When the pandemic struck, restaurant owners were forced to close to the public and faced a colossal challenge to stay afloat. With takeaway and delivery permitted, many of them continued to serve their locals, but the geographical range was limited.
And so, the meal kit was born – precooked and neatly packaged dishes that could be dispatched nationwide and, usually, finished off by the customer simply in a pan, oven or microwave at home. A trickle of them quickly turned into a stream that has, one year on, become a fast-flowing river.
One of the earliest adopters was chef Tommy Banks, owner of The Black Swan and Roots, both in Yorkshire. The first lockdown, Banks recalls, coincided with Mother’s Day, an especially busy Sunday for restaurants. When all his bookings were lost, Banks decided to use up his ingredients to make takeaways, which were immediately oversubscribed. By the second week of lockdown, Banks was delivering boxes around Yorkshire and a few weeks later came up with a name for the new business – Made In Oldstead.
On Father’s Day in June 2020 the meal box scheme went national, and Banks was soon doing over 1,000 meals a week. Now with a dedicated premises separate from his two restaurants, which Banks says are ill-equipped for large-scale logistical endeavours like nationwide delivery, and new staff (he hasn’t made any redundancies and has hired 25 per cent more employees), Made In Oldstead has been a lockdown success story.
With a Michelin star at each restaurant and a focus on top local ingredients, many of which come from the family farm, Banks’ fare isn’t what most would picture when food deliveries come to mind. But it shows how all restaurants, from the casual to the high end, have been forced to reconsider their models.
Made In Oldstead’s boxes start at £55 for a three-course meal for two. “It’s the same ethos and ingredients and suppliers [as the restaurants],” Banks explains, “but the food’s less complicated, and it’s generally more wholesome.” And they’re certainly popular, often selling out within minutes when the following week’s menu is posted online.
Made In Oldstead isn’t the only new nationwide meal kit – Simon Rogan at Home, for example, has been equally as successful. In fact, so popular have meal kits been that a host of new delivery platforms have sprung up to broker the journey between restaurant and home. Companies like Banquist, Plateaway, Dishpatch and Restaurant Kits have all tapped into this emerging market.
Alex Pennington and Ross McPhail both left high-flying city jobs last year, and, as longtime friends, decided to set up Finish & Feast, which focuses on high-end dining. “We thought, if we could create a really great box more towards the fine finding end, that’s something that would really appeal to customers,” says Pennington.
Unlike some other platforms, Finish & Feast can take care of every part of the process, from cooking (its own team of chefs can recreate the chef’s meals) to marketing, packaging and dispatching. After a successful launch in December, it signed up the Michelin-starred Tom Aikens, something of a coup, and is expanding over the coming months.
Which brings about the question: with restaurants opening again on April 12 for outdoor dining, and May 17 indoors, are meal kits soon to be an anachronism? Pennington and McPhail don’t think so. Many suspect the restaurant sector has changed forever. Of course, that’s not to say customers won’t return to restaurants, but restaurants will look to include another string in their bow.
“The coronavirus pandemic has really shown that diversification from a restaurant point of view is important,” says Pennington. “It gives them more security against these kinds of things.”
Banks echoes this. Although he “can’t wait” to get back into a fully open restaurant (“it’s my first passion and love”) he nevertheless expects Made In Oldstead to continue. The meal kit market may shrink a little, but, Banks predicts, it is “here to stay”.
Restaurants continuing nationwide meal kit deliveries after they reopen
Bistrot Pierre, various locations
The French casual dining chain has been selling hundreds of meal kits per week, with classic bistro food – French onion soup, boeuf bourguignon or rotisserie chicken – flogged from a very reasonable £40 per head for a three-course meal for two. Not content with its standard offering, Bistrot Pierre is even expanding this month, with a wine pairing box, a breakfast box and steak kit.
The Cinnamon Club, London
The now legendary Cinnamon Club is celebrating its 20th birthday this year with a special Anniversary At Home menu among other meal kit offerings. The six-course extravaganza, at £160 for two, features a range of hits from the past two decades, including cured salmon carpaccio jhal muri, sandalwood tandoori chicken breast and coriander chutney, tamarind glazed duck breast and lamb raan with nutmeg and peppercorn sauce.
Aktar at Home, Birmingham
Aktar Islam, who runs two Brimingham restaurants, Michelin-starred Opheem and Pulperia, created Aktar at Home last year, and his multi-dish kits (up to 10 dishes, from £70), are possibly the most filling on the market – one can easily feed a family of five. So successful has the endeavour been that Aktar at Home now has a dedicated site, and Islam created 20 new jobs. Each week the meals change, but the template remains the same: a selection of curries. Keep your eyes peeled for Islam’s singature smoky roast tandoori lamb.
Shoryu Ramen, various locations
Fans of the inimitable ramen chain can now access its brilliant broths for a truly comforting meal. Arriving in the form of a DIY kit, each box contains a 12-hour-cooked tonkotsu ramen, complete with all the garnishes, with vegan options also available.
River Restaurant, Manchester
Situated in the Lowry Hotel, Manchester’s River Restaurant’s famous Sunday lunch is now available across the country. Monikered @ Home, River Restaurant’s head chef, Dave Ashton, launched the kits in September, and they’ve been flying off the shelves. At just £49 for four courses for two people, they represent brilliant value and are simple to finish off at home.
Rudy’s Pizza, various locations
One of the UK’s best pizzerias, Rudy’s Pizza, turned to bake at home kits during the first lockdown, and, so successful have they been that they have decided to keep going. Made to the Neapolitan tradition, unlike some pizza deliveries, where the recipient must stretch out the dough, Rudy’s pizzas come pre-baked and vacuum packed, ready to simply heat up in the oven.
Calum Franklin X Restaurant Kits
From the acclaimed pie master from Holborn Dining Room in London, Calum Franklin’s stunning pies are available exclusively on the meal kit delivery platform Restaurant Kits. The finish-at-home kits require no special equipment, but are more involved than most others (you’ll have to make the pastry; ingredients provided).
José Pizarro, London and Surrey
From the preeminent Spanish chef comes an array of meal kits that have been sold for a year, making Pizarro a luminary on the meal kit scene. Each box contains a Spanish feast for two, with the theme changing every couple of weeks. These can be regional (Basque, Catalan), or based on an occasion (Mother’s Day, Easter). Most weeks the boxes sell out, and Pizarro plans to keep going indefinitely.
Libertine Burger, Warwickshire
This award-winning restaurant makes some of the best burgers in the country, and making them at home is fun. For £25, you’ll get four top quality patties, with bacon, cheese, brioche buns, ketchup, mustard, pickles and seasoning thrown in.
Rick Stein, various locations
The Stein family empire has been selling thousands of meal kits a week, making it one of the most successful restaurant lockdown pivots. They even do monthly subscriptions, with some people ordering a box a week. Beginning at £40 for two, the mostly fish-based boxes are good value, and have helped keep many of Stein’s regular fishermen and suppliers in business.
Quique Dacosta paella kits, London
Quique Dacosta, who runs high-end Spanish restaurant Arros QD, specialises in paella, making one of the best in the country, and you can now recreate it at home, too. The kits come with enough ingredients to make three paellas for two people, and included is your very own paella pan.