and these meal kits have realised that confidence but it’s true some meal kits have been successful because of convenience. To call a pasta kit actual cooking is a joke.”
Operators are nevertheless already thinking about how to evolve and stay relevant. Bleecker is collaborating on guest burgers with other chefs. Pizza Pilgrims is exploring the idea of personalised pizzas and corporate cook-alongs with Thom and co-founder, James Elliot, over lockdown’s breakout star, Zoom. For The Harwood Arms, the need for evolution was what ended the meal kit dream altogether: logistics are an obstacle for operators without several branches or the resources to open dedicated facilities. Abé explains that to justify the labour of compiling the box, The Harwood Arms would have had to regularly sell more than 100 a week, and something that is a weekly mainstay dish at her restaurant doesn’t necessarily translate into this new market: “The general public wants the next new thing quite a lot. At first it was really good for us but it got really saturated really quickly.”
There is some argument for long-term viability. Much loved, dog-eared cookbooks will always have a place in home kitchens but the meal kits offer fast and simple instructions as well as the benefit of restaurant-quality ingredients. Uncertainty lies ahead for restaurants for as long as there is no COVID-19 vaccine; the new coronavirus curfew, and job support measures that rely on restaurants being “viable” in these tough conditions lie in wait for the next few months and could push meal kits back into their essential role.
Legare’s Patel says that “while affordability is the key difference between boxes and subscriptions, if the logistics are in place, I think it is definitely worth the labour. Even if you sell 200 a week that’s a few thousand pounds on your bottom line which still contributes to people’s salaries. We did them for people who still don’t feel comfortable dining in public places and so our business was protected and we could keep employees should this happen again.”
The people eating the kits agree. For Mahdi, “if it is something that continued in future we would definitely still buy them. We can’t always go out to a restaurant with a young baby and aren’t able to enjoy Soho or food markets like we used to. There are plenty of people that will also still work from home. This way, we can still have food from all the restaurants we love.”