Re-imagining meal kits and gourmet food

Another pivot I’ve enjoyed observing during the pandemic is the creation of a market / trading post being run out of restaurants. I’m sure it took a lot of agility and strategy to get these things set up, but I think it’s great that people can now purchase sauces, spices, breads, cocktail mixes, gourmet “meal kits,” frozen dumplings and more from restaurant favorites. I’ve seen this trend progress since the shutdowns, but I was reminded of it because the people behind one of my favorite neighborhood spots, Misi, recently jumped on the wagon.

Before the pandemic, Missy Robbins and her team launched MISIPASTA as a way for fans to purchase her well-known pasta dishes deconstructed. You would pick up a package from Misi that would include all the ingredients for you to make the meal at home. From what I’ve read, and also agree with and respect, Robbins firmly believes that takeout pasta can never be as good as when it’s served piping hot and fresh. Lukewarm takeout can truly be a bummer, and I’m sure many people who have been ordering takeout during the pandemic can attest to this (while still VERY MUCH appreciating all the work restaurants have put into serving their communities!). As such, her two restaurants have remained closed throughout the shutdown. Misi was actually the last restaurant I went to before everything went south in March.

Fast forward a couple of months and Robbins re-launches MISIPASTA with MP GROCERY. The group is offering a limited selection of pasta kits, groceries and wine. You simply place an order online for a specified pick-up time at Misi. The pasta kit serves four and runs $45 and, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can snag one of the “From the Garden” bags for $198 with an assortment of seasonal vegetables, herbs, cheeses, and maybe an occasional chicken! Finally, there’s the “Building your Pantry” and wine selections to round out your kitchen. I haven’t put in an order yet, but I’m intrigued by the format and if I can’t have the real thing, this appears to be a decent runner up!

In addition to Robbins, there are other restaurateurs with their own take on the market model. You may remember me writing about Greg Baxtrom of Olmsted and Maison Yaki. Not only did he start a food bank out of his restaurant, but he’s now also transformed part of his restaurant into a trading post, carrying all sorts of goodies. They have everything from hot sauces to candies, duck pastrami, fresh bread, truffle butter, cold brew, and more. It’s really quite the selection!

Danny Meyer’s famed Union Square Cafe also launched a Bottle Shop, Corner Market and Meal Kits. Danny Meyer has been pretty vocal to date that it’s going to be difficult to re-open his full service restaurants as limited capacity and make any reasonable money. So, his interim solution has been to offer simple pantry staples of wine packages, cheese and charcuterie boards, assorted pantry items and, most recently, pasta meal kits.

Beyond those three, there’s also Jeffrey’s Grocery, Hart’s, Colonia Verde, Rhodora, and more across New York City trying to make this approach viable.

While I know these pivots are a result of unprecedented times, and they are likely less than ideal, I wonder if there is actually a durable business model here and if restaurant groups will learn how to scale these initiatives long term. In my view, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done — strategy, initial supply chain and production.

The things like sauces, frozen foods, spices, etc. are easier to scale than the meal kits. However, there could be a world where these restaurants white label with a platform like Blue Apron to outsource the meal kit production. The restaurants provide the recipes, works with purveyors to source the ingredients, creates a storefront on Shopify, or with Blue Apron, that’s actually attached to the restaurant’s brand and Blue Apron handles the assembly, shipment, payment, etc., and takes a cut along the way. I am not an expert on the total overhead it would take to execute on these things, but I’ve got to imagine there’s better margin in products than brick and mortar, and they could lead to more captive investment, so these businesses could be complementary. Restaurants will need to be more durable in a post-COVID world, and if there’s a way to do these things profitably, it could be a good solution.

What do you think?

GRAND OPENING – New Restaurants During the Pandemic

In the past several weeks, more cities began slowly re-opening, which has also brought the, hopefully, careful re-opening of more food services businesses. Even if socially distanced, masked and everything else, there are moments of delight knowing you can eat outside at a restaurant during the summer months. I hope everyone continues to take precaution and acts responsibly so we don’t see large resurgences of COVID cases that would force us to take steps backward instead of forward. Unfortunately, there’s been news of that in many states, so I’ll hold my breath for now.

In prior posts, I’ve spoken a bit about the resilience and creativity of existing restaurants during these difficult times. What I haven’t yet mentioned is the bold and brave spirit of restaurateurs that have actually OPENED new restaurants amidst the pandemic. With so many businesses suffering, it takes a special team of optimists to test something new in this environment.

I’ve asked myself many times if I would have enough confidence to open a new business in a highly affected industry during a downturn, and I constantly find myself waffling. I think these business owners clearly have much for conviction and guts than I do. Many say a downturn is a great time to innovate. Think of the last financial crisis — we got Uber, Airbnb, Square, Stripe, and more. Restaurants are very different businesses. …but you get the point 🙂

Eater NY released a running list of restaurants that have opened during the pandemic, and it’s much longer than I would’ve anticipated. These restaurants deserve to be highlighted, I hope new patrons find them and I wish them the best of luck and success in the coming months.

I would love nothing more than to see this list grow, so please reach out if you have others to add from across the country, or the world!