A Garnish & Gather meal kit, dropped off in Athens, Georgia, on August 24, 2020. Meal kit companies have seen an increase in sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Garnish & Gather, working out of Atlanta, expanded delivery service to Athens in August. (©Sofia Gratas, sofigratas@gmail.com)

Living through this pandemic has resulted in a multitude of lifestyle changes. Notably, most people want things to be easier than ever while still limiting contact with the outside world. Our capitalistic society has responded eagerly, with major upticks in to-go service, pickup options and delivery across both local businesses and larger companies.

One enterprise, specifically, puts ease at the forefront of its marketing campaigns — meal kits. According to data collected by the Wall Street Journal, both Hello Fresh and Home Chef — the latter of which is owned by Kroger, Inc. — experienced nearly a 90% increase in sales in April from the same time last year. Both of these companies, including others like Blue Apron and Sun Basket, saw huge upticks in sales from February to April of this year.

In Atlanta, founder of meal-kit delivery service Garnish & Gather, Emily Golub, said this year has brought economic growth, while also posing a few challenges.

“I never would have imagined in a million years that 2020 would be the year to be in the grocery delivery business,” Golub said. “Business has been stronger in terms of volume than it has been in a probably ever … but we've had a lot of supply chain challenges, we've had staffing challenges … managing through all the logistics of how to do this safely has been a very interesting thing.”

Through Garnish & Gather, Golub and her team focus on using only locally produced ingredients in a constantly changing portfolio of recipes. Each week, subscribers can choose from a list of recipes and add-ons — like desserts, side items or kid-friendly meals — all created by a team of contributing chefs. Meal kits come with every ingredient, spice and sauce required by the recipe; all you need is oil, salt and pepper.

In August, Garnish & Gather expanded its service area to Athens and neighboring counties.

“We're super excited that we're going to have some chefs from Athens on the menu this fall,” Golub said. “I think that the Athens community is a perfect fit for services like ours.”

Golub launched the company in 2012 with a vision of connecting more people in her area with local farmers market products and producers. The company sources from a group of 10-15 “core farmers,” she said, but includes a total of 41 producers. While the majority come from Georgia, some specialty ingredients might be from North or South Carolina, Alabama or New York.

While plans are still in the works, Golub said she definitely plans on sourcing from Athens farmers and artisans as part of the expansion.

The local premium

Companies like Garnish & Gather, though focused on ease, have to entice their customers enough to want to pay relatively hefty prices for meal kits. One meal kit for four from Garnish & Gather costs $50, for example, while a meal kit for two costs $28, though subscribers get discounts. Blue Apron — undeniably a major name in the meal-kit delivery service universe — charges nearly $50 for two, two-serving meals a week, upping the price to $70 for the same amount of four-serving kits.

"We're a local business, and we're more connected with the community, and people really value that."

- Emily Golub, founder of Garnish & Gather

Golub argues that it’s the experience of receiving a locally-sourced meal kit designed by neighborhood chefs that sets Garnish & Gather apart from the competition.

“We're so different from them that we don't find that it's that challenging once customers are aware of us,” she said. “They tend to convert pretty easily from working with one of the bigger meal companies because of the value that we bring … We're a local business, and we're more connected with the community, and people really value that.”

And it’s those local businesses like Golub’s that have received outcries of support from their communities as the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the food and drink industry. In Athens, where tourism and college students account for thousands of dollars of profit, most businesses had to start adapting to the meal-kit or to-go models.

Some restaurants started offering to-go cocktail kits, while others depended on gift-certificate purchases, understanding customers and new take-out operations just to break even. But others, like farmer-focussed Collective Harvest, actually saw business skyrocket. And it all comes back to the idea of meal kits, home delivery and locally-sourced food.

Farm to front door

“In January through March, we did our pilot program for home deliveries where I was making deliveries to about 20 customers every week,” said Lisa Merva, general manager of Collective Harvest. “But once this started, we really had a lot of people at home delivery.”

Through a collective of locally-owned farms, Collective Harvest is able to provide locally-grown food through its wholesale programs and individual market sales. It launched its “Online Farm Stand” to compensate for in-person markets, and Merva said it’s been a “raving success.” People can order à la carte produce, meat, dairy products and more, with pickup and a home-delivery option for an extra $10.

“I think that people just really want to make sure that these businesses and producers are still around,” Merva said. “Especially when people are so isolated for a little while, I think just having that touchstone of good local food and seeing some friendly familiar faces means a lot to people.”

Following a delayed opening for the Athens Farmers Market in March, a partnership was struck between the market’s board and Collective Harvest. Through the new online ordering platform, patrons can get many of the same products that would typically be available at the AFM.

The trend toward locally-sourced foods is hard to miss. Merva is confident that sales for Collective Harvest have almost tripled this year. From May-July, the West Broad Farmers Market saw online orders double. And for Athens Locally Grown — another farmer collective that’s switched to an online model — staff reported an increase of nearly eight times the normal volume of orders in July.

Even with steady sales, Merva said Collective Harvest is planning on launching yet another service, though not totally fleshed out yet — meal kits. The popular Community Supported Agriculture program will also start back up mid-September.

When it comes down to it, Merva believes pure community support has been essential to continued operations. But she makes a case for flavor, too.

“I really think that tasting is believing,” She said. “And once you taste a local pepper, the grocery store pepper really kind of pales in comparison.”