Local eateries hoping to cash in on meal-kit trends

By Maria Rachal & Olivia Stoffel

Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of Red Hen, rolled out “Red Hen at Home” meal kits in April 2016, emulating a nationwide industry dominated by Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Plated, which each ship refrigerated boxes with recipe cards and pre-portioned ingredients to doorsteps across the country.
After a year and a half of selling roughly 40 kits each week at Washington Street Purveyors, the Red Hen ended the program in late November.

“We’ve had great fun with our locally sourced meal kit program over the last 18 months, but it’s time for us to redirect our energies,” the Red Hen team posted to Facebook on Nov. 6.

Two meal-kit options from “Red Hen at Home.” The kits, which are no longer for sale, were previously sold in Washington Street Purveyors in downtown Lexington. (Photo by: Olivia Stoffel)

Wilkinson’s vision for the Red Hen meal kits came from an experience with Blue Apron. Though she liked the concept, she was horrified by the amount of packaging involved and figured she could construct a better kit herself.

Blue Apron (APRN) announced itself as a public company nearly six months ago. Since then, the company has faced more than its fair share of difficulties in competing for American’s dining dollars with stock prices dropping 70% since going public.

Each Red Hen at Home kit was made to sell between roughly $18 and $24, ranging in options from mushroom linguini, to arctic char and vegetarian enchiladas.

Prior to the decision to nix the make-at-home kits, Wilkinson had identified challenges that the Red Hen boxes faced when up against corporate competition.

“The advantage that [home delivery services] have over what we do … is that you sign up on a subscription basis, you don’t really have to think about it if it just shows up,” she said, “whereas with ours you really have to remember and go into the shop and buy it or go in a week and a half ahead and order it.”

Washington and Lee student Layne Setash decided to try one of the big box deliveries when offered a promotional trial because she loves to cook.

“Blue Apron was the perfect opportunity to get to cook a real dinner without having to grocery shop,” she said. “The recipes are also easily replicated without all the ingredients given to you, so you could easily make them again.”

“The advantage that [home delivery services] have over what we do … is that you sign up on a subscription basis, you don’t really have to think about it if it just shows up…” -Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of Red Hen

Wilkinson’s former chef at The Red Hen, Collin Donnelly, also competes with home delivery food services at the recently-opened Cattlemen’s Market. Donnelly, the entrepreneur behind the LexMex Tacos food truck, creates to-go meals for the market that transform its signature Buffalo Creek Beef into prepared foods like chili and shepherd’s pie.

Former Lexington home delivery option and popular vegetarian eatery, Blue Phoenix Cafe, introduced its Phoenix Flyer service – lunch delivery by bicycle, or simply by foot – in early 2017, mirroring the model provided by popular apps like Seamless and UberEATS.

This kind of service has become so mainstream in bigger cities, at least, that researchers at McKinsey & Co expect the worldwide food delivery market to reach $20 billion by 2025.

Even though Blue Phoenix’s central location on West Washington Street gives it prime real estate for local deliveries, chef and co-manager Amenie Hopkins said that offering this service as a small business comes with its own obstacles.

“We’ve had so many staffing issues, it’s been hard to have enough people on hand to consistently offer it,’” she said. “But it’s something that we are trying to pull together and make work, because there was a lot of interest in it at one point, we were making regular deliveries for a little while last spring.”

This photo shows the”Red Hen at Home” refrigerator located at Washington Street Purveyors in downtown Lexington. (Photo by: Olivia Stoffel)

Meanwhile, collegiate entrepreneurs at W&L have launched Dorm Storm, a food delivery service for students often accustomed to such city conveniences back home.

But the student-run food service is still getting off the ground, offering strictly limited hours, delivering within only a 5-mile radius of W&L, and charging $5 plus 10 percent of food order cost.
With these new developments in the Lexington food scene, Wilkinson sees potential for entrepreneurial innovation to continue within the local food sector despite challenges faced by the Red Hen.

“People are clearly hungry, or eager, for prepared foods or convenience foods,” she said. “In a place that had a Whole Foods or a Wegmans or something, there’s so much of that stuff now that’s being sold through grocery stores, but ours isn’t meeting the need in the community, I don’t think.”