Operators are putting a fresh spin on the category, distinguishing themselves from the likes of Blue Apron.

Over the past decade, meal kits have taken the market by storm. Early options like Blue Apron and HelloFresh were soon followed by niche brands specializing in everything from vegan and paleo diets to organic and inexpensive ingredients. Given consumers’ expanding palates and growing culinary curiosity, it would be fair to assume that restaurants could easily integrate take-home kits into their business model. But while some operators dabbled in meal kits, the trend never really crossed the retail-restaurant divide.

Then the pandemic hit, bringing an incentive to rethink the potential of meal kits—with a restaurant-specific twist.

When dine-in bans swept the greater Chicago area in March, Northbrook restaurant Prairie Grass Cafe offered curbside pickup for group meals, as well as a la carte dishes. It also opened the door to add a new component, namely meal kits.

“I felt that I could do a good job prepping [ingredients] like I would for myself if I was going to have a dinner party or cook for my family,” says chef and co-owner Sarah Stegner. “So, yes, you’re doing some of the work, but at the same time, we’re helping.”

For Prairie Grass Cafe, meal kits were best suited for weekends when customers were likely to grill out or cook something more elaborate than the usual weekday fare. Its very first kit debuted in time for Mother’s Day—traditionally the most lucrative business day for restaurants. Priced at $58–$98 for two, the grill-centric meal kit featured a choice of Canadian salmon with pecan-lemon topping, ancho-marinated skirt steaks, or Prime New York Strip Steaks along with sides and dessert. Guests also had the option of adding salads and wine.

The meal kit menus have evolved since then but instead of sticking to a set rotation, Stegner lets the seasons and local bounty inform the dishes. As an independent operator, Stegner also feels it is her duty to support the local farms that are integral to Prairie Grass Cafe and the greater community.

“We’ll do it not so much based on the week but rather what comes into season locally—that will be the driving factor of those meals. We’re going to try to offer as much local produce as possible,” Stegner says. “It’s important for chefs to highlight those local farmers, because without the restaurants driving their sales, many are cut off from farmers markets and direct-to-public [markets]. … We don’t want them to lose their farms; we want them to have access to revenue.”

While Prairie Grass Cafe had 15 years of experience and reputation to fall back on, the stakes were higher for Elvie’s, the first concept from Union Square Hospitality Group alum and chef Hunter Evans. Bringing a European-meets-Southern dining experience to Jackson, Mississippi, Elvie’s opened a mere six weeks before the pandemic struck, just when the team was getting into a groove.

Rather than shutting down, Evans and his business partner, Cody McCain, took an unconventional, multi-pronged approach to off-premises. The brick-and-mortar space transformed into a sandwich shop; Elvie’s started a virtual wine club and paired it with to-go charcuterie boxes for a more interactive experience (read more about virtual wine programs on page 22); the team also introduced “pop-up” menus that explored a different region or culture. Although these dishes were already prepared, they did include a DIY, at-home element.

“We would cook it all and break it down into components, give [guests] the box, and then they could go home and plate it and eat and enjoy it. And we did that through social media. We filmed a little video of us taking it out of the box and plating it how we would do it here and serve it to them,” Evans says. “I think people really enjoy that. It’s not like taking on the cooking yourself, but there was an interactive element to it.”

Independents weren’t the only restaurants to try their hand at meal kits during the dine-in bans. But scaling such a service came with its own unique set of challenges. Mexican chain Abuelo’s had considered meal kits, but securing the necessary supplies for its entire system was too difficult. Instead it doubled down on already prepared Family Feasts, and, like Elvie’s, took to social media as a way to connect with its customers. Abuelo’s shared recipes for some of its most iconic menu items—El Jefe Margarita, Avocado Cream, Espinica (spinach casserole)—and included step-by-step tutorials so customers could make the dishes at home.

“We have been very lucky to have a large group of our customer base support us during this time. Most are excited for things to go back to normal; however, they have shown they are still with us through takeout and delivery options and interactions on social media,” says Brian Bell, vice president of marketing for Abuelo’s. “Those recipes are a fun way of engaging with loyal guests who are attached to our cuisine, as well as those who love to cook at home.”

Take-and-bake pizza is hardly new, but typically such offerings have been limited to quick-service brands like Papa Murphy’s and require no prep work beyond heating up the oven. California Pizza Kitchen challenged this paradigm at the end of March when it introduced CPK Market, which, in addition to pantry goods, offered meal kits like the Kids Build-Your-Own Pizza, Taco Kit, and Lettuce Wrap Kit. Each came with all the ingredients and a step-by-step recipe card created by CPK chefs.

“CPK’s at-home meal kit options also give those in quarantine an opportunity to cook together, on their own time,” says senior vice president  of marketing Ashley Ceraolo.

Although many restaurants are welcoming guests back into their dining rooms, it seems unlikely that the operators who have found success in meal kits will discontinue the service. “If our meal kits continue to garner this level of success—which is looking to be the case—we’d certainly be open to keeping these as an option for our guests in the future,” Ceraolo says.

Consumer Trends, Feature, Menu Innovations, Abuelo's, California Pizza Kitchen