The rise and rise of the meal kit

The ever-expanding range of meal kits

A trip into almost any UK supermarket these days will alert the observant shopper to the proliferation in meal kits and two- and three-step cooking packets. It seems as if just about everyone is getting in on the kit act which handily combines the illusion of cooking from scratch with the personalisation element that so many of us crave.

Retail Insider caught up with Spice Tailor, a brand which has been at the forefront of developing a successful meal kit business to get to the bottom of why this section of the aisle just keeps getting longer.

Adarsh Sethia, managing director of Spice Tailor, believes that one of the main drivers behind the increasing popularlity of meal kits is the fragmentation of the food market generally: “Years ago you had four main ways to eat. Cook from scratch, get a chilled meal, use a sauce or paste, or go to a restaurant. All those options are obviously still there but add to that home deliveries like HelloFresh and Deliveroo – bringing you food from the kind of restaurants that never delivered or did takeaway before – as well as dark kitchens and a consumer who is more demanding, well-travelled and experimental than ever before”.

For a meal kit brand to survive and thrive in such a plethora of alternatives meant it had to offer something truly different to the consumer. “Our three-step approach was pioneering in the Indian category,” claims Sethia,

“What Spice Tailor saw was the disconnect between the quality of the Indian ready-made food available on the supermarket shelf and the food you were served in an Indian restaurant.” He says that the British have always loved Indian cuisine but were perennially disappointed with the taste of mass produced ethnic food leading to an obvious gap in the market.

However, even though the Spice Tailor recipes and brand was developed by TV chef and best-selling Indian cookery book writer Anjum Anand, the first product meetings with supermarket bosses were downbeat.

“They would tell us to come in but not to get our hopes up because it was a category dominated by billion pound players,” he explains. And indeed it is – Associated British Foods owns Pataks, Premier Foods owns Sharwoods and Mars owns Seeds for Change. “We really were up against the huge multi-nationals. But we went in, cooked the product and they loved it.” A national listing in Waitrose followed and now eight years later Spice Tailor kits are also on sale in the UK via Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Ocado.

Anand, a busy wife and mother in her own right, designed the kits as a way to help the time poor in the kitchen and also to demystify certain beliefs around Indian cookery as to its unhealthiness. She came up with the recipes to replicate home cookery methods because as Sethia says: “You don’t just throw it all in a pot. Like most cookery it is layered.”

Anjum Anand sourcing spices in India

In terms of the Spice Tailor range the original curry kits (including Fiery Goan, Keralan Coconut and Southern Pepper) are best sellers as they are the most familiar product. But the lentil daals also do well and last year saw the launch of a range of rice-based biryani kits (Hyderabad, Delhi and Malabar).

“Biryanis would normally take an hour to cook but we launched one that is ready in 15 minutes. Likewise to make a daal, they should be left overnight but ours is ready in five minutes,” says Sethia. To get into the popular BBQ market there are tandoori marinades and now a foray into SE Asian green curries and rendangs.

Of course the tailoring of the spices as the company name suggests is critical for people to believe in the kit. “People sometimes cannot get hold of the more exotic spices, or they are too expensive and even if they can they don’t know how long they have been sitting on the shelf,” he says.

Additionally, to have full jars of every spice used in Indian cookery is not practicable in most kitchen spaces making the small pre-fry spice pouch included in every kit extra important. Sethia says that Spice Tailor meal kits are all suitable for vegetarians but it is of course up to the consumer to decide which protein or filler ingredient they wish to use – all of which sits perfectly with the trend towards completely personalised food.

In the search for that authentic taste there is one more twist to Spice Tailor’s products. “There is a terroir to any food. Indian onions don’t taste like British onions for example,” according to Sethia and the company’s products are therefore prepared and packed in India with the exception of the naan range, which is prepared in the UK.

It is, as Sethia emphasises, the inherent layering in most cookery that is at the heart of any meal kit and one of the reasons why cooking with them has become so popular. “When you think about it hardly any food is prepared by putting it all in a dish together at once. Most food is prepared in stages.” And he sees no reason why this layering principle cannot in theory be applied to any cuisine not just the world food ranges where the kit market currently predominantly lies.

In short don’t expect the meal kit aisle to start shrinking any time soon.