Vijay Rajendran has a philosophy: Life is too short for food to be boring.
It became the slogan for his company Hungry Globetrotter, which sells boxes of unusual spices and other ingredients that can be made into a meal. Rajendran launched the startup in September, becoming the latest in a string of Bay Area entrepreneurs, nonprofits and chefs to experiment with do-it-yourself meal kits for home cooks.
"Hungry Globetrotter offers a monthly subscription of recipes, sauces and spices that help you cook the cuisine of a different country every month," Rajendran says. "We think of ourselves as being an international culinary adventure right in your kitchen."
Whether it's a desire to learn about new cuisines or a way to get a healthy dinner on the table, people are hungry for these types of boxes loaded with the makings of a nice meal, Rajendran and others say.
Some kits include all the spices, vegetables and meat you'll need to cook dinner, while others require shopping. A few are ready to eat with little, if any, cooking.
Hungry Globetrotter's customers sign up for a yearly subscription and receive a monthly kit with branded products that may be hard to find at mainstream grocery stores, such as Cobra Corn Mumbai Masala popcorn or curry simmer sauces from Maya Kaimal.
The kits cost $34.95 but require you to buy fresh ingredients, such as chicken, pushing the final price tag higher for a four-person meal that can be cooked in about an hour. Since September, he's sold a couple hundred kits saluting the cuisines of Southern India, Japan, Morocco and Argentina. Rajendran hopes to add a few thousand customers by late 2014.
"I think there is a huge market out there," Rajendran says.
So does Liz Hunt, director of marketing and public relations at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which operates San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Next month, the nonprofit will begin selling meal boxes ($19-$29) stocked with just about everything you need to make a vegetarian dinner for two, with recipes developed by local chefs. The goal is to get some of the pristine produce from the market into more hands -- and mouths.
"Teaching people how to cook is a huge part of what we do," Hunt says. "This is a natural extension of that. There are great, hand-selected ingredients in the box with a recipe, so they're guaranteed to have an awesome experience with some of the best produce you can buy in San Francisco."
CUESA's Chef Market Basket resembles the Chef's Market Box, a product tested last year by another nonprofit, the Mission Community Market (MCM) in San Francisco. The program is on hiatus until spring.
MCM's Chef's Market Box ($17-$30) seemed like the perfect way to bring together local farms, chefs and food lovers, says Jeremy Shaw, MCM's executive director.
"The biggest lesson is that people really value fresh and local food," Shaw says. "They just have trouble getting it sometimes because they're so busy, so this is a way to solve that problem."
No muss, no fuss
These meal kits all require prep and cooking, such as chopping and simmering, but others make it even easier.
"At most, someone has to lightly sauté mushrooms that have already been lightly sautéed, just to heat them up," de Vries says. "They can feel like a professional chef without doing all the work."
The meal box from Luke's Local is similarly no-fuss. The San Francisco-based company has been contracted to curate and deliver CUESA's Chef Market Basket. But it also offers its own line of ready-to-eat meals created by area chefs, as well as organic produce and other foods. The company calls its offerings a mix between a CSA, personal catering and artisan food shop. Its meal boxes, along with the CUESA and MCM meal kits, are sold through the Good Eggs online marketplace.
Owner Luke Chappell has sold about 100 meal boxes each week for the last three months, but expects that number to grow in 2013. "I see a much bigger opportunity than what we’re doing right now," Chappell says.
De Vries of Luella sells as many as 50 meal kits per week. The response has been great, but his chef friends are also keeping tabs on how the kits sell. With the various costs of doing business in the city, he says, chefs are constantly looking for more revenue streams, such as prepared foods and pop-ups.
Turning a profit
Luella in a Bag becomes profitable if de Vries sells more than 20 meal kits per week. That's because his restaurant already covers related expenses, but he suspects it becomes more challenging when meal kits are a company's sole revenue stream.
Sales and funding were two obstacles faced by San Francisco's Culture Kitchen, a company that sold ethnic meal kits with spices, nuts and other ingredients sized to make Iraqi, Thai or West Indian meals. The company announced today that it is shutting down its shop after roughly 18 months in business.
"There were a lot of costs associated with the packaging," says Abby Sturges, a Culture Kitchen co-founder. "It made it difficult to reach the price point we needed to reach. Our day-to-day operations were consumed with getting product in and out the door."
Sturges will continue to blog as a way to focus on Culture Kitchen's larger vision of building a community around ethnic food and getting people back into the kitchen.
People truly do want the opportunity to cook more often, says CUESA's Hunt.
"The reason we see more of these boxes is people really love to cook, but there's a real challenge in planning a menu and going to the grocery store," Hunt says. "If we can make this a viable alternative, I think we can really improve the quality of people's lives."