Restaurant Meal Kits Strike Balance for Brands
Food businesses strategize to deliver their distinct dining experience to home cooks with subscription-free DIY elements.
As New York City dining rooms sit empty for the third month of uncertainty in the industry, chefs continue making menus more amenable to at-home dining.
Takeout, of course, is as essential to any New Yorkers’ regular diet as a cold glass of New York tap water, but eating a tepid version of one’s favorite restaurant dish out of a plastic container hardly recreates the experience of sitting in a restaurant. Enter: the restaurant meal kit. This new spin on the previously online-only services offered by cooking startups like Blue Apron re-creates restaurant-quality dishes, deconstructing the recipes piece-by-piece for the diner-slash-cook to enjoy at home. Hot, fresh and plated however they see fit.
Trendy East Village Japanese eatery Bessou is vending DIY meal kits, dim sum legend Nom Wah Tea Shop is selling frozen dumplings to cook at home, and new Korean prix-fixe spot Kochi has re-created its menu to offer family meal kits for $150. Even Shake Shack has reenvisioned its takeout to vend ShackBurger kits via Goldbelly.
Sweetcatch Poke, where Restaurant & Culinary Management instructor Michael Eisenberg is the chief of strategy, shared the process of launching a completely new meal kit menu to sustain business at its five Manhattan fast-casual restaurants for customized poke bowls.
“We’re always looking at ways to serve our customers and thought it would be fun to create meal kits which are easy to make,” says President and Chief Marketing Officer Silvana Nardone. “With all the quarantine cooking going on in the world, it seemed like an easy way to help people feed themselves and their families and make their day a little better or tastier.”
Sweetcatch’s staple meal kit menu includes five hot dishes: sesame rice with bacon, Brussels sprouts and tahini drizzle; sweet and spicy chili garlic, fried tofu and kale; shrimp and crab fried rice; warm spicy garlic shrimp noodle salad; pan-fried beef udon with vegetables; and beef and vegetable udon soup. Each meal is two servings, dairy free, takes roughly 10 minutes to prepare and sells for less than $25.
Chef Kohei Kishida, who runs Sweetcatch’s central kitchen, developed the meal kit menu based on food his mom used to cook for him growing up, inspired by the idea that as a restaurant chef, he has access to Asian ingredients that many home cooks may not find at the grocery store. Plus, line cooks can do the hard work and leave the fun parts for the home kitchen. “80% of [the time spent during] Asian cooking is making sauces and broths,” Chef Kohei says. “We take as much of that away from the customer experience, so they can use a few pans and experience restaurant-quality food hot at home.”
To maintain quality, Chef Kohei’s R&D process broke down the core recipes, evaluating how each element should be prepped to make the cooking easy for the customer while maintaining quality and flavor. Rice for fried rice is pre-cooked and packaged in a plastic quart container, and carrots and garlic are peeled but left whole for the customer to chop. Beef is pre-cooked in sauce, bacon is uncooked to be fried fresh while following the recipes. Whole scallions for the garnish can be sliced to the diner’s desire and spice levels can be adjusted depending on how much pre-made sauce a home cook pours from a container.
Sweetcatch says the feedback has been great and that people love the intimidation factor being eliminated from creating Japanese-inspired, casual restaurant food. Most importantly, customers say it's fun. Cooking is less of a chore and more of a laid-back event to look forward to when all the hard work (including the decision of how to use pre-picked ingredients when grocery store shelves are still lacking), is already complete.
“Groceries have been a big hit during the pandemic,” Michael said, referencing many eateries converting to general stores. Sweetcatch is pursuing meal kits instead, to be geared toward leisure and fun while keeping employees interested and satisfied and taking advantage of the restaurant's ability to order in bulk.
Next, Sweetcatch is looking into creating meal kits for dinner parties or larger family meals, which would be like catering with a meal kit for the host(s). On a long-plagued pandemic landscape in which people may not feel safe dining out or have the funds for a restaurant-centric lifestyle, the subscription-free, fun, flavorful, at-home meal kit may just be the future for fast-casual.
Learn more food business strategies from experienced instructors like Michael in Restaurant & Culinary Management.