Friday, November 24, 2017
Business

Will the new meal kits at Publix rival Blue Apron and HelloFresh? We put it to the test

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First it was grocery delivery with Instacart. Next it was adding Starbucks kiosks inside some stores. Now Publix Supermarkets is piloting a new meal kit program, similar to what consumers see from popular online companies like Blue Apron and HelloFresh, with individualized portions for meals.

Publix has been testing the kits at the store at Shoppes at Citrus Park in Tampa, located at 7835 Gunn Highway, and another in Orlando since March. The meal kits, which are offered at three different price points and require varying levels of cooking, are an extension of the Lakeland-based grocer's long standing Aprons Simple Meals program. Each day employees create fresh dinner options which can serve a family of four. There are six different meals to choose from, two for each pricing tier. The kits are billed as dinner for a family in six steps or less. Prices vary from $9.99 for a bratwurst meal with sauerkraut, potato salad and baked beans, to $19.99 for a pork dish with mushrooms and a Brie sauce over mashed potatoes. The middle tier costs $11.99.

Previous Coverage: Solid customer service no longer enough for Publix as competition heats up

"Publix has been in the prepared meal game for almost 20 years through our Apron Simple Meals program. This is the next evolution of that," said Brian West, a spokesman for Publix. "We are very much in a testing phase at these two stores, but it is going very, very well so far."

I put his assessment to the test, trying out a kit for the first time on Wednesday night.

The meal kits are prominently displayed in a cooler case at the front of the store in Citrus Park. It's worth noting that Publix has used this store to test other new programs before, like the short-lived grocery curbside pick up program which ended in 2012.

When I arrived about 5:15 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, a Publix employee was making one of the meals from the kits for shoppers to sample at an Aprons cooking station adjacent to the meal kit cooler.

Each brown paper bag has a recipe card taped to the front of the bag and includes all individually-portioned ingredients inside needed to make the meal. I decided to try the pork and mushroom dish at home Wednesday night. The four-step recipe was easy to follow. Publix told me how to slice and spice the meat, how to melt the brie cheese into the broth and included a container of Bob Evan's microwavable mashed potatoes, fresh mushrooms and parsley. The only additional ingredient I needed from home was butter.

It took 40 minutes total to make the meal and serve it. It was savory, delicious and filling, though not very healthy because of the amount of butter and cheese. I didn't find a vegetarian option back at the store, either.

"Publix is the first one I know of that's offering meal kits based on your experience as a cook," said Phil Lempert, editor of Supermarketguru.com. "No one else is doing it that way."

The convenience of it, of course, is key. It was nice to come home from work and that I could be on auto-pilot as I made my way through a quick and simple recipe. That must be why the Blue Apron and HelloFresh concepts have grown in popularity so quickly. When I visited a Whole Foods 365 store in Seattle last year, the whole store concept seemed to be based on the convenience of grab-and-go prepared meals.

"Supermarkets are trying to do all things food right now to catch every customer. They're adding restaurants in the store. They're beefing up their produce and raw ingredients," Lempert said. "They're getting into meal kits where shoppers can just microwave a meal at home. They're trying to satisfy every need for consuming food in one space."

Previous Coverage: Check out the 365 by Whole Foods experience coming to Florida (though not Tampa Bay yet)

Publix has been on a roll lately with trying out new tools too. That's probably because Publix has more competitors now than ever before. Organic supermarkets like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, The Fresh Market and newcomers to Florida, like Lucky's Market, Earth Fare and Sprouts Farmers Market, are slowly eating away at Publix's market share. Discount grocery brands like Aldi and Save-A-Lot are expanding too, making price points even more competitive. It's the traditional grocery store format, like Publix, Winn-Dixie and Walmart, that are feeling the pinch at both ends.

"Meal kits is the latest trend. For Publix to compete, they have to offer the same services or else customers will go elsewhere," said Faith Hope Consolo, chairman for the Retail Group with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York City. "The way people shop for food has changed. It's daily now. People want fresh, gourmet options in an easy way. Grocery stores have to serve every niche shopper now."

It's unclear when and if Publix will offer meal kits at more stores in the future, West said. But he did say he talked to a few customers in Tampa who said they canceled their online grocery subscriptions because of Publix's meal kits.

"Customers are definitely taking notice," West said.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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