April Gibble, a 47-year-old mother of three, has always loved to cook. She prepared a feast for 30 guests in her Greenville, S.C., home this Thanksgiving, then baked maybe 30-dozen cookies with a friend in preparation for Christmas.
Gibble and her husband also run an organic blueberry farm and raise ducks and chickens on their property. In the evenings, after an arduous day of mulching and weeding, she doesn't always have the energy to cook dinner for five. So, when she learned from the finale of the TV show "MasterChef" that she could order frozen, fully-prepared versions of two meals featured on the broadcast from a new site called Pop-Up Pantry, she was intrigued. Until then, her only option for dinner delivery had been Domino's. She ordered the three-course Pop-Up Pantry meals, at a cost of $80, and they showed up on her doorstep, packed in dry ice, a few days later.
Gibble was impressed enough that she has made Pop-Up Pantry a regular habit. She's bought a total of eight frozen meals from the site, and hasn't tasted a clunker yet.
"There's no comparison with frozen meals from a grocery store -- it's so much more flavorful. We consider it the equivalent of going to a nice restaurant, but you get to eat at home," Gibble told The Huffington Post. "I'm always more comfortable eating at home, where I can sit with my family without all the noise of a restaurant."
Stories like Gibble's are increasingly common as the world of culinary e-commerce heats up. Selling food over the Internet is nothing new -- after early failed attempts by sites like WebVan to enter the space, companies that include Seamless, Fresh Direct and GrubHub have found enduring success. But Pop-Up Pantry and several other new sites have emerged as a third generation of culinary e-commerce, aiming to go beyond their forebears by providing edible services unavailable before the Web.
The founders of many of these sites speak the language of apps and Akamai more fluently than that of borage and Batali. They've been able to propose new models for dining in part because they never got attached to the old ones.
Many have started companies that meld social media and restaurants, often by encouraging people to dine at a new eatery with strangers. Social dining site MysteryMeet, for example, was founded by someone with a background in branding and marketing, while iOS app SupperKing, which facilitates impromptu dinner parties, was founded by an ex-financier from Germany.
Brendan Marshall, the 29-year-old founder of a new site called Kitchit, also spent the early part of his career in finance. He was in his second year at Stanford Business School when he came up with the idea of a site that would let users hire professional chefs to create fully-customized dining experiences in their own homes. Some of the 200-odd chefs on Kitchit have established careers in catering, the most obvious analogy to the Kitchit model, but many others do not. A few, such as Gabrielle Hamilton of New York's Prune, and Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco, have national reputations. The key qualification for inclusion in Kitchit's roster, Marshall said, is the ability to "go beyond the food."
"What we're really trying to do is inspire people to think creatively about what a meal can be," Marshall told The Huffington Post. "It's about the chef and it's about you. It's not just food."
Marshall said that people have used Kitchit to throw weddings, elaborate holiday parties, corporate team events, Mad Men parties and, once, a tasting menu dinner in the middle of a vineyard in Sonoma, Calif.
David Hauslaib and his friend Tom Balamaci came up with the idea for Pop-Up Pantry while brainstorming ideas for new companies in the summer of 2011. They had both worked for years at online media companies, and were looking to deal in products more tangible than news articles. They were drawn to e-commerce, but realized that the Web was already oversaturated with sites shilling books, movies and clothing, so they trained their scopes on food.
"Obviously there are plenty of sites out there that sell food over the Internet -- really high-end flash sale sites, services that will ship you 50 pounds of tenderloin, gifting sites," Hauslaib told The Huffington Post. "But we didn't see anything that spoke to us as customers."
They saw the success of sites like Seamless and GrubHub in densely populated metro areas and how popular food media outlets like the Food Network were throughout the country, and decided to create a site that would bridge the two. They settled on Pop-Up Pantry, which went live in July.
Hauslaib said two things set them apart from any other companies that sell frozen foods: their recipes and their technique. Their executive chef David Yeo, who'd previously worked with Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, handles the former, often collaborating with other well-known chefs to develop on-trend menu items like Hoisin Ginger Braised Shortribs, the most popular dish on the site. And the latter is the result of a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen that takes heavy advantage of sous-vide cookery and blast freezing to ensure that meals are just as good when they reach the table as they are in a kitchen.
Hauslaib said the company has found it a challenge to expand while maintaining high quality. They've had to move to a bigger kitchen twice.
"If you run a restaurant, you're doing 200, maybe 300 covers a night, if you're very successful," Hauslaib said. "We have to do many multiples of that in our kitchen, more every month, while still keeping the product the delicious. So that's an ongoing challenge that's never going to go away."
All of these startups are still very young, and the success rate for companies like these is as low as it is for restaurants, so it's likely that some will fade away within a couple years.
Meanwhile, Gibble said she plans to keep ordering dinners from Pop-Up Pantry once a month. Her next order is the riskiest one yet: Christmas dinner for six that will feed her entire family, no cooking necessary.
"It should be coming next week," Gibble said. "It even includes a cheesecake for dessert."