Meal Kits Revolutionize Food Business

Ready meals or meal kits, once the last refuge of the terminally lazy, have become almost a staple of many people’s lives in the pandemic.

Meal kits in particular are breaking down boundaries between home cooking and eating out as restaurants have turned to assembling them for customers who miss their fare.

According to the Korea Rural Economic Institute, the meal kits market in Korea was worth just W10 billion in 2017 but grew to W200 billion last year and is expected to reach W300 billion this year (US$1=W1,174).

The market is led by premium meal kits that recreate popular dishes from famous restaurants or renowned chefs. Mingles, which has two Michelin stars, sells pasta meal kits, and Sushi Koji kits for menchi-katsu, or ground meat cutlet, and deep-fried karaage.

A woman shops for ready meals in a superstore in Seoul on Aug. 20.

Korean restaurants with a long history such as Hanilkwan and Gwanghwamun Mijin are also selling meal kits for their signature dishes such as bulgogi and soba noodles. The restaurants provide the recipe, but the kits are mass produced in factories and delivered to consumers.

One catering consultant said, “In the past, a lot of people would have sneered at such meal kits, but now all the high-end restaurants and famous chefs are making them. A lot has changed in just a year.”

Their success is a barometer of growth for food businesses at the moment. Market leader Fresh Easy expects sales of W200 billion this year, a remarkable growth considering they were just W100 million when it was founded in 2016.

My Chef, Korea’s first meal kit business, currently sells a monthly average of 200,000 kits through over 60 channels including Coupang. Its sales in 2020 were W27.6 billion, up 151 percent from the previous year.

On Shinsegae’s online outlet, sales of meal kits soared a whopping 196.3 percent this year. Rising sales prompted the company to open a separate web page for meal kits.

Market Kurly expects sales of W1 trillion this year after adding meal kits to its staple fresh grocery delivery. Its meal kits sales recorded a whopping 1,261 percent increase in July compared to two years earlier.

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