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Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A seeks fast-food shift, enters meal-kit market

Eric and Heather Henderson smile when they say they face “emotional turmoil” if they attempt a sit-down meal at a restaurant with their two young sons. They’ve explored pretty much every way they can think of to eat dinner at home affordably and fast.

That’s why they know that of the 55 restaurants within two miles of their Buford home, more than half offer delivery, usually with discounts for new customers. It’s also why they’re intrigued by Chick-fil-A’s plan to sell meals that aren’t fast food. In fact, the meals aren’t supposed to be eaten in its restaurants or on the ride home.

The Georgia-based chain is testing the traditional parameters of fast food with plans to sell uncooked meal kits that take up to half an hour to prepare at home. 

Chick-fil-A’s plan to test sales of prepare-at-home meal kits is a new wrinkle for the fast-food industry. Customers interviewed at a Chick-fil-A near the Mall of Georgia in Buford said they would be willing to try the kits when they are rolled out in metro Atlanta stores in late August. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Chick-fil-A, with more than 2,300 restaurants and far higher sales per restaurant than any of its big competitors, already is on a trajectory to become the nation’s third largest quick-service chain, behind only McDonald’s and Starbucks. But its planned experiment with prepare-at-home meal kits faces competition from Amazon, Walmart, grocers and other businesses trying to sort out new models for serving Americans who are stressed on time but want to prepare home-cooked meals.

Chick-fil-A’s Mealtime Kits will have pre-portioned ingredients and five rotating entrees, from Chicken Parmesan to Dijon Chicken, none of which are on its regular restaurant menu. The kits are priced at $15.89 with enough to feed two people.

The test program is currently limited to 150 restaurants in metro Atlanta. It starts Aug. 27 and runs through mid November as the chain contemplates whether to spread the concept nationally.

“It’s odd, but I’d try it,” Heather Henderson said as she and her family idled in a Chick-fil-A drive-thru line near the Mall of Georgia.

Her husband, a Chick-fil-A regular, is ready to try too, though he joked: “Why don’t they leave our food budget alone and let us eat sandwiches at home in peace? It’s like big brother of the food industry.”

Chick-fil-A chef Stuart Tracy shows some artful food prep prior to serving his Chicken Enchiladas from Scratch Mealtime Kit from Chick-Fil-A. Chick-fil-A meal kits will be available in Atlanta-area restaurants starting Aug. 27.
Photo: Chris Hunt / Special

Traditional lines for where consumers get prepared meals or groceries have blurred. Grocers have long spread their options for fresh meals ready to eat. So have convenience stores.

The meal kit business itself has shifted as Walmart and Amazon recently jumped into prepare-at-home meal kits and grocers have expanded offerings.

That’s tough new competition for online meal-kit startups, some of which already faced costly challenges with their focus on subscription services and direct delivery to homes. Chef’d closed in recent weeks, only to be sold and re-started with a focus on selling kits in stores. Blue Apron, which is publicly traded, got hammered after a series of operational problems and growing competition (including Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods), though it’s been pushing for a rebound.

Atlanta-based PeachDish, which specializes in locally produced small-farm-to-table food, sends out thousands of boxes a week, but sales have plateaued, according to president Judith Winfrey. The company is considering “an interesting pivot” that she said would enhance the product.

It can cost online meal kit operators $100 or more in marketing and related costs to get each new subscriber, and after six months, most drop the service, said Daniel McCarthy, an Emory University marketing professor who studied the industry.

Chick-fil-A’s Mealtime Kits will be available in some Atlanta-area restaurants starting Aug. 27. CHRIS HUNT/FOR THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Chick-fil-A’s new program has the advantage of not locking customers into subscriptions or requiring advance ordering, he said. Customers can pick up meal kits inside the chain’s restaurants or at its drive-thrus, giving consumers lots of nearby options to grow their connections to a chain with strong brand loyalty. The announced prices of Chick-fil-A’s meal kits is relatively low compared to online options.

But McCarthy said he doubts Chick-fil-A can convince enough customers to wrap their minds around stopping by a fast-food place for future meals they’ll have to cook.

“I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense,” he said.

When Chick-fil-A unveiled its test, it described it as “one of the most innovative product launches in our company’s history.”

The company did not agree to follow up interview requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this story.

Fast-food restaurants are usually about instant gratification. Most hope to serve food that’s ready to eat within three minutes of taking a customer’s order.

Chick-fil-A’s meal kit move is “off the beaten path” for a quick service restaurant, said Joe Pawlak, managing principal with food industry analyst Technomic.

But there’s likely little downside if the company’s limited rollout doesn’t succeed, he said, unless it disrupts regular fast-food operations.

Ken Bernhardt, a former Georgia State University marketing professor who consults for Chick-fil-A and other businesses, predicted the chain will see modest success from the meal kits.

“It’s a way of providing convenience to the consumer beyond the traditional way of using fast food,” he said.

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