It’s fair to say there have long been severe doubts about the recipe box business model. Was there a big enough market for the services? Would increased sales ever cover the massive marketing spend needed to secure new customers? Could they ever make money? 

Naysayers could smugly point to HelloFresh, Gousto, SimplyCook and Mindful Chef’s slow-growing customer bases and lack of profit. Even when global brand HelloFresh last November revealed it was eyeing its first-ever full-year break-even since launching in 2011 – the first recipe box brand to do so – they failed to be persuaded.

“I’m yet to be convinced,” said one analyst late last year. The model simply “doesn’t lend itself to an attractive or smooth road to scale and profitability” said another.

They have likely since changed their tune. Now everyone wants a piece.

Yesterday Nestlé revealed it had acquired a majority stake in recipe kit business Mindful Chef for an undisclosed sum, reportedly seeing off interest from Waitrose. And last week Gousto secured £25m of new equity from existing investors, pushing it into ‘unicorn’ status, with a valuation in excess of $1bn.

Demand for recipe boxes was rising before Covid hit. Gousto founder Timo Boldt argued that “structural trends were already firmly underway” but the pandemic has undoubtedly given providers a huge boost.

Why? Practically every pandemic-induced consumer trend is playing straight into the hands of the subscription box players.

Throughout, people have been wanting to visit supermarkets less often – whether due to health fears, the need to queue, or the faff of wearing a mask and dodging others in the aisles. As a result, the concept of ordering food online has been tried and tested by more people than ever. In the UK, online’s share of all grocery sales is now holding at around 12.5%, according to Kantar. That’s nearly twice the share of pre-pandemic.

Taking the step from ordering online to ordering recipe boxes online is small.

And supermarkets’ early lockdown struggles to supply enough delivery slots saw consumers desperately seeking alternatives. All recipe box brands saw heightened demand, making customer acquisition spending less necessary and aiding profitability goals.

“Overnight our market has opened up to a far larger audience,” Boldt said in July.

There are more subtle trends working to the advantage of recipe box providers too. While one of their biggest selling points – tasty meals for the time poor – has been diminished by people spending all hours at home, April research from Tesco found the average person was now cooking between 17 to 21 meals per week – four times the amount they used to. Two fifths of people said their passion for cooking had been reignited.

People seeking healthier meals – not a new trend but one accelerated by the pandemic – also works to the benefit of some of the brands. As Mindful Chef co-founder Myles Hopper says: “We set out with a mission to make healthy eating easy.”

A further boost is expected for all players in January – a prime time for onboarding new customers according to those in the sector – as people seek to declutter their lives and eat better.

It’s now up to the recipe box players to meet the heightened demand, and keep hold of new customers. Do subscribers drift away when everything’s back to normal? The signs are positive – seven in 10 consumers that tried Mindful Chef during lockdown plan to continue doing so post-pandemic, a survey by the company found.

The ‘never-going-to-work’ naysayers have been notably quiet this week. As Boldt puts it: “The UK recipe box market has come of age.”