Califonia Bountiful

Thinking inside the box

May/June 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Bay Area meal-kit business delivers California sunshine

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Colleen Cecil of Orland counts on meal kits a few times a week to help streamline meal preparation for her active family.¬†Photo: © 2018 Frank Rebelo

After putting in a full day at the office and commuting nearly an hour to her home in Orland, Colleen Cecil welcomes a little help getting a home-cooked meal on the table for her family. She and her husband, Jake, oversee a busy household of two young boys with "nonstop energy": Clayton, 8, and Dalton, 6. For Cecil, who works as executive director of Butte County Farm Bureau, that makes time management and fast meal prep all the more important.

So she turns to home-delivered meal-kit services to simplify her weeknight routine. She receives boxes of fresh, pre-measured ingredients from services including Sun Basket, delivered directly to her door in an insulated box, and accompanied by a recipe and step-by-step instructions. Most everything needed to cook the meal is in the box, with no trips to the grocery store or time spent searching for recipe inspiration.

"The best part about the meal kit is you don't have to think about putting together a nutritious meal. They've already done the work for you," Cecil said.

She's one of a growing number of home cooks who are turning to meal-kit delivery services. The convenience of the kits has made this one of the fastest-growing sectors in the food business. About a quarter of Americans have tried a kit, and these services
expanded to $5 billion in sales in 2017, according to Packaged Facts.

Market analysts say meal kits appeal in particular to millennials and Gen-Xers, driven in part by the desire to find easier ways to recreate at home the experience of eating out, as well as a preference for foods they perceive as fresh, natural and made from whole ingredients.

Cecil opens her latest meal-kit delivery, top right. Deliveries include most everything needed to cook a meal, such as this sausage-farro bowl from California-based Sun Basket, left. Cecil's 6-year-old son Dalton, bottom right, lends a hand with meal prep. Photos: © 2018 Frank Rebelo

The promise of being able to serve healthy, flavorful food and the convenience of home delivery are what appeal to Cecil. One of the latest Sun Basket meal kits that arrived at the Cecils' doorstep included pre-measured tomatoes, kale, Italian sausage and an ancient grain called farro. The family prepared the meal together, following the enclosed recipe to create sausage-farro bowls. Cecil gave both the flavor and convenience of the meal positive reviews.

"I'm a big fan of everything in one pot, or on one plate," she said.

In addition to ease, meal kits offer a dose of creativity through varied menu choices and chef-designed recipes.

"The meal kit is awesome and frightening all at the same time, because it's usually something that we've never had before," Cecil said. "You usually don't get the same thing twice with a box, so that uniqueness is fun."

A taste of sunshine

Cecil's son Clayton, 8, enjoys the finished meal. Photo: © 2018 Frank Rebelo

Founded in 2014, Sun Basket is one of dozens of meal-kit delivery companies that have come online in the U.S. since 2012, after the introduction of Blue Apron. Despite tough competition in the fresh meal-kit sector, the food consultancy firm Pentallect predicted annual growth of 25 to 30 percent through 2022.

"I think we're all different and fill different needs and niches, and I think there's room for quite a few of us," said chef Justine Kelly, a founder/co-owner of Sun Basket.

She said the San Francisco-based company distinguishes itself by putting a taste of the Golden State on customers' plates.

"All of the (Sun Basket) founders are from California and we all very much embrace the Northern California lifestyle of healthy eating, farmers markets and the outdoors," Kelly said.

The company captures the spirit of that lifestyle by using California-grown ingredients to the extent possible, including produce, proteins, grains, sauces and spices. With a name inspired by California's climate, Sun Basket is "exporting that California sunshine to the rest of the country," Kelly said.

Kelly, born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, started in the restaurant business at age 15. Although not professionally trained, she has made a name for herself, appearing in food magazines and on "Iron Chef America," and serving as corporate chef de cuisine at San Francisco's Slanted Door restaurant. Kelly said she and her co-founders are on a quest for healthy eating, which she defines as a balance of mostly vegetables, some protein and a little bit of grains and pastas.

"We want to be more of a lifestyle choice instead of a meal-on-your-table choice," Kelly said.

Customers have plenty of options when using meal-kit services. Menus often provide a mix of familiar comfort foods and contemporary or ethnic flavors. Choices can often be tailored to one's dietary preferences, such as paleo, vegetarian, organic, gluten-free and more. Many services also offer flexibility, allowing customers to choose meals for two or to feed the whole family, and customize the number of meals that arrive each week.

California-grown at your doorstep

Chef Justine Kelly, right, a founder/co-owner of meal-kit service Sun Basket, says she enjoys bringing healthy food into people's homes. She and her partners try to purchase as many ingredients as possible from California farmers, such as Jim Durst, left. Photo right courtesy of Sun Basket. Photo left courtesy of Durst Organic Growers.

Sun Basket relies on California farmers and ranchers as a source of quality products for each meal kit, including Jim Durst of Durst Organic Growers in Esparto.

A fourth-generation farmer, Durst grows a variety of fruits and vegetables on his Yolo County farm, most of which he sells to supermarkets in California and the Pacific Northwest. He also supplies ingredients for Sun Basket meals, including cherry and grape tomatoes. He grows about a dozen varieties, harvested by hand from June through October.

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which are orange and boast a sweet, fruity flavor, are a popular favorite, as are Sweet 100s, which are red and very sweet, Durst said.

Tomatoes grown by Durst were a key ingredient in the sausage-farro bowl meal kit Cecil recently prepared for her family. When in season, the tomatoes might feature in a variety of other Sun Basket recipes, such as Spanish paella with tofu, mushrooms and peas or spaghetti "Alfredo" with shaved asparagus and charred tomatoes.

"Cherry tomatoes are one of my favorite things," Kelly said. "They add texture, brightness and acidity to a dish that really brings it to another level."

Tomatoes are just one of the California-grown ingredients essential to creating the eclectic global flavors featured on Sun Basket menus. The company partners with about 65 California farmers to load its boxes with fresh, seasonal ingredients. In summer, for example, Durst and others supply meal components ranging from asparagus to zucchini—plus blueberries, peas, peppers, chard, potatoes, radishes, avocados, strawberries, onions, mushrooms, peaches, kale, cucumbers, lemons, lettuce, grapes, herbs and more.

The endless variety of dishes that can be made from the seasonal, California-grown ingredients has customers such as Cecil eagerly anticipating their next delivery.

"To open the box and get something unique that I've never seen before is almost mind-blowing to me," she said. "We are very fortunate to live in California, and through boxes like these, people are being exposed to more diversity in their food than ever before."

Christine Souza

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