Whenever I get word about a new meal kit company, it’s hard not to be immediately skeptical.
It’s no secret that meal kits are struggling: Chef’d surprised everyone when it shut down abruptly earlier this year. Boston hyper-local meal kit Just Add Cooking ceased operations this fall. And Blue Apron’s stock continues to underwhelm. And with complicated supply chain logistics and the challenge of customer loyalty, and its no wonder why. To fight back, meal kit companies are turning towards new sales channels (i.e. drug stores), targeting specific audiences (i.e. kids) and are experimenting with customizeable and frozen ingredients.
But one Canadian company seems undeterred by the bleak, overcrowded meal kit landscape. Based in Vancouver and Calgary, soon-to-launch Presto Eats makes meal kits that can be cooked in a pressure cooker or slow cooker.
“I started Presto Eats because I fell in love with the new wave of kitchen appliances,” CEO Connie Chong told me in a phone conversation. She found that she could get a flavorful meal out of her pressure cooker in 30 minutes, but it still took her over an hour to shop for and prep ingredients. So she decided to create a meal kit specifically targeted at the Instant Pot crowd: millennials and busy professionals who like to cook at home and aren’t afraid of new kitchen technology.
Earlier this year Campbell’s tried a slow cooker meal partnership with Chef’d. The meal kit company shuttered only four months later so it’s hard to get a sense of how successful the partnership was. But it also only offered slow cooker meals, which took 6-ish hours; it didn’t capitalize on the wild popularity of the quick-cooking Instant Pot.
Presto Eats is smart to take advantage of the pressure cooker’s cult-like status. While many meal kit companies advertise ready-to-eat meals in 30 minutes, you still usually have to actually do the whole cooking thing. Presto Eats takes the same amount of time but it’s all hands-off. “The convenience factor is huge,” said Chong. Plus it’s all done in one (Instant)pot, which means fewer dishes.
Since Presto Eats’ meals are destined for a pressure cooker, they can be sold frozen. Which means that consumers can buy them in bulk and cook them on their own time. Frozen meal kits make a lot of sense, from both a business and consumer perspective, and Presto Eats is one of several companies taking advantage of the frozen food renaissance. It could also mean more packaging waste (ice, cold packs, etc.), which is something Presto Eats should be conscious of.
While it’s a smart move to capitalize off of Instant Pot’s widespread and loyal fan base, there are a few potential drawbacks to Presto Eats’ offering. Firstly, some people get meal kits because they actually like cooking — just not the minutiae of, say, shopping for, peeling and grating a ginger root. To them, meal kits are a way to experiment with new meals that they might not otherwise be bold enough to try and cook. Dumping a bunch of ingredients into an Instant Pot and pressing a button means there’s significantly lower chance of failure, but there’s also not much of a cooking “experience.” And at $10 per serving, some people may want to shell out a few bucks more and order in delivery.
Secondly, the fact that all of Presto Eats’ meals are cooked in a pressure cooker limits their variety. Chong listed menu choices like salmon risotto with vegetables, lentil bolognese pasta, and Thai curry, all of which sound delicious but reside in the same sort of warm, soupy comfort meal category. You can’t make seared steak or crunch roasted cauliflower in an Instant Pot, after all.
Presto Eats is cashing in on yet another dining trend: local food. It will partner with local farmers and suppliers to source ingredients for their meal kits. Which may attract eco-conscious consumers, but also means they will no doubt have to pay more to stock their kits. In an industry where margins are razor-thin, this is a risk. Just Add Cooking also sourced local ingredients for their meal kits, and ended up folding because they couldn’t make the economics work. Chong told me that they will create rotating menus featuring farmers’ surplus food, which could help keep costs down — but it’s still probably more expensive than buying from a mega produce supplier.
As of now, Presto Eats has a team of three and is bootstrapped. They will partner with food delivery companies to get their meal kits to consumers, and Chong said that down the road they hope to partner with grocery chains to get on retail shelves. They plan to launch their meal kits at the end of January in Calgary, and soon after that in Vancouver.
There they’ll have to duke it out with several local competitors. Earlier this week Chris wrote about Fresh Prep, a Vancouver, Canada-based direct-to-consumer meal kit company which raised $3.3 million. And in October Hello Fresh, the biggest meal kit company in the U.S., acquired meal kit company Chefs Plate, which also has a fulfillment center in Vancouver.
By combining three consumer dining trends — frozen food, Instant Pot, and local ingredients — Presto Eats has developed a very appealing product. The question is whether those value-adds will help it attract enough customers to carve out a spot in the crowded meal kit space. I’m optimistic that they have a shot, mostly because of how much people love their Instant Pots. But first, they’ll have to nail down a supply chain and scale up: two things that plague even the biggest meal kit companies.