On Wednesday, the Boston-based vegan meal kit company Purple Carrot announced that it will begin selling its boxes of premeasured ingredients in local Whole Foods stores. The two-year-old startup’s pilot program will offer three recipes for sale in the grocer’s store in Dedham this week.
It’s an interesting move for Purple Carrot, which has until now relied on an e-commerce subscription model to serve its customers. Like other meal kit companies, such as Blue Apron, Chef’d, and HelloFresh, Purple Carrot’s users typically sign up to receive the boxes of perishable food items at home, paying about $10 per person, per meal. The companies lure in eaters by pitching restaurant-quality recipes, interesting ingredients, and the opportunity to learn new cooking techniques.
It’s a model that seems to be having a moment. Over $650 million has been raised in venture funds across this segment of startups, and the industry is valued at about $1.5 billion, according to the research firm Packaged Facts.
But if the whole point of meal kits was supposed to save you a trip to the supermarket, why are they now being sold in stores?
It seems grocery chains have begun to catch on to the hype. After realizing that they’re literally getting their lunch stolen by these startups, they’ve begun to look for ways to tap into the public’s interest in the trend.
The mid-Atlantic grocery chain Giant has begun boxing up its own prepared meals, and online grocery site Peapod now offers a line of premeasured ingredient kits that can feed four to six people. Amazon’s food delivery service, Fresh, has its own meal kit model in partnership with Tyson Foods.
Whole Foods has proved its willingness to partner with other brands as a way of staying ahead of shoppers’ habits. After establishing a relationship with the on-demand grocery delivery service Instacart, the company announced it would invest in the four-year-old startup last February. The Purple Carrot partnership is the first of its kind for the chain.
Purple Carrot’s CEO, Andy Levitt, said he believes the pilot is a testament to the mission both companies have to bring more plant-based meals to the masses.
“Whole Foods recognizes that now, more than ever, customers are in need of convenience without sacrificing quality or nutrition,” he said. “The ethos of our brand matches nicely to theirs. It’s a smart way for the two brands to collaborate.”
Starting this week, Purple Carrot’s boxes of Mongolian seitan stir fry, pan seared tofu and black rice noodles, and cashew korma with cauliflower rice will be on sale for $19.99 at the Dedham location. (Whole Foods will also serve the startup’s recipes in the to-go hot bar on site.) The cost is slightly lower than the meals would be if they were delivered to customers’ homes because there is no shipping cost, Levitt said. He hopes the in-store kits will prompt people to subscribe.
“We are thrilled to provide another convenient, simple way for customers to prepare delicious, high quality dishes at home,” Kimberley Rose, Whole Food’s regional vice president of purchasing, said in a statement.
Adam Salomone, the cofounder of the Food Loft in the South End, which incubates food startups, said the move was logical for Whole Foods. “When you look at the meal kit space, there’s been a overhanging question as to how groceries would play a role,” he said.
But Salomone also warned that the value-add that Purple Carrot offers may not be longstanding, particularly if Whole Foods can leverage its own buying network and supply chain infrastructure to eventually source its own kits.
For a company like Whole Foods, this corporate partnership could end up being a “low-cost R&D before they roll something out on their own,” he said.