Prior to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic, the recipe box sector was on an upward trajectory.
Several factors have contributed to the sector's growth in recent years, which saw it valued at $2.52bn (€2.3bn) in 2017. These include an increasing working population and growing demand for convenience foods.
According to market research company Hexa, the meal kit sector is expected to be worth $9bn by 2025.
A recalculation of the recipe box market value today may tell a different, and even more promising, story. Countries with a well-established sector, such as the US and UK, have observed ‘unprecedented’ demand over the past month amid the coronavirus crisis – some of which have seen order numbers quadruple, seemingly overnight.
An ‘unprecedented’ spike in demand
UK-based food box delivery company Mindful Chef, which delivers recipe boxes nationwide, describes itself as the ‘Net-A-Porter’ of food delivery services.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the company has seen a ‘big increase’ in orders, co-founder Giles Humphries told FoodNavigator, as customers become increasingly dependent on food delivery services.
“We can report an unprecedented increase in sales since the coronavirus outbreak, including a +425% spike in new recipe box customers and a +387% spike in frozen meal sales – based on sales week-on-week – as the nation continues to stockpile.”
British meal kit retailer Gousto, headquartered in London’s Shepherds Bush, has similarly observed a spike in demand. “We are expecting to deliver four million meals to 380,000 UK households over the next four weeks,” a spokesperson told this publication.
“We are working incredibly hard to meet increased demand and fulfil our commitment to deliver recipe boxes promised to customers.”
And organic vegetable box delivery company Riverford, which also sells family, vegan, and vegetarian recipe boxes to UK-based customers, said demand has ‘skyrocketed’ due to the coronavirus outbreak and government-imposed self-isolation measures.
Indeed, the business has recorded its highest ever number of deliveries outside of Christmas.
For East-London headquartered Pasta Evangelists, which delivers fresh pasta recipe boxes nationwide, the coronavirus crisis has seen demand quadruple. “We’re having record days, record weeks, a record month, and a record quarter,” founder Alessandro Savelli told this publication.
With people spending more time at home, they are also spending more time on their laptops – rather than mobile phones. The sale conversion rate on laptops is higher, Savelli explained. “Previously, if we had 1,000 people on our website, perhaps 50 would buy. Now we’re getting 1,000 people on our website…with a much higher chance they’ll purchase.”
Do customers order differently in a pandemic?
Part of the reason ordered have spiked is that customers are not only increasing basket spend, but ordering differently.
“People are ordering larger baskets and ordering for other people.” Pasta Evangelists’ Savelli told FoodNavigator. “They are gifting for parents, grandparents, and friends – both gift cards and gift boxes.”
The co-founder has also observed an increase in subscriptions, a move he described as ‘realist’. “People understand that this situation is going to be around for a while.”
According to Riverford, increase in demand has largely been driven by existing customers switching to a weekly order, or adding more items to regular orders, whereas Mindful Chef said it has observed a spike in sales for frozen foods.
“We have seen greater interest in purchasing meals from our frozen range, presumably so that customers can feel safe in the knowledge that they have meals ready to go in the freezer,” said co-founder Humphries.
Adapting business operations
With an overwhelming amount of new and pre-existing customer orders, recipe box suppliers are responding quickly. Upscaling operations, growing staff numbers, and ensuring food supply are key focus areas.
Mindful Chef has implemented a business continuity plan, doubled staff numbers at its production sites, and is building its customer service support team.
“The NHS has stated that it is very unlikely that COVID-19 can be spread through food, however, we are still taking additional precautions,” Humphries revealed.
Gousto told us the business is immediately hiring over 100 new roles in its Lincolnshire factory. “This is part of Gousto’s recruitment drive to hire 300 new staff by the end of the year, including its rapidly expanding tech team in London,” the spokesperson continued.
For Pasta Evangelists, aside from training staff to deliver ‘contact-free’, the delivery method remains unchanged. Practices within its East London facility, however, have changed dramatically.
“We are being very careful about maintaining a two-metre distance between people, ensuring staff are washing their hands, wearing gloves, protective clothing and masks,” recounted its founder.
“We have doubled our packing space, so that staff are further away from each other, and have tripled our opening hours. We are now open 24/7, so that at any given time in the facility, there are less people.”
The company has also employed more hygiene specialists, and increased staff number across the board, in marketing, driving, and packing roles.
Given the rapidly heightened demand, Riverford was forced to limit its orders early on, explained managing director Rob Haward.
“We’ve seen unprecedented demand at very short notice, putting huge strain on our box-packing lines and drivers. To help us catch up, we had to temporarily stop taking any new orders or accepting new customers.”
Riverford’s website is back open, with the company prioritising ‘loyal and existing’ customers. “New customers can register their details to join a waiting list and we’ll be in touch a soon as we can take your order,” noted Haward.
Key challenges for the recipe box sector
Ensuring ‘business as usual’ – at least from a consumer’s perspective – is key for recipe box companies as they rapidly build scale.
For Mindful Chef, ensuring the company recruits the right people, and that suppliers can keep up with new levels of demand, are all part of the challenge. “We’re working hard with our local suppliers to ensure we can continue supply as demand increases and have also been stocking up on our frozen meals and smoothies,” the co-founder revealed.
“Given the recent closure of restaurants, cafes and pubs, our suppliers have had decreased demand in these areas, which is offset by the increased demand from Mindful Chef.”
Aside from ensuring staff are operating in safe environments, Pasta Evangelists’ key challenge is, unsurprisingly, “making sure we can fulfil demand”, said Savelli. “We need to make investments, especially in the people front, and make sure we have got the right level of expertise, the right volume of people.”
Concerning the company’s supply chain, Pasta Evangelists’ founder said suppliers are currently faced with two scenarios. Some businesses, such as restaurants and cafes have ‘come to a grinding halt’, and others, such as recipe box firms, ‘are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling’.
“It’s a very strange situation from a business perspective. Tragic from a personal perspective, but bizarre and unfair from a business perspective,” he continued. “Obviously we are beneficiaries for now, but who knows what will happen in the future.”