When popular fast food chain, Chick-Fil-A announced it would be experimenting with meal kits next month, I agreed with my colleague, Catherine Lamb, that this could pave the way for a new meal kit sales channel. But in the days since the announcement I’ve soured on the notion. Now, I think consumers will have certain expectations of what a Chick-Fil-A meal kit should taste like, but will instead experience the uncanny valley.
For the uninitiated, here’s a pretty good definition of the uncanny valley from Wikipedia:
“The concept of the uncanny valley suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.”
The uncanny valley is often associated with a lot with computer graphics and animation. We forgive all the flaws of a stick figure because it looks nothing like a human. But as drawings or 3D rendering of a human get more realistic, small flaws (soulless eyes, odd molars, etc.) create bigger distractions to the point where these facsimiles become less lifelike, and the effect can be off-putting.
People buying a meal kit from a service like Blue Apron don’t have an expectation of what that meal should taste like. Part of the allure of those meal kits is the option to try new kinds of dishes. There wasn’t anything else to compare it to.
People who order a meal kit from Chick-Fil-A (or any restaurant) will want a Chick-Fil-A meal. But people can’t recreate Chick-Fil-A at home because they don’t have precision industrial fryers filled with oil and a finely tuned army of employees trained to make chicken-based meals in the exact same way each time.
I should note here that I have never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A. Not out of spite or protest, but just on account of geography. But it’s kind of like when you try to make homemade Oreos. They kinda look and taste like Oreos, but they aren’t the real thing. Or when you try to make your own In-N-Out Burger, or recreate a Starbucks latté at home — it’s just not the same, even when it tastes good.
In a smart move, Chick-Fil-A has initially found a workaround for this uncanny valley problem. The company is not offering its signature chicken sandwiches as part of a meal kit, only chicken-adjacent items like enchiladas, flatbread and pan roasted chicken. These recipes are probably easier for people to make at home, and people will still want to go to a Chick-fil-A for when they want a chicken sandwich (which the restaurant will make for you!). It also gives Chick-Fil-A an opportunity to expand without having to open up more locations as you’ll take the Chick-Fil-A experience with you.
But in doing so, people will want that Chick-Fil-A experience, and chances are good that they won’t be able to recreate it at home. It might be tasty, but it’s not Chick-Fil-Asty.
Despite these inherent issue, I still think Chick-Fil-A’s meal kit experiment is a worthy one (even if it might just be a publicity stunt). Fast food chains are experimenting with all kinds of innovation, from robots to a whole new drive-thru experience. Conducting a targeted experiment like this will at least push traditional boundaries around both meal kits and fast food. And if it works, who knows? Perhaps people will drive through an uncanny valley to make and eat Chick-Fil-A at home.