CHICAGO — The gap between an on-camera Food Network cooking experience and what most Chicagoans do in their home kitchens is a wide one.
"People love the idea of cooking. There's something special about sitting down to a meal that you made yourself," said Jen Moore, founder of Chicago-based Meez Meals. "Depending on your cooking skills, chopping and dicing to prep probably takes 10 or 20 minutes, but the bigger piece of it is that trip to the grocery store, figuring out what you want to make."
"I love to cook, but when I get home from work, the idea of cutting an onion is just kind of exhausting. The idea of putting cereal in a bowl is more appealing," she said.
Moore's 4-year-old Meez Meals is one of several businesses popping up in Chicago that offer weekly delivery of precut, premeasured and presorted ingredients for a rotating menu of recipes.
Every week, she ships vacuum-packed containers of precubed squash, prediced onions, seasoning packets and more to about 2,500 Chicagoans who she says end up saving money, as well as time, by using the service.
"We did an exercise recently to look at what it would cost to buy the ingredients for the different recipes," she said.
"The cost is often less expensive to order through us than to shop for groceries yourself, especially because you're getting just the right amount for that recipe. It also cuts down on waste — if a dish calls for half a cup of yogurt, you still have to buy that full cup of yogurt, and the rest might go bad."
Meez Meals customers are only expected to have olive oil, pepper and salt on hand: Everything else comes in a weekly delivery to their doors.
Jones and Mityas said demand for their Near West Side-based operation's service is booming.
"I think the one measure of success that we are most happy about is the retention rate of our customers," Mityas said. "We have some customers that have ordered from us every week since we launched" last year.
Shelley Young, head chef and founder at The Chopping Block, said she wasn't surprised to see the meal prep trend turn to delivery. Her business has led aspiring chefs through food prep and cooking lessons in Chicago for 17 years, but her business model brings students to her teaching kitchens in Merchandise Mart and Lincoln Square.
"I totally get why people do this, and I think there's some real improvements to this compared to the kind of options that were available before," Young said. "These kinds of companies, they're prepping stuff quickly, so it's not just sitting around. It's still an improvement to something that's been sitting around forever on the shelf at Whole Foods or something."
Jones said the city's evolving culinary scene makes this an ideal time to provide consumers with shortcuts to high-brow cooking experiences.
"I think generally people have higher expectations now that Chicago has kind of exploded as this huge food scene in the last five or six years," said Jones, a former Fox & Obel consultant. "They're expecting a little bit more out of themselves and a little bit more out of their home meals.
"People watch these cooking shows, and it's frustrating to see somebody make a delicious meal in 20 minutes and think, 'I can't do that,' because everything isn't washed and cooked."
Chicagoans' fevered menu-touring prompted Meez Meals in November to launch "Meals for Good," a series of partnerships with area restaurants and chefs who lend a guest recipe each month. A portion of the proceeds from those menu items is donated to Common Threads.
This month, Heather Terhune, executive chef at Sable Kitchen and Bar, recreated her South Indian vegetable curry dish for home chefs to make themselves.
The dish costs $10-$19 in the restaurant, depending on portion size. Meez customers can order a serving for $8-$12.
Between Meez Meals' founding in 2010 and Madison & Rayne's debut last year, venture capitalist Matt Salzberg launched Blue Apron, a behemoth national brand that serves 40 states.
Moore said she'd prefer to have deep roots here than expand quickly outside of Chicago.
"One of the really nice things about our business is that it's a local business," she said. "We live in Chicago, we use local suppliers and we are very much in tune what the weather is doing, and we can change our menu pretty quickly."
"When it got warm early last year we changed our menu to reflect that. This has been such a good stew-type winter, and we definitely customize things that way."
Meez Meals and Madison & Rayne both source their foodstuffs from local purveyors. Meez partners include Phoenix Bean in Andersonville, which supplies them with tofu, and Bennison's Bakery in Evanston for fresh bread.
"To the extent that we can, we're sourcing through local farms," Mityas said. "Josh also adjusts the menu to reflect what's in season, and we always change the menu completely every couple months. On average there's 2½ new things each week, largely determined by what ingredients are available."
Fad or Revolution?
Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of the NPD Group, said he's hesitant to call this trend the future of cooking.
"I think a trend in food throughout humanity is to find somebody else to do the cooking," Balzer said. "We don't want to do the shopping, we don't want to do the prepping, we don't want to do the cleanup ... and we want new things, so it's no surprise that if you give me something new, I'll try it. That doesn't mean it'll be around forever."
Shelley Young said that her Chopping Block shops are competing with delivery programs among similar consumer pools, but she said the meal prep delivery service has some limitations that her in-house cooking model does not.
She noted that prechopping produce, no matter how fresh, causes vegetables and fruits to lose nutrients if they aren't cooked and consumed quickly.
"Vitamin C is air-soluble, so you lose most of the vitamin C within 24 hours," she said. "Also, flavor is huge. When you buy coffee, most people get that if you buy coffee that's already ground — it's been sitting on the shelf for however long — it doesn't have the flavor of freshly ground coffee."
Both Meez Meals and Madison & Rayne have begun targeting single chefs and home cooks with dietary restrictions themselves or in their families to posture their business as a solution to health concerns in addition to being a fun learning experience.
Young said there's room for all of them in Chicago.
"Our mission is to get the country to cook," she said. "If you need to buy prechopped ingredients and whatever, premade things to make that happen for you, fine. I don't have any judgment about that. Everybody has different time restraints, they have different concerns they have different budgets."
"When you cook at home, even if you're just cooking for yourself, it's a way to honor yourself that you don't experience when you are eating takeout."