Components of a meal kit, with individually wrapped ingredients (SSG.com)
The chicken ribs, the special sauce, the vegetables, the sweet potatoes and the rice cakes were in separate packages and all were prepared for baking. The cooking instructions on the back of the package involved putting the ingredients one at a time in a saucepan. My family’s reaction to the dish was unanimous: “It tastes the same as what is sold in restaurants.
Many aspects of daily life have changed as people stay home more than ever during a pandemic. With restaurants shutting down at 9 p.m. as part of the government’s stricter social distancing program, many retail giants have turned to the growing market for in-home meal replacements and meal kits.
Homemade meal replacements refer to pre-cooked foods that can be simply reheated to eat. In contrast, meal kits require about 15 minutes of simple cooking and usually separate the sauce and ingredients to ensure the best possible taste.
Although the meal kit market started to take off about four years ago, it hit new highs during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Korea Rural Economic Institute predicting the market value to reach 700 billion won (646 million dollars) in 2024.
In the beginning, meal kits were developed and manufactured by meal kit service companies and delivery companies. Soon after, online delivery services such as SSG.com and Market Kurly began promoting meal kits developed in collaboration with famous restaurants, bringing the restaurants’ signature dishes to the dinner table. Restaurant meal replacements and meal kits were introduced as the next step in home meal replacement.
The use of reputable brand names has been a successful marketing strategy.
Odeng Sikdang Budae-jjigae (SSG.com)
Other popular meal kits include one that claims to have replicated the 50-year-old taste of a Busan restaurant famous for octopus, cow gut, and shrimp hot pot. Popular dishes from the hotel’s restaurants are also available as a meal kit.
This year saw even greater choice for consumers, as companies competed to find famous restaurant dishes and replicate them in meal kits.
“We consider the Seoul Michelin Guide for the preliminary selection and then we go to the different restaurants to taste the dishes considered for a meal kit,” said an E-mart official. “We try to target the time needed to cook a meal kit at 10 to 15 minutes.”
Two iconic dishes from Hogyeongjeon Chinese cuisine restaurant at Shinsegae Chosun Hotel (Shinsegae Chosun Hotel)
“In order to bring the flavor of the restaurant to households, we have gone through many trials,” said chef Yang Bo-an from Hogyeongjeon. “With many people staying at home, not only did the number of people trying a meal kit for the first time increase, but customers also wanted the taste of restaurants at home. “
For reputable restaurants, meal kit collaborations with large companies offer an additional source of income as well as the opportunity to increase brand awareness.
“We launched our meal kit with Shinsegae primarily to promote our brand. Also, given that Shinsegae is a large company, this was seen as an opportunity to increase revenue. As long as we were making a profit, we saw no reason not to accept their offer, ”said an official at Gunsan Squid, a restaurant chain famous for its marinated squid and beef.
Even before the pandemic, famous restaurants like Gunsan Squid and Hanchon Seolleongtang, which are of considerable size and several restaurant chains, prepared HMR products to take advantage of the emerging market. With the growing popularity of meal kits, these restaurants have modified their pre-made products to create meal kits.
Restaurants receive a commission for each meal kit sold, as well as the initial contract fee for using the brand, although contracts vary by type of restaurant.
The popularity of meal kits, however, doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the number of customers at individual restaurants.
“I have yet to see a customer who said he came to the restaurant because he had the meal kit,” said one restaurant owner. “However, the advantage is that since meal kits can be purchased in restaurants, many diners buy them in multiple when they see them parked up front.”
For small restaurants, business conditions may be less ideal. However, with the novel coronavirus forcing diners to avoid eating out, restaurants felt they had to seize every opportunity possible.
A restaurant with a popular meal kit online, which wished to remain anonymous, reported that the meal kit only used its name and only made suggestions on the final product of the meal kit.
“The ingredients in the meal kit are much worse than what we use in stores. This is inevitable because the price of the meal kit is much lower. We just lend them our name after we create a product, ”said a restaurant manager. “Although we are popular online, we don’t get much benefit from it. Rather, it is about promoting our store. We have had little change in the number of clients.
With the rapidly changing home catering market, many restaurants are already gearing up for the next novelty.
“The first step was the HMR and now it’s the meal kits. I think the next step in home catering will be the HMR which can replicate the dishes of famous restaurants without the need to cook, ”said a Gunsan Squid marketing manager.
By Lim Jang-won ([email protected])