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Some consumers want meals delivered daily.

A seat at the table: How restaurants can get a piece of at-home meals

Busy schedules, gig economy drive consumers to stay in for dinner

Although many consumers prefer to eat meals at home, they’re still counting on restaurant operators for ways to make at-home meal prep easier, especially at dinner, according to research from The NPD Group.

The vast majority, or 82 percent, of all meals today are made in the home — fully, partially or packaged — while 18 percent are purchased away from home, according to Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD’s 2018 Eating Patterns in America report. And at dinner, nearly 50 percent of all dinner meals are eaten in the home.

Those figures have remained relatively steady over the past two decades, NPD research shows.

“In order to grow, it’s a battle of share of stomach,” said David Portalatin, NPD vice president and food analyst.

But while convenience remains paramount, Portalatin says consumers also want healthy, whole foods — the kind of meals they might cook from scratch, if they had the time.

“There is an opportunity to provide good, whole foods with real ingredients, but spare [consumers] the prep time,” said Portalatin. “That’s what they are demanding.”

“The industry is really well-positioned to do that,” he added.

Driving this demand, in part, is today’s evolving workforce.

While continued growth of women in the workforce long drove the need for convenience and visits to restaurants at dinner, that growth peaked around 2000.

“All of that natural organic growth that was driven by that transformation of the workforce, that’s over,” Portalatin said. “Now we have a different thing. It’s not gender specific.”

There are 6.8 million people in the on-demand workforce — think Uber drivers, Etsy sellers, AirBnB managers and Instacart shoppers — all of whom have flexible schedules and more opportunity to eat at home. That’s on top of the 24 percent of workers who work from home at least some of all of the time.

“We’re seeing all kinds of different solutions to fit [this] customer problem,” said Portalatin. “Solutions oriented for off-premise consumption.”

While many operators are trying to solve the dinner dilemma by adding delivery of current menu items, others are creating offerings designed specifically for the at-home diner. Freshii, a rapidly expanding Toronto-based fast-casual chain, is delivering an entire day’s worth of meals in a box, for example. And Farmly, a new fast-casual rotisserie chicken restaurant in Sea Girt, N.J., is putting a sustainable, chef-driven spin on a fast-food favorite.

Here those brands share their strategies for winning a plate at their customers’ dinner tables.

Putting a fresh, fast spin on a classic

Veteran chef James Avery long craved a place near his suburban New Jersey home where he could get good food — the kind of meals he would cook on his day off — to bring home to his family for dinner. When he couldn’t find anything except pizza shops and Chinese restaurants, he decided to create Farmly, a chef-driven, sustainable rotisserie chicken concept.

“I grew up living on Boston Market,” said Avery. “[Farmly] is comfort food with a modern sensibility. We’re actually cooking, making rice from scratch, baking off bread.”

Opened in May, Avery calls Farmly a “neighborhood kitchen” for people who need to get dinner on the table, but don’t want pizza, Chinese or other fast food. 

On the menu are items such as house-brined, slow-roasted whole rotisserie chicken sourced from local, sustainable farms; grass-fed roast beef; pulled pork; a seasonal vegetable entrée option; as well as a selection of locally sourced seasonal sides, such as roasted Brussels sprouts and radishes, gigante bean and broccoli rabe with garlic and chile flakes, and white cheddar mac and cheese.

So far, Avery says, about 50 percent of customers order meals to go and 50 percent eat in at the 30-seat restaurant.

To entice more families to take their meals to go, Avery is currently offering a back-to-school special featuring a whole rotisserie chicken and two sides, plus a third side for free, priced at $50.

But that price tag is his biggest challenge.

“People have just been taught that a whole chicken should cost $6,” he said.

Yet Avery is so optimistic that once customers try Farmly they will come back that he already has plans to open two additional locations in the next two years.

Targeting health-conscious consumers

Since it launched in 2004, Toronto-based Freshii has been on a mission to make healthy food convenient and affordable. Lately, the fast-casual brand, which serves burritos, bowls, wraps, soups, salads, fresh-pressed juices and frozen yogurt, has been taking that mission out of its more than 420 restaurants around the globe to deliver a variety of off-premise meal solutions straight to consumers’ doors.

Among the latest solutions is the company’s Meal Boxes, introduced in 2016 and described as a “one-stop shop to a full day of healthy eating” that cuts out “shopping, chopping, cooking and cleaning”.

“Convenience is top priority for our guests,” said Melissa Gallagher, Freshii vice president of marketing. “Whether they're young professionals who don't have time to cook, parents trying to juggle schedules or athletes looking to up their game, our Meal Boxes were designed to make it easy to do it all while eating healthy.”

The Meal Boxes, along with delivery, catering, school lunches and grab and go, have contributed to tremendous growth in Freshii’s off-premise business tremendously over the last two years, Gallagher said.

With a full day’s worth of meals and snacks available in four lifestyle options — Clean, Slim, Bulk and Gluten-free — the boxes meet consumers’ convenience and health demands, as well as their desire for customization. The boxes start at $40 a day.

“No one guest is alike,” said Gallagher. “Whether you're a health enthusiast, someone who is ready for better or not quite there yet, our Meal Boxes have something for everyone.”

Correction: Sept. 28, 2018: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sea Girt, N.J. It has also been updated to include the price of the Freshii Meal Boxes.

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