Components of a meal kit, with individually wrapped ingredients (SSG.com)
Chicken ribs, special sauce, vegetables, sweet potatoes and rice cakes were in separate packages and all were prepared for cooking. The cooking instructions on the back of the package were to put the ingredients one by one in a pan. My family’s reaction to the dish was unanimous: “It tastes just like what is sold in restaurants.”
Many aspects of daily life have changed as people stay home more than ever during the pandemic. With restaurants ordered to close at 9 p.m. under the government’s stricter social distancing program, many retail giants have turned to the growing market for home meal replacements and meal kits.
Homemade meal replacements refer to pre-cooked foods that can simply be reheated for consumption. Meal kits, on the other hand, 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 has reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Korean Rural Economic Institute predicting that the market value will reach 700 billion won ( $646 million) in 2024.
In the beginning, meal kits were developed and manufactured by meal kit service companies and delivery companies. Soon after, online delivery services like SSG.com and Market Kurly began advertising meal kits developed in conjunction with celebrity restaurants, bringing the restaurants’ signature dishes to the dinner table. Restaurant meal replacements and meal kits have been introduced as the next step in home meal replacements.
Using trustworthy brand names was a successful marketing strategy.
Odeng Sikdang Budae-jjigae (SSG.com)
Among other popular meal kits is one that claims to have replicated the 50-year-old taste of a Busan restaurant famous for its pot of octopus, cow intestine and shrimp. Popular dishes from the hotel restaurants are also available as a meal kit.
This year, consumers had even more choice as companies competed to find dishes from famous restaurants and reproduce them in meal kits.
“We consider the Seoul Michelin Guide for the preliminary selection, and then we visit individual restaurants to sample the dishes being considered for a meal kit,” an E-mart official said. “We try to target the time it takes to cook a meal kit at 10 to 15 minutes.”
Two typical dishes of 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 of Hogyeongjeon. “With many people staying at home, not only has the number of people trying a meal kit for the first time increased, but customers also wanted the taste of restaurants at home.”
For celebrity restaurants, meal kit collaborations with large corporations offer an additional revenue stream as well as the opportunity to increase brand awareness.
“We launched our meal kit with Shinsegae mainly to advertise our brand. Also, since Shinsegae is a big company, it 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 pickled squid and beef.
Even before the pandemic, famous restaurants like Gunsan Squid and Hanchon Seolleongtang which have considerable size and several restaurant chains were preparing HMR products to take advantage of the nascent 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 upfront contract fees for brand use, although contracts vary by restaurant type.
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 they came to the restaurant because they had the meal kit,” one restaurateur said. “However, the upside is that since meal kits can be purchased at restaurants, many diners buy them in multiples when they see them parked out front.”
For smaller restaurants, business conditions may be less than ideal. However, with the novel coronavirus forcing diners to avoid eating out, restaurants felt they should seize every opportunity possible.
A restaurant with a popular meal kit online, which wished to remain anonymous, said the meal kit only used its name and only made suggestions about the final product of the meal kit.
“The ingredients in the meal kit are much worse than what we use in the store. It is unavoidable because the price of the meal kit is much lower. We just lend them our name after they create a product,” a restaurant manager said. “Although we are popular online, we don’t make much profit from it. It’s more about making our store known. We had little change in the number of customers.
With the home dining market rapidly changing, many restaurants are already gearing up for the next thing.
“The first step was the HMR and now it’s the meal kits. I expect the next step in home dining will be HMR which can replicate dishes from famous restaurants without the need for cooking,” said a marketing manager from Gunsan Squid.
By Lim Jang-won ([email protected])