With restaurants offering limited service and more consumers cooking at home, meal kits have quickly moved back into favor throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies like HelloFresh and Blue Apron have reported surging sales for those who want to buy online, while others like Home Chef and Meisterdish are catching the attention of consumers in grocery store aisles. New estimates suggest the meal kit market could hit $20 billion by 2027.
Giant Eagle is tapping into consumer interest with a new meal kit concept at its stores, too. A line called Cookery Complete will launch in 40 of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based retailer's stores this July. The meal kits are produced by FreshRealm, a company that has its roots in private label meal solutions for large-tier retailers, convenience stores and restaurants.
Cookery Complete will be built on FreshRealm's ready-to-cook products, which feature a raw protein, sauce and vegetables. At Giant Eagle, the offering will consist of 10 different SKUs with six ready-to-cook single-serve dishes and four ready-to-cook value-added protein meals, said Marcus Seiden, vice president of sales and marketing for FreshRealm.
To start, shoppers can choose from a lineup of meals including carbonara baked chicken, honey-mustard glazed pork chops and blue cheese butter strip steak with potatoes, peppers and onions. Pricing starts at $5 per person for family-sized meals and around $7 to $9 for single-serve meals, with higher end proteins coming in about $11 per serving.
The idea is to start with this selection of 10 meals and identify some best-sellers, and then freshen up the assortment over time based on seasonality and what people seem to like.
"There will be a way to refresh it, but at this point it’s just getting it out and starting with a really great set and seeing how people respond to it and then continuing to freshen it up periodically," Seiden told Grocery Dive.
The Cookery Complete line will add on to Giant Eagle's existing meal kits and meal solutions. The grocer currently offers "Great to Go" meal kits at its Market District locations, which are freshly prepared at the stores. Giant Eagle also features an assortment of fresh-made salads, sandwiches and more in its prepared foods sections.
Grocery Dive reached out to Giant Eagle for comment, but the company has not responded as of press time.
While most retail meal kits are placed in the deli prepared foods section, FreshRealm’s meal kits will be set up in Giant Eagle’s meat and seafood departments in front of the service counters in its own case to showcase the raw protein element.
Founder and CEO of FreshRealm Michael Lippold told Grocery Dive the ready-to-cook product line with raw protein is something that doesn’t currently exist on a national level.
The company has plans to expand its Cookery Complete line with other retailers over time, and the branded meals will also be available to order from Grubhub and DoorDash this summer for customers in the Los Angeles market.
The ever-changing meal kit
Meal kits grew to popularity as a cook-by-numbers bundle of fresh ingredients shipped to customers. But as the concept's popularity — and profitability — waned, retailers and companies like FreshRealm have offered new interpretations that are centered on convenience and better suited for grocery aisles.
Kroger riffed on the meal kit concept with "Easy For You!", its in-store service stations where customers can select frozen entrees and sides to take home and heat up. Meisterdish, a company that provides technology and culinary expertise to help retailers make their own fresh meal kits, partnered with Schnucks on a fresh meal station at its flagship store in St. Louis. Companies have rolled out kits with pre-chopped ingredients and two- and three-step recipes to cut down on complexity. Some have even rolled out heat-and-eat options and dropped the "meal kit" name as the line between the trendy movement and traditional prepared foods gets erased.
There is some use of raw protein with other meal kit makers like Kroger-owned Home Chef, which also has an oven-ready line that is available at Kroger and its affiliated banner stores. In a previous interview with Grocery Dive, Rich deNardis, Home Chef's chief revenue officer, said there are some challenges with operating as a third-party in a retail store.
"One of the things we found is the traditional relationship is a little bit challenging if you’re a third party selling in, given there’s sensitivity around shelf-life. It’s not a very long shelf-life product," he said.
Steve Petusevsky, the former national director of creative food development with Whole Foods who now consults for retailers and restaurants, said he sees more retailers moving into private label and locally sourced meal kits.
"Trust is such a big issue, and the ones who have been the most successful at meal kits are the ones doing it at a local, regional level rather than the big names like Blue Apron," he told Grocery Dive.
Lippold is confident about FreshRealm's ability to maintain freshness. He said the company spends a lot of time working on logistics and distribution and figuring out how to get food where it needs to be as fast as possible.
The company, which was founded in 2013, is focused on low-effort, high quality food that makes it easy for consumers to cook at home. It operates four facilities in Jacksonville, Florida; Philadelphia; Indianapolis and Riverside, California, where ingredients are assembled and meals are packaged up for distribution.
FreshRealm has a few different meal solutions. It has its ready-to-cook line, which will be offered at Giant Eagle, as well as ready-to-heat meals, which are single-serve, microwaveable products. Lastly, FreshRealm offers fresh meal kits with pre-prepped, pre-packaged components that only require assembly and cooking.
With self-service bars closed in stores across the country, retailers are looking for packaged meals that still offer freshness and flair for consumers, Lippold noted.
"This is a great way to replace that salad bar space with a meal solution offering and [it] will still provide the same convenience standpoint, but in a package consumers will see as safe," he said.
Jeff Wells contributed reporting to this story.