Before lockdown, my repertoire of home-cooked meals could be counted on one hand: bolognese, carbonara, shepherd’s pie, oven chips, and scrambled eggs, repeated ad nauseum. In the past few weeks however all that has changed, since I became one of the growing number of Britons subscribing to a food subscription box.
Every Tuesday, HelloFresh sends me five meals' worth of ingredients (well, 10 actually, as each one is for two people) and accompanying recipes. Last night it was a sausage mushroom risotto; the evening before, a honeyed pork steak with couscous. I began the week with fajita chicken teamed with homemade refried beans. To accomplished home cooks these may sound basic, but for me they’re a real sea-change.
I’m eating more vegetables than I’ve eaten in years. I’ve learned techniques like rice-cooking, burger-making (and how to season things properly), and for the first time in my adult life I find I'm actually excited about making dinner – and about receiving all the elements for it by post.
Subscription services are nothing new of course. Nowadays we can source everything from television box sets to bespoke, tailored outfits via online clubs with regular deliveries. According to research from Barclaycard, almost two-thirds – 65 per cent – of UK households are signed up to regular subscription services.
But after months in which (most of) the nation was cooped up at home, the numbers are rising. The cash we splash on such platforms increased by just shy of 40 per cent in the year up to July. According to a recent Waitrose report, 60 per cent of us have done more shopping online, and 77 per cent of people do at least half of their grocery shopping online compared to 61 per cent a year ago.
From groceries to full-blown meal kits by post, it’s no surprise that shoppers seek convenience in their online ordering. HelloFresh says it has seen orders more than double since lockdown began, while Mindful Chef, a competitor service which focuses on healthy dishes, saw demand rise by a whopping 452 per cent. Gousto, which is backed by Joe Wicks, sold more recipe boxes in the first six months of 2020 than throughout the whole of 2019.
There are options for all appetites – and ages. Mamamade, which sends organic baby food through the post, offers busy parents plant-based finger foods such as sweet potato and cinnamon porridge and chickpea panisse (£33 for 12 meals). It has seen a 700 per cent increase in subscribers since March. "Modern parents [are] looking for support and convenience, for a service to help share the load," says its founder Sophie Baron. At a time when many people have been isolated and unable to shop in person, this has never been more crucial.
Regular meal-box services tap into other key issues of 21st-century eating: they can help to control portion sizes and reduce food waste, while eliminating decision fatigue. Unlike gym memberships, subscriptions can be paused or cancelled at will.
What’s more, these club-style set ups have become a means of developing and deepening specific foodie interests, whether it's for single origin coffee or farmhouse cheese. Lost Sheep Coffee’s exotic coffee sign-ups (for beans, grinds and pods packaged in environmentally friendly wrapping) have been rising by 26 per cent every month since lockdown began, and meat lovers have flocked to try Farmison & Co.’s Eat Better Meat boxes, which have recruited 30,000 new customers since March. Keen cake makers have joined BakedIn in their droves, causing its monthly subscriber count to leap by 1,200 per cent over the same period. All businesses dispense tasting notes, or cooking inspiration, or (in the case of BakedIn) recipes approved by Michel Roux, in regular deliveries that are delicious, yes, but also enlightening – empowering, even.
Nowhere is this clearer than with The Craft Gin Club, which sends out a bottle of gin, chosen by experts, to its subscribers every month, along with a gin magazine whose pages geekily cover everything from niche botanicals to how to build the best kind of still. The club has seen a 70 per cent increase in new members in the last 12 months, with 30,000 subscribers joining between March and June. "Elevating the at-home drinking experience has been our mission from day one, and it’s never resonated more with consumers," says co-founder John Hulme.
And for new entrepreneurs, the subscription model has become a quick means of generating an engaged customer base during challenging times. “It’s a service that every brand has to consider nowadays," says Johnny Johnson, founder of the alcohol-free lager brand UNLTD which set up a subscription service only last month. "As a start-up it also gives fans the opportunity to come along with us on our journey, offering them a closer connection to the brand."