Why the CEO of a meal delivery company thinks the microwave is poised for a big comeback

Andouille Chicken Gumbo, heated in the microwave
Andouille Chicken Gumbo, heated in the microwave
Image: Freshly

This time last year, it wouldn’t necessarily have been obvious that meal delivery services were poised for a surge in popularity. Blue Apron, for example—one of the first of these services to take off in the mid-2010s—was in a slump. But then, it experienced a miraculous boost from an unexpected global shift in consumer behavior because of reasons we probably don’t have to explain. Freshly, another popular service, similarly grew from 600,000 meals per week to well over 1 million. While Blue Apron sends pre-measured ingredients that you use to prepare a meal from scratch, Freshly delivers boxes of single-serve meals ready to heat and eat in 3 minutes or less. But no matter their differences in approach, both of these services (and the dozens like them that have sprung up in the last decade) play to the same consumer desires for cost-effective convenience and nutrition. And in the middle of winter during the stay-at-home era, everyone could use that type of solution right about now.

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The Takeout recently spoke with Mike Wystrach, co-founder and CEO of Freshly, to ask him about his bold prediction that, in 2021, “the microwave is going to have a 1980s-like renaissance as a luxury kitchen appliance.” (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


The Takeout: It sounds as though the microwave is rather central to the Freshly model.

Mike Wystrach: It turns out it’s actually pretty hard for people to eat healthy, especially when you throw in [factors like] affordability and convenience. So we built Freshly on the idea that we could make it easier. It ships directly to people’s houses. They can use the oven or the microwave, or whatever they want to use to heat the meal up. About 99% of our customers use the microwave.

As we went into last year, we already had plans to grow rapidly—then COVID hit, and companies that were selling food online grew even more. We shipped over 50 million meals in 2020.

TO: The pandemic has led to more people ordering food to be delivered to their houses. What other changes have come about in the past year, with regards to customers’ desires?

MW: We’re selling a lot more meals that people want to use for lunches. Pre-pandemic, about 75-80% of all the meals that we sold were used for dinner. Now, it’s about 50/50. Obviously, you have a large percentage of the workforce still working from home. And a lot of America lives in suburban America, while a lot of your salad bars and grab-and-go restaurants are in more office-dense areas. So we’ve seen a huge amount of demand for lunch options.

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TO: How do you expect our relationship to the microwave will change going forward?

MW: The microwave was often linked to this idea of the TV dinner, right? Going back to the 1950s, that’s what the popularity of the microwave drove. Traditionally, the microwave has been viewed by the consumer as convenient, but unhealthy. People really like the convenience portion—they love the simplicity of the microwave and not doing as many dishes. In fact, in a survey, 43% of our customers said they had tried meal prep at some point, but the number one reason they stopped doing it was the amount of dishes they had to do. People just generally hate doing dishes!

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TO: Myself very much included. So, how do you design meals with the microwave specifically in mind?

MW: We think about how the meal is going to heat up uniformly without destroying the product. Because, depending on the product, the microwave will cook each meal differently.

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You can take our meals and heat them in the oven, and we have a small percentage of customers who do that—we’re pretty agnostic about how to heat them up. The oven is just going to take 10-15 minutes, and the microwave takes 2-3 minutes.

One of the things we learned very quickly is that if you give people instructions on how to microwave something, people don’t follow the instructions. (Myself included—I heat all my meals for 3 minutes regardless of what it says.) So it’s nearly impossible to say, “Remove X, stir Y,” etc.

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Take, for example, our pork chop. We cook it on a grill and we sear it, and we make sure it’s cooked exactly the right way at the right temperature, so that when you heat it up at home, it’s still going to taste like it’s just come off the grill. It’s blended with vegetables that are going to heat to the same consistency and accentuate the meat. We also include vegetables that are charred; a microwave can make food soggy, so we have to think through and build different textures that we can layer on each other.

One of our biggest surprises is our Steak Peppercorn. It really excites people. When people think about steak in a microwave, they tend not to believe that it’ll taste great. But we think a lot about how to put the meal together so that it ends up tasting like a steak you can get at a restaurant.

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TO: What do you predict people’s food habits will look like in 2021?

MW: We just did a customer survey where we asked people what their goals are for this year, and 38% of them said they’re trying to reduce their takeout. The evolution of COVID was that at first, everyone cooked at home, then everyone became bakers, then that got tiring, and now everyone’s ordering a lot of DoorDash, and they want to do less of that. But the lid is off: people love buying food online, and that’s going to continue. Pre-COVID, only about 2% of total food sales was being done online in the U.S. That number has now jumped to 10%, and it’s accelerating. People are interacting with food in ways they didn’t think was possible. And that’s going to be a massive evolution.

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Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

DISCUSSION

What is the difference between a ‘freshly’ meal and whatever i can get in the frozen section in the supermarket?

I got a flyer in the mail for some meal prep service and I looked into it. The meals didn’t look all that great, and the cost was very high for what you got. Not to mention all the wasted packaging.