Lauren Goode

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New Crop of Online Food Services Offer Everything but the Chef

Last week, some FreshDirect customers found themselves in a mild panic when the online grocery service suffered a two-day outage due to a renewal issue with the company’s Web domain name.

What was a small glitch for FreshDirect might have been a prime opportunity for the newest crop of food delivery services — companies that don’t don’t deliver groceries, but instead ship boxes of pre-prepared recipe ingredients that aim to make even the busiest professionals or harried parents look like food stars.

“We want to be your sous chef,” says Simon Schmincke, chief marketing officer at HelloFresh, which is headquartered in Berlin and recently started serving parts of the U.S. “It’s a subscription model, so you don’t have to order groceries every week.”

These types of formulated meal services, like HelloFresh and Sweden-based Linas Matkasse, have been popular in parts of Europe for several years. Now they’re making their way Stateside — and showing early signs of success.

Earlier this month, HelloFresh secured $10 million in funding. Another fledgling service, Blue Apron, recently nabbed $800,000 in seed funding from a group that includes the founders of Seamless and Yipit.

Here’s how it works: Consumers sign up for weekly food-ordering options, which usually don’t exceed three prepared meals per week. The services then send subscribers an email a week ahead of time with some recipe options. The subscribers have about a day to respond to the email with their selections. The following week, the food arrives in the mail.

But, to be clear, these aren’t precooked meals; they’re boxes with the raw materials, right down to the half-cup of diced onions or a pinch of salt, along with cooking instructions.

The pricing plans range from $8 a meal from a service like FreshDish to $69 a week for three meals from HelloFresh. That might sound like a lot for just a few meals, but the minds behind the companies will argue that you’re not spending chunks of change on spice jars you’ll never use again, or on a whole bundle of cilantro that will soon turn brown and soupy in your fridge.

Some of these services are targeting different audiences. HelloFresh has partnered with Aquavit, a restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side, to come up with recipes that will be pleasing to the foodie crowd. Blue Apron creator Matt Salzberg stresses that the company sources only high-quality food, including meats from the same wholesaler that provides for Mario Batali’s establishment Eataly. Steve Goldstein, the creator of Fresh Dish, was inspired by the challenges facing working parents, and has said that Fresh Dish is aimed at families.

Like most new ventures, these services don’t address all markets in the U.S., and can be somewhat limited. Most ship meals for two, four or six people only. Some don’t offer vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free meal options, and most don’t allow the subscriber to adjust the recipe before it ships if they’re allergic to certain ingredients (the companies say customers with food allergies can just leave out those items while preparing the meal). They also don’t ship grocery-store items, like a carton of milk or case of water.

And for frequent travelers, a food subscription may not be ideal: You’ll have to remember to pause the service or deselect meal options the week before you go. Fresh Dish says it veered away from the subscription model for that reason.

But, unlike something like FreshDirect, which requires that the customer is home to receive a delivery, these meal kits come in convenient, insulated boxes that can sit on your stoop for up to a day while you toil away at work.

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