Meal kit delivery companies — the likes of Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Gousto — were once the golden boys and girls of the start-up world. They offered time-strapped, cash-rich city dwellers a convenient way to shake up their cooking routines at home — and venture capitalists (who fit that profile to a T) lapped it up, just as they eagerly swallowed the promises of on-demand food delivery businesses such as Deliveroo.
But it is not looking so good for these over-funded, cash-and customer-losing businesses. Last week it was reported that Blue Apron, the US-based veteran of the sector, is laying off staff and looking for a buyer.
UK-based Deliveroo is also looking wobbly, as the Competition and Markets Authority drags out its probe into Amazon’s investment in the company.
Perhaps it is time to take a step back: is this really the convenience we need when it comes to filling our bellies?
The average person does not live by takeaway alone; most of us buy the majority of our food in the humble supermarket.
And we do, generally, buy it in the supermarket: in Europe and the US, more than 90 per cent of grocery spending still happens in store. Yet, while online grocery shopping is not a new phenomenon, it’s been slow to take off.
For many of us, shopping for food online is not offering the convenience we want: it is too expensive; the delivery windows are too narrow; the bananas arrive too green or too yellow; loading up an online shopping basket is a pain; and we have no idea what we want to have for dinner next week anyway.
There are plenty of young companies hoping to crack parts of this conundrum and tap into what feels sure to be an enormous market, eventually. There’s La Fourche in France, an online store which offers members heavily discounted organic goods, and Matsmart in Sweden, which sells dry goods for between 20 and 90 per cent of their original price.
Even takeaway delivery companies such as Deliveroo and its Spanish competitor Glovo are testing out whether it makes sense for them to offer super-speedy, small basket grocery deliveries.
French entrepreneur Jacques-Edouard Sabatier thinks he has a somewhat different solution.
His app, Jow (pronounced “Joe”), recommends 15-minute recipes to users and then automatically fills up their shopping basket with the ingredients they need to make them.
Jow’s core customers are people in their 30s and 40s with young families — people like Mr Sabatier, who became a father three years ago and rediscovered the weekly horror of the supermarket shop and dinnertime indecision.
“I tried every supermarket app in France and found it horrible,” he says. “It took more than one hour to fill a cart, and then after my fridge was filled I had the very same question: what shall we cook tonight?”
On Jow, parents can find “life-proof” recipes for steak chimichurri, pasta alla norma and coconut-breaded cod. Once they have filled their baskets with food and other essentials — nappies, toilet roll, detergent — the majority choose to pick up their pre-packed orders from their local store. (Jow is working with six big supermarkets in France.)
“It’s way more flexible than the meal kits — and usually three or four times cheaper than the HelloFresh or Blue Apron equivalent,” Mr Sabatier says.
“In a world where you have Netflix to recommend movies and Spotify to recommend music, there’s not one global service to recommend you food,” Mr Sabatier adds, somewhat ambitiously.
But that, I think, might be once again taking convenience too far. I am not sure I want an algorithm to tell me what to make for dinner. Cooking food is not an optional activity like watching films or listening to music. It has to be done and I have to do it.
And there are, we all know, only so many new recipes you can make in a row before you just want some plain old beans on toast.
Amy Lewin is deputy editor of Sifted