As sales dried up over the summer from local COVID-19 restrictions, restaurants had to find creative ways to maintain revenue. Many turned to third-party delivery companies like Uber Eats and Postmates. But, South Florida chef Shashank Agtey, owner of Sidewalk Kitchen Café in Ft. Lauderdale, saw a different opportunity. He began selling prepackaged meals instead.
Each week approximately 400 customers flood Agtey’s store to pick up something from his Fresh Express Daily menu. At one time, these were drawn primarily from nearby offices. Nowadays, it’s primarily cross-fitters and gym rats, a trend Agtey expects to stick around.
“Right now, people want their meals healthy and socially distanced,” Agtey told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “These prepared meals are the future of dining.”
Designed to be picked up or delivered, refrigerated at home, then heated in the oven or microwave, prepackaged meals offer restaurant owners a flexible and safe way to offer customers fresh food.
Throughout the pandemic, restaurants of all sizes have used prepackaged meals to give back to their communities. For example, several restaurants in the Spokane, Washington area donated meals to the Spokane Women & Children’s Free Restaurant & Community Kitchen, a nonprofit that fills nutrition gaps for women and children.
In Canada, restauranteur and Paramount Fine Foods CEO Mohamad Fakih gives away hundreds of free meals to frontline healthcare workers each week. Fakih said his team is up to 6,000 meals donated per month, though he wants to be giving away 15,000 or more.
“These people are our real heroes, truly, because they go into these homes and they’re so close to the virus, they’re so close to be at risk,” Fakih told the CBC. “I know for a fact that they deserve to be paid better and they need to feel safe.”
Agtey seals his meals in a tight tv-dinner-style container that can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week. He combines elements that are easy to understand—six ounces of protein, starch, and vegetables—with exciting options such as lemongrass chicken and rice with Asian vegetables, turkey shepherd’s pie, and shrimp stir fry.
For Agtey, Facebook marketing was the key. After his lunchtime crowd fizzled out as the coronavirus swept south Florida in the spring, Agtey began promoting meals for $10.95. He said all of the families that are working and cooking from home are getting bored of the same routines, which means he can’t get his shelves restocked fast enough.
“Plus, people are scared about spending a dime in dining rooms,” Agtey continued.
Other high-profile chefs have caught on to the trend, too. Chef Michael Schwartz recently started delivering rigatoni Bolognese kits and the same hand-sliced pastrami offered at his Miami restaurants. In April, chef Joel Ehrlich left Valentino Cucina Italiana to work at Farm to Fork Meals in Oakland Park, Florida, a company that specializes in grab-and-go options.
Ehrlich said the new venture has reinvigorated his passion for cooking and freed him creatively.
“It’s more fun than Valentino, where you just make the best Italian food, and you’re in a box. “Now I cook American, Chinese, Spanish, and German. Now there is no box. Just a box to go,” he told the Sun-Sentinel.
To streamline services, some restaurants are offering tiered membership options for customers. The Lynhall, in both its Minneapolis and Edna, Minnesota locations, asks people to subscribe to access a range of “special, chef-curated experiences that can be enjoyed from home.” Subscriptions range from $25 to $94 per month.
A couple of options include:
- The Bakery Tier: $25/month. Customers receive specialty bread made with house-made jams or whipped butter. For another $20, customers can select from artisan pastries, too.
- The Savory Tier: $80/month. Customers receive a rotating seasonal quiche or frittata along with breakfast potatoes, bacon, and a green salad.
- The Larder Tier: $95/month. Customers receive 4-6 seasonal cheeses along with accouterments, house-made crackers, and bread, with the option of adding a bottle of specially-selected wine, or a cocktail kit.
Michael Panza, chef and owner of Farm to Fork Meals said demand is high enough for prepackaged meals that Farm to Fork has been able to expand while sales have been down. The company now operates out of a 40,000-square-foot commissary kitchen in Oakland Park. Alongside Ehrlich, he’s hired a sous chef and 25 packers.
Panza also sees the benefit for his customers. People are being asked to juggle a lot right now. School, kids, jobs, families, just to name a few.
“The demand is so much higher right now than dine-in,” Panza told the Sun-Sentinel. “Everyone’s in a state of panic. What we’re hearing people want are convenient fresh meals. So our customers are stocking up with six, eight meals at once. It helps you gain time back in your like. To know they have a fridge at home with prepared meals that take two minutes to heat in the oven that resolves so much stress.”