Home chef kit services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh have been a growing trend in the commercial food market as consumers try to balance the convenience of prepared takeout with the satisfaction of making their meals themselves. The platforms provide all the components needed to make a specific recipe and the customer simply assembles and cooks it. It’s like at-home speed-scratch.
The dining services team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has latched on to this trend with a program called UMass Fresh that mimics the Blue Apron/Hello Fresh model by providing ready-to-cook dinner kits available through the UMass meal plan.
“It’s a way to increase the value of meal plans,” explains Garret DiStefano, director of residential dining and sustainability, noting that just under half (about 10,000) of the school’s 22,000-some meal plan holders live off campus, including a couple thousand faculty members and graduate students. These individuals mostly patronize campus dining outlets during the day while they are onsite, but then tend to fend for themselves for dinner once they leave campus.
UMass Fresh offers an alternative. For a single meal swipe, the customer gets to select from a pair of entrée choices and four sides, which is then packed up for takeout. The food, which is already cooked but chilled for transport, can then be prepared in a few minutes once the person gets home.
It gives the student living off campus the option of taking a high-quality, chef-designed meal home, where it can be heated and ready to eat quickly, as opposed to staying later on campus to eat a meal plan funded dinner, says DiStefano.
“Say there’s a student who has class until seven who really doesn’t want to sit in the campus center or a dining commons to eat dinner,” he offers. “Rather, he wants to be home in his apartment with friends or a girlfriend and have a dinner but doesn’t know how to cook. Well, he can have a chef-made meal of high quality that literally takes five minutes or so to prepare at home and get the same [culinary] experience as at one of our dining places.”
The program, which currently sells between 50 and a hundred meals a day during the school year, is highly reminiscent of the home meal replacement (HMR) trend that had quite a vogue some years back, primarily in workplace type environments like B&I and healthcare. HMR programs were intended to capture some of the evening meal business by offering an onsite alternative to commercial takeout services from restaurants and c-stores.
A critical component of successful HMR programs has been the ease and convenience of the ordering and pickup process, and it is also a key component of the UMass Fresh initiative.
“We’ve designed this to be in high-traffic areas where we know the customers this is designed to serve will be,” DiStefano says, citing the café in the Whitmore Administration Building, where many adult staff work, as one major pickup point.
Operational adjustments are minimal, he adds. In fact, the take-home program “maximizes utility” by adding value to a low-traffic part of the day.
“Cafes [in workplaces] start to wane off [in the late afternoon] as people start going home, so it isn’t doing much business,” DiStefano explains, “but it still has refrigeration units and warming boxes that are running but not being used very much. So why not use them?”
The cost is minimal, he adds. “The equipment’s already paid for and used, the staff is there cleaning up but [otherwise] not really doing a heck of a lot.”
Convenience is being enhanced even further this semester in the Whitmore building by extending what had been a daytime desk delivery service to the dinner meals, so now administrators and staff in the complex can order evening meal kits and have them delivered to their desks before they leave for the day.
A successful offshoot of UMass Fresh is a holiday meal program that offered meals kits designed to serve six to eight individuals at Thanksgiving and at Christmas for $99.95 (not, however, part of the meal plan). The kits included an entree (roast turkey from Vermont-based Misty Knoll Farm for Thanksgiving and Niman Ranch all-natural ham with cider glaze from the university’s own Cold Spring Orchard for Christmas), vegetable and starch sides from a variety of local producers and a dessert, also locally sourced.
The local sourcing component is a critical part of both the program’s goals and its marketing, explains Christopher Howland, director of purchasing, marketing & logistics for UMass Auxiliary Enterprises.
“We take the best of UMass Dining food with our local/healthy/sustainable commitment and package it for folks who are part of our campus community,” he notes. “We found that to be a great selling point.”
The holiday meals were certainly a hit. The Thanksgiving program, for example, doubled its sales from 2016, the program’s first year, with 280 kits sold in 2017.
Howland says UMass Dining is now looking to extend the program to other holidays such as Valentine’s Day, or perhaps a monthly Sunday dinner kit.
“People love it,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many people were looking forward to ordering the Thanksgiving and holiday kits.”
In fact, a post-order survey found universal satisfaction with the program and equally universal willingness to recommend it to others.
To make the holiday meal kit program even more convenient, UMass Dining made free parking spaces available for those coming to pick up their kits, and staffers helped carry them to the cars, a valuable service as they each weigh more than 20 pounds.
Also, UMass chefs were available to trouble-shoot any problems, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas Days.
“If your turkey is not coming out the right way,” Howland quips in reference to the well-known national holiday turkey vendor’s customer service promise, “they have the Butterball hotline, while we have the UMass hotline.”