Why Restaurants Across the Country Are Taking a Tip From Blue Apron
When Blue Apron rolled out its first meal kit in 2012, it was on a mission to save us from ourselves (and our too-sweet jarred tomato sauce and criminally under-salted pasta). With the service, you could simply open a box that arrived at your doorstep and have everything you need, all pre-measured and mostly prepared, to make three high-quality inventive meals.
The popularity of meal kits has ebbed and flowed over the years as people leaned on them for weeknight meals they actually wanted to eat and then backed away because of factors like the high cost to their wallets and the planet. But now as COVID-19 has spread across the country and forced us all inside to practice social distancing, meal kits are surging in popularity.
Blue Apron CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski said they've seen a “sharp increase” in demand and the company is even hiring fulfillment center employees in hopes of keeping up with customers. After seeing that spike in popularity, independent restaurants want in. So they’re packaging up their own kits with pre-measured ingredients for dishes like pizza, fresh pasta, and tacos and a recipe card so you can make your old restaurant favorites at home while supporting the spot that typically made it for you.
And it's not just independent restaurants turning to do-it-yourself to stay afloat. Shake Shack is now sending all the fixings for eight smash burgers, California Pizza Kitchen has a wide variety of DIY options, and my tiny Bushwick apartment could be a Waffle House thanks to a new boxed mix.
From tiny local pizza spots to Michelin-starred fine dining, more and more restaurants are tacking a DIY option onto takeout and delivery menus in hopes of bringing in some extra cash, supporting employees and purveyors, and having a little fun along the way.
“We have to keep our employees working”
Guelaguetza was called the best Oaxacan restaurant in the country, shelves one of the largest mezcal selections in Los Angeles, and is nothing short of an institution. But its rank as the go-to spot for mole and micheladas hasn’t protected the shop from having to pivot to keep the doors open.
The restaurant cut down hours and added DIY options like a taco family meal that includes all the fixings for 18 tacos and a kit to make tlayuda by grilling a large thin tortilla and smearing it with owner Bricia Lopez’s famous aciento, black bean paste, queso fresco, Oaxaca cheese, and cabbage.
The restaurant also has an online shop with mole powder, michelada mix, and cookbooks for sale that can be shipped all across the country. Luckily onlines sales are up as people try to recreate their favorite dishes at home and support the restaurant, but she said the sales pale in comparison to a normal Friday or Saturday night in the lively, colorful dining room.
“That’s a common misconception about all of the takeout,” she said. “We’re not making anywhere near what we would have – not even close. This is just about keeping our employees employed.”
Like many restaurants, Guelaguetza is operating with a skeleton crew, so she said meal kits have been an easy way to send more food out to dedicated regulars while not overworking the few people that remain in the kitchen.
“We ask for exclusive relationships, so if we don’t honor that now farmers will go out of business”
It’s harder to recreate the same dining experience you get in restaurants that frequent Michelin guides and “best of” lists. Your home doesn’t have master servers and distinguished sommeliers, after all – but restaurants like that are still trying.
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns – a place that’s been named one of the best in the world on numerous occasions – each ingredient is carefully chosen by a chef who is no short of obsessed with sustainability and quality. But with the kitchen closed, the expertly sourced meat, cheese, vegetables, and other ingredients would go to waste, and that goes against everything that Dan Barber believes in.
So he told Esquire in a recent interview that he developed meal kits as a way to “soak up” what would normally come into the restaurant from farmers. The move is not just about avoiding food waste. They have contracts with many farmers who produce pheasants and other products exclusively for the restaurant, so closing completely affects the entire supply chain bringing product into Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
“We can’t really turn that spigot off without putting him out of business,” Barber said.
So the restaurant’s meal kits utilize products like grass-fed beef and 23-month aged pork in various boxes that come with spice rubs and instructions on how to recreate world-class meals in your home kitchen.
“It’s about time we had some fun”
Just about a month ago in an airy dining room along the water in Brooklyn Heights, Chef Danny Brown was serving up a family-style Sunday gravy to a handful of families who didn’t know each other before they sat down at the same 20-seat table. He served them all a red pasta sauce stewed with braciole, sausage, and meatballs while the kids were throwing bread at each other a few feet away.
So when coronavirus forced Estuary to limit service to takeout and delivery, the chef wanted to offer something that would bring that same joy to people’s homes. In his own house, parents are trying to work and kids are doing home school and there’s a constant struggle to “break up the day a little bit,” he said. So he thought a meal kit that brought everyone together to cook fresh pasta and meatballs was the perfect solution to entertain families while keeping his crew working.
Paisano’s, a small chain of no-frills pizza joints in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, is taking the entertainment factor a bit further and turned its pizza-making kit into a competition on social media.
The $10 kit comes with dough, sauce, cheese, and flour for rolling, and owners are urging buyers to post their creations on Instagram with #PaisanosMadeByMe for a chance to win prizes like tickets to Washington Redskins football games and pizza for life from the restaurant.
“It’s about time for folks to have a highlight in their day again,” Colleen Sisk, the chief operating officer of Paisano’s, said. “Having fun in the kitchen and coming together with your family over pizza couldn’t be more important right now.”