There are many secrets in the legal world but possibly few as bizarre as that of Patrick Drake. Bored with his ill-judged career choice to become a lawyer, the young food enthusiast led a double life while working at Clifford Chance, dealing with his various briefs during office hours but sneaking into the kitchen of the fine dining room on the 30th floor during lunchtime to learn as much as he could.
These clandestine sessions were a leading factor in Drake quitting the law – colleagues thought he had “lost his marbles” – and becoming a founding member of Hello Fresh, one of a new wave of companies working to re-engineer the takeaway meal.
Inspired by a similar model in Sweden, the company delivers ingredients and recipes so customers can quickly make their own meals from a menu of dishes such as satay chicken and pasta with roasted squash.
Restricting customers’ shopping basket to the exact quantity of ingredients required also reduces the potential for waste because the cooks at home don’t end up with a cupboard full of spice jars they have only used once or twice.
Customers generally order three to five meals for two or four people – the most popular choice works out at £6.50 per meal – and the meat or vegetarian option is delivered in specially crafted boxes along with a menu and recipes.
Drake says the system encourages people to attempt dishes they have not made before by making it simple for them. “There is that intimidation factor with cooking – that ‘I have never tried this recipe before so I am not going to try it’,” says Drake. “Layered on top of that is that, if you want to try a new recipe, you probably have to buy three different types of spices, maybe never use them again and you will have to buy a whole pot which will stay in the back of your cupboard for five, maybe eight, years. I have found a pot in my cupboard from when I was a student and that is a waste of money.
“The core of it is taking away the tyranny of choice for people. Just saying ‘Here is the option, you don’t need to do any thinking, you just follow the pictures on the back of the recipe card.’”
Hello Fresh launched simultaneously in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the UK three years ago and has progressed from Drake and his colleagues packing Parmesan cheese in his London flat and making deliveries on the tube to raising more than £45m in three rounds of funding through e-commerce venture capital group Rocket Internet and expanding into the US.
The concept of delivering an unprepared meal has attracted other players. Berlin start-up Marley Spoon started delivering in the UK last month after first taking orders in Germany.
Co-founder Fabian Siegel says that, rent aside, food is the biggest expenditure for most people. “It is a bigger industry than the car industry. It is a massive industry that hasn’t been touched by e-commerce, that hasn’t been touched by technology. I won’t even say it is a low-tech industry, I would say that it is a no-tech industry.
“There are hundreds of millions of tonnes of food being thrown away in the European Union every year so we thought that is a massive industry.”
Marley Spoon tells its customers they only need salt, pepper and oil and it will provide the rest of the ingredients. Its minimum order is four portions per delivery, at an average price of about £8 per dish, which will last five days in the fridge.
Siegel says it can often work out cheaper to buy from his service and get what you need rather than buying ingredients that you end up throwing away. “When you cook for yourself, you buy in the supermarket sauces but the quantities are not what you need,” he says.
The rise of the celebrity chef in recent years and the boom in television shows and spin-off books has opened up the opportunity for companies like theirs, he says. “I feel the success of cooking shows made the market ready for a product like this. You want to cook and you want to get inspiration for new things and we make it very easy for you,” Siegel says.
Drake thinks the service offers access to foods that may otherwise be unavailable. “If you are living in rural Shropshire, you don’t necessarily have access to an Asian supermarket that does rice noodles and kimchi and mirin. There is a sense for people outside London that we want to be doing what they are doing too,” he says.
But they are problems. The perception among customers that what Hello Fresh offers is an alternative to shopping and not an occasional one-off treat is the greatest stumbling block, says Drake.
Eager to eat healthily but unable to find consistent options for eating after work in the City, friends Marcus Price and Niall Crowley set upEvolve, a home delivery service for paleo ready-meals. The diet, which is popular in the US, removes dairy, grains and processed sugars with dishes using alternatives, such as swapping standard rice for cauliflower rice or sweet potato noodles.
“Cooking is not my strong point.” says Crowley. “So there was a need for people like ourselves that are working long hours and don’t have the ability to cook.”
After starting to sell the meals at their local gym, they are distributing about 6,000 meals a month, at £12 each, to a loyal audience of about 300 a week, mostly in the City of London.
What’s in the box?
The specific shopping box which contains individually proportioned ingredients is dictated by the exact menus on the recipe cards. Dishes typically alternate depending on where you live – a sample Hello Fresh menu in the UK has peppered pork fillet and a meatball curry while in the US there is a coffee-rubbed steak taco. Single garlic cloves are included instead of a whole bulb along with individual sticks of celery and small pots of sauces and cheeses.