Can meal-kit companies like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron survive?

5 months ago by Joshua Fruhlinger in Features, Trends

Chef'd ($CHEFD), a meal-kit startup that was making waves in the burgeoning industry, shut its doors and sent home more than 350 employees this week without warning. CEO Kyle Ransford cited "unexpected circumstances" with funding for the sudden closure. It was a curious and sudden move, as the company had raised $35 million from Campbell's and Smithfield Foods just a year ago.

Ransford comes from a finance background, having founded Cardinal Investments after spending time as a founder of Bank of Manhattan and as a General Partner at Halcyon Asset Management. Given his finance background, Chef'd's abrupt decline due to financial mismanagement is doubly confounding.

It's unclear how Chef'd was burning through capital, but the sudden closure does make one wonder how well other businesses in the meal-kit space are doing. Is the honeymoon over for those who want their meals delivered uncooked?

In order to shed some light on the question, we take a data-based look at Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, often considered leaders in the space.

Blue Apron

Blue Apron ($NYSE:APRN) went public in April 2017 in a state of confusion. At the time, its stock fell precipiously after its initial price was deemed too high — Blue Apron thought the company was worth $3 billion on the public market while Wall Street disagreed. Shareholder lawsuits and executive departures followed before the business stabilized somewhat.

But the next year wasn't much better. The company reported that it had lost over 250,000 subscribers from 2017 to 2018, dropping from over a million to just 746,000.

News of late is somewhat brighter for Blue Apron. It announced a partnership with Costco, making some analysts thinking the membership club could outright buy Blue Apron. This hasn't happened yet, of course, and investors are anxiously awaiting the company's second-quarter results, scheduled to be reported on August 2.

Blue Apron is currently hiring for 60 positions. This is down from a high of 112 a year ago. Hiring picked up last fall from an almost dead-stop in October 2017. For a company that once thought it was worth $3 billion, however, 60 open positions isn't a great sign.

But it's not all bad news when it comes to Blue Apron's workforce numbers. According to LinkedIn, roughly 1,600 people claim to work for the company. What's more, that number has been steadily growing and even accelerating this summer.

Hello Fresh

Hello Fresh ($HELLOFRESH) launched in Berlin, Germany in 2011 and claims an impressive 1.45 million subscribers as of its 2017 annual report filing. Of course, that number is international and not just US-based, but that appears to be a good thing for company. Its founder, Australian Masterchef contestant Tom Rutledge makes for a charismatic leader for the company as well.

Hello Fresh's IPO in November 2017 was much more successful than that of Blue Apron. Shares grew 4% on their first day of trading, resulting in a valuation of more than double that of Blue Apron.

Hello Fresh is currently hiring for 270 positions after a high of 290 openings in May 2018. Hiring trends have been on a steady uptick for the company, a signal of growth and expansion. Given the company's international footprint, this isn't surprising, but it also shows that the company can hedge its growth as different markets' appetite for weekly meal-kit delivery services change over time.

In fact, Hello Fresh is hriing in 32 cities right now. For comparison, Blue Apron is hiring in 5 cities, all in the United States.

City

Openings

Berlin

95

New York

29

Amsterdam

26

Sydney

19

Toronto

11

Dallas

11

Boulder

10

Richmond

9

Verden

7

London

7

With healthy hiring activity in major cities like New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam, it's clear that Hello Fresh's strategy is focused on international reach.

Like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh has seen a steady rise in LinkedIn members associating their careers with the company. It sits today at an all-time high of 2,110 people who say they work for Hello Fresh in some way. 

Final Meal?

Given their realtively healthy workforces, both Blue Apron and Hello Fresh are positioned to weather subscriber apathy. However, if human interest in meal kits is on a decline, both companies will need to consider pivots, whether they be into something more partnership-based like the one shaping up between Blue Apron and Costco or seeking out new markets as Hello Fresh has been doing.

Joshua Fruhlinger

Joshua has been writing about technology, lifestyle, and business for over 20 years. He's one of the original writers and editors for Engadget, and still writes a...

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