Meal-Kit Delivery Services Streamline Cooking, Grocery Shopping

PHOTO: A handful of companies, such as Blue Apron, offer pre-measured ingredients for recipes delivered weekly. Fans say it can save home cooks time and expense.

It's been a common dilemma for the home cook for decades: A new recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon of an unusual ingredient, such as curry paste or caraway seeds, but purchasing an entire bottle of either means the remainder may end up going to waste. If only a service delivered pre-measured groceries to avoid such a conundrum.

But there's good news, reader. Now there are a few.

"I loved to cook, but found it inaccessible," said Matt Salzberg, co-founder of Blue Apron, an arbiter of the meal-kit trend. "[Friend and co-founder] Ilia Papas and I wished there was a service that existed which would send us everything we needed, so we could just enjoy the cooking and the food. We also wanted to cook with interesting, high-end ingredients, but have it still be affordable."

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After incubating the idea for a while, the two recruited a third co-founder, chef Matthew Wadiak to join the team and help make the idea a reality.

"The three of us launched the business in August of 2012, just packing deliveries ourselves and begging our friends to try it," said Salzberg.

In the two years since its humble beginnings in Brooklyn, N.Y., the service has expanded across the country, with members in both metropolitan areas and suburbs. Last week the company was valued at more than $500 million.

Here's how it works: Once-a-week members receive three original recipes along with cooking instructions and all of the fresh and larder ingredients pre-measured to the correct quantities needed to prepare the meals at home. Each recipe serves two people and members can personalize their cooking preferences to reflect diet restrictions, such as vegetarian or pescatarian, by filling out an account profile. A week's worth of meals costs $60.

Since going national, Salzberg said the response to Blue Apron has been overwhelmingly positive.

"In the cities, people enjoy the learning, convenience and the cost savings," eh said. "In the rural areas, people especially appreciate access to varied and farm stand-quality ingredients that they can't get at their local grocery store."

For Nick Taranto and Josh Hix, founders of a competing meal-kit service called Plated, another motivating factor for creating pre-measured grocery boxes was health.

"There was no easy or quick way to get healthy food on the table without all of the hassles of recipe hunting and shopping," said Jared Levan, director of customer experience. "They were both sick of the 'takeout rut' and wanted to find a way to get themselves eating better."

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But Plated works a little differently from Blue Apron: Each week the website offers seven unique recipes that customers can choose from, including three vegetarian and four non-vegetarian options. There are also options for other dietary needs such as dairy-free, no-gluten or low calorie meals. But the biggest difference is that there is no cap on the number of plates one can order from Plated, meaning families with an odd-number of people don't have to force anyone to skip a meal. A membership costs $10 per month plus $12 per plate.

"While the minimum order size is four plates, there really is no maximum order size--we'll fill any order, even if you're trying to pull off a dinner party for you and 30 friends," said Levan.

A growing desire across America to keep the dinnertime experience social has proved to be a boon for both services, representatives said.

"When we first started out, we thought that the main reason people would use Blue Apron would be to try new ingredients and learn new things about cooking," said Salzberg. "And while that's certainly true, we've found that having fun in the kitchen is just as important. We have couples and families that bond together every night over our recipes, just enjoying the experience, rather than watching TV over takeout."

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