Bon Appetit! Start-Ups for Time-Pressed Chefs
As grocery shopping online gains traction, several start-ups are betting that consumers are willing to shell out for dinner "kits" delivered straight to their door.
Matt Salzberg said he and his partners at Blue Apron were inspired by a typical problem of young urban professionals.
"We were working hard and wanted to cook at home more often but found it very difficult to do all the legwork, the shopping, preparation and cooking to create a great meal," he said.
That frustration spurred the launch of Blue Apron, which has secured $3 million in funding from venture capital firms, Dave Tisch, and founders and executives of Seamless and Facebook.
The company offers a once-a-week subscription service for delivery of three meals for two, four or six people. Customers can choose from vegetarian, poultry, or meat or fish options. The meals, priced at $9.99 each, contain all ingredients in exact amounts, plus recipes and instructions.
The cost turns out to be about the same as doing everything yourself, Salzberg said. Because Blue Apron cuts out the middlemen, buys in bulk and portions appropriately, it's able to offer meals more efficiently and with less waste. For example, customers avoid buying an entire container of a pricey ingredient, such as saffron, when only a pinch is needed.
(Read More: Secret's Out! Hidden Menu Items)
Pitching meals ranging from $12 to $15 per person, Julien Nakache, co-founder at Chef Day, said most customers consider the company a less expensive alternative to going to a restaurant. Each week, it offers 10 to 12 recipes to choose from.
"We're more expensive than cooking pasta in your kitchen," he said. "But ... if you need to get all the ingredients together for a nice recipe, the price is roughly the same."
'Final Frontier of Ecommerce'
These companies are capitalizing on a trend that they hope is just the beginning of a revolution: more people ordering groceries and ingredients for meals online.
As consumers grow more accustomed to do other types of shopping online, they have started buying food there, fueling the popularity of online grocers, such as Fresh Direct and Peapod.
Seeing opportunity in delivering fresh food to the masses, Amazon.com announced a major rollout of its online grocery business, AmazonFresh, that it has been developing for years. To the dinner-kit makers, Amazon's move validates their potential.
(Read More: Amazon Plans Major Move Into Grocery Business)
Nick Taranto, Plated's co-founder, said the development corroborates what his year-old business is doing. Just last year, the landscape was different, he said. Plated had more than 150 meetings to obtain funding to hear "yes" only five times.
"We had to cobble together $25,000 and $50,000 checks just to get off the ground," he said.
Powered by $1.4 million in seed money led by ff Venture Capital and Andrew McCollum, the co-founder of Facebook, Plated now ships tens of thousands of meals every month.
"I think the opportunity here is just massive," Taranto said. "We really see this as the opportunity of a generation. Food is the final frontier of ecommerce."
Salzberg echoed that idea.
"The food business is one of the largest industries out there that hasn't been transformed by the Internet yet," he said. "We believe that that's a huge opportunity because people are becoming more comfortable with purchasing things online, yet there's no large company that has become a dominant player in the online grocery space."
This dinner-kit trend follows a related wave of businesses in the early 2000s. Those companies, including Dream Dinners and Super Suppers, offered customers the chance to prep meals at the companies' retail locations. They grew rapidly at the beginning of the last decade but had to shutter stores in large numbers as food prices climbed and the economy faltered.
The proliferation of businesses coincides with increased interest in healthier eating and continued migration to urban areas.
Blue Apron, Plated and Chef Day all listed urbanites—specifically young professionals, most of whom live in dual-income households with no kids—as core customers.
To position for this next ecommerce wave, each company's trying to differentiate itself.
Blue Apron bills itself as a way to promote lifelong learning among chefs. (In America, chefs like Julia Child adopted the blue apron to symbolize the importance of continued learning, the website says.) Newsletters are included that provide cooks with information about their meals and about upcoming dishes.
At Chef Day, meals come with short videos recorded by the chef who created the recipe explaining how to make the dish. Nakache describes the videos as "kind of like having a cooking class with your own personal chef," a concept that will likely resonate with today's Cooking Channel and Food Network watcher.
Meanwhile, Plated hopes its efforts to build a cooking and eating community will set it apart. Its social recipe board, which looks similar to Pinterest, allows users to comment on, share and "like" recipes.
"Today on Instagram and Pinterest, there are 15 photos of food uploaded every second, so that social recipe board is just the beginning of harnessing some of that pre-existing consumer behavior and turning that back into ecommerce," Taranto said.
The recent uptick in interest illustrates another trend. Both Taranto and Salzberg spent some time in finance (the former at Goldman Sachs and the latter at Blackstone) before venturing into entrepreneurship—a move that Taranto said makes complete sense.
"The financial world, high finance, has become shackled by regulation, compliance and low returns," he said. "When the alternative exists to work with passionate people on a project you believe in, doing something where you have fun and where there's large potentially financial upside, it's actually shocking to me why people would still go to Wall Street at all."
But for those who do, Taranto's new venture and others like it are standing by to take your order.
—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle.