ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Of course people go to fast food restaurants for food that's already cooked. Now one national chain is about to become the first to sell people the ingredients to cook their own dinner. Chick-fil-A is launching a test at 150 Atlanta area locations on Monday before deciding whether to take the concept nationally. Emma Hurt of member station WABE reports the food industry is watching.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Stephanie White comes to Chick-fil-A most days. This morning, she's out of Westside Atlanta location in search of breakfast.
STEPHANIE WHITE: Please say that you have hash browns.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, Ma'am.
WHITE: OK, I'll take two hash browns and a large coffee.
HURT: Beginning this week, Stephanie and other Atlantans can now preorder their dinners from the menu. Those chicken dinners will just be unprepared and raw, and consumers have to cook them.
WHITE: OK, yeah, that would be interesting. Is that the only kind that they have at this time? It would just be the chicken parmesan.
HURT: It's actually five different recipes right now, but the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich isn't one of them. There's crispy Dijon chicken, a chicken enchilada, chicken flatbread and pan-roasted chicken with greens. The American meal kit market has swelled to more than $2 billion, but it hasn't been an easy venture for everyone. Why? Well, they are expensive to buy. On average, two servings typically costs about 20 bucks. Chick-fil-A's are a bit cheaper. Another pitfall - it's an expensive business to be in.
DARREN SEIFER: What we seem to be finding in this industry is that maybe this paradigm isn't exactly sustainable as a standalone business.
HURT: That's Darren Seifer, a food industry analyst. He says meal kit companies that built distribution networks from scratch like Blue Apron have struggled.
SEIFER: We've seen Blue Apron has yet to post a profit. We've seen others shut down, and we've seen others get gobbled up by larger retailers.
HURT: Chick-fil-A noticed that, too. Michael Patrick leads the company's mealtime kit program. He says because of its existing restaurants, Chick-fil-A has an advantage.
MICHAEL PATRICK: Customers are already coming to us for food, so the opportunity to be convenient and do - you know, solve two meal, you know, problems in one visit is the definition of convenience.
HURT: And the convenience of meal kits is appealing to people, but the subscription model has been a harder sell. That's when you pay in advance and get a few deconstructed meals delivered to your door every week. The cooking's on you. Chick-fil-A's model is more flexible, says Patrick.
PATRICK: Tonight you're not going to go home and go, you know, what am I going to have next Wednesday, right? Eighty percent of customers are figuring out what to have for dinner around 4 o'clock. And then they're texting their wife or husband, what are we doing? And we're solving that 4 p.m. problem.
HURT: Other meal kit companies have been catching on and trying to get themselves closer to consumers. In the last year, Plated and Home Chef have both been acquired by grocery stores. Blue Apron, Gobble and HelloFresh have made partnerships with others to try to get their kits on grocery shelves. Brian Todd runs The Food Institute, an industry research group. He says the lines will continue to blur across the entire $1.5 trillion American food industry.
BRIAN TODD: Everyone is fighting for what we call that share of stomach. So the restaurants are competing in supermarket space now and vice versa, where supermarkets have restaurants within them now.
HURT: And what's the way into our stomachs these days? It seems to be healthy, easy, good-tasting food that saves us time and is cheap. Is that too much to ask? For NPR News in Atlanta, I'm Emma Hurt.
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