Three lockdowns in, what has a meal-kit restaurant learned?

Restaurants all over Ireland have reinvented themselves. Host in Ranelagh tells how it works

Something is dawning on head chef Niall McDermott as we are speaking in Host, the restaurant in Dublin 6 he co-owns with his wife, Chloe Kearney. A compact place on Ranelagh’s main street with a minimalist design, Host opened in 2017. Their four-year anniversary will be in September.

“By then, we might only have been open as a restaurant for half the time,” he says disbelievingly.

Depending on how restrictions ease up – or not – between now and September, much of the rest of those four years will possibly have been spent either entirely closed, operating as a grocery, or offering take-out meal kits. It’s not what they, or any other restaurateurs, envisaged one year ago.

It’s 9am on a Sunday, and five kitchen staff are making their way in. Of a staff of 14, only half now remain. Wait staff can work with just about any kind of customers, but they can’t work with no customers.


Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Host seated 38 customers, at a mix of tables, the counter, and high tables.

“We’d turn the tables three times on the weekend,” Kearney says.

Back then, they opened Tuesday to Sunday, and the place was always buzzing. Small plates, fresh pasta, and grilled meats were the base of their menu.

During the first lockdown, it took them some weeks to figure out how to adapt. About six weeks in, they began to operate as an upmarket grocery.

“We changed the layout of the restaurant and we bought in pantry items, fresh seasonal veg, breads, charcuterie and cheese, and we sold individual Host at Home meals alongside all that, along with wine,” Kearney says.

“Individual dishes rather than meal kits,” McDermott explains. These were ready-meals, from the regular Host menu, cooked in-house for people to reheat at home.

They began to notice pretty fast that, despite the high quality grocery produce they had sourced, customers weren’t buying much of it.

“Instead, people were coming in and going straight to the fridge and trying to fit in as many ready meals as they could; to buy as much as they could of Host at Home. That was what people wanted.”

They began to get so many requests to pre-order the ready-meals that they set up a click-and-collect system. They were astonished at the demand, but clearly customers stuck at home were prepared to pay to eat meals they didn’t have to cook from scratch themselves.

“There is no way I would have thought that people would have been interested in preparing food from a restaurant in their own house,” McDermott says. “We thought the grocery would do better than the prepared home meals, but it was the opposite; people wanted prepared food from restaurants, rather than ingredients to make things themselves.”

By the time the second lockdown came along, they had dropped the grocery element, and were focused solely on their “chef’s menu”. They currently offer five of these menus for two people, with most anchored on a specific kind of grilled meat; Hannan’s rib eye (€70); McLoughlin’s lamb saddle (€65); Andarl Farm pork chop (€60), piri piri chicken (€60); plus a vegetarian menu with shiitake mushroom lasagne (€55).

In the restaurant, pre-Covid, the chef’s menu offering was €38 per person, with a supplement for the beef option.

Along with the grilled meat, each meal kit also includes two kinds of antipasti, a pasta course, a side dish and a salad for the main, and dessert. The current meat-based meal kits all also offer antipasti of buffalo mozzarella and aubergine caponata, and duck leg terrine and pickles; fresh pappardelle with fennel sausage ragu; sides of duck-fat roast potatoes and salad of kohlrabi, smoked almonds and mustard (with dressing separate); and lemon posset, rhubarb and crumble.

“We already had a chef’s menu since we had opened, and about 70 per cent of customers would order that, so we already had a product people knew about,” Kearney explains.

The rib-eye always sells out first, and lately, they have seen a lot more interest in the vegetarian menu. (Elements in the menus vary from month to month.) Along with the meal kits, they sell a lot of adds on, such as focaccia at €6 and gordal olives for €4.

While we’re talking, one staff member is using the marble bar counter to roll out long butter-yellow pieces of pasta, which will be the day’s pappardelle. McDermott and Kearney take me on a tour of the back kitchen, which takes roughly one minute, as it’s so small. There are crates of vegetables stacked where there used to be piles of dinner plates. The corridor has large boxes of the compostable and recyclable containers they use to box up the components of the meal kits.

Much of their previous way of working has had to change.

“The place was built to cook the food to order,” McDermott says. “Before you might have done two hours of prep and five hours of service. It’s way more of a graft now. It’s extremely prep heavy. When you are in the restaurant, you prepare food to a certain level and then you cook it to order. Now you are doing bigger quantities, and the whole day is prep.”

Out have gone most of the tables in the restaurant, and in have come three large fridges, which occupy most of one wall. “Rented,” Kearney says. “It’s €50 a week for each one.”

They are open fridges without doors, like those in supermarkets that hold chilled drinks and food. As various elements of the meals are prepared, they are transferred to bags, boxes and little plastic containers, and put into the fridge.

A chef’s menu for two can have up to 10 separate elements. Orders can’t be bagged until all those different elements are ready, and then the bags are put back in the fridge, awaiting collection at a designated time.

“It takes two of us about an hour to pack the bags, but ages before to count all the different bits and pieces, and that the right names are on the right bags,” Kearney says.

They cap orders daily for each version of their chef’s menu at about 15. Sixty orders in total, give or take, is about the maximum the kitchen can prepare in a day, given that the meals are each for two people. Host’s website to click and collect goes live at noon on Sundays, for collection Thursday-Sunday. It has been sold out every week, and because they now know exactly how many meals they are preparing each day, there is virtually no waste.

I do a rough calculation. If they sell 15 of each of their five differently-priced chef’s menus for four days, that’s €18,600 a week. Plus sales from add-ons, and wine.

Are they making any profit?

“We couldn’t survive without the pandemic payments support,” Kearney says. They also have an understanding landlord, who is currently accepting a reduced rent. “It’s not a business we see as sustainable in the long term. It’s working for now, but we opened to be a restaurant. Not a takeaway.”

Who are their customers? "We have a lot of regular customers who live locally," she says. They use Instagram as a publicity tool. In recent weeks, they are seeing an additional customer base, and have added the ability to buy vouchers to their website.

“A lot of businesses have approached us to buy vouchers that they can gift to their colleagues. We have noticed families buying a few chefs menus, and then dropping them to different family members and doing Zoom dinners together. People gifting vouchers to neighbours.”

The Sunday of the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, when the website usually goes live for the week, the website crashed. They discovered more than 500 people were in some virtual queue, all trying to buy meals to eat at home to mark the event.

So three lockdowns in, what have they learned about what works with their restaurant meal kits?

“The main thing we have learned from the food side is keeping it simple, so it’s easy to prepare, easy to package and easy for the customer to transport,” McDermott says. “Hot food would never have worked for us, because it just wouldn’t travel. Keeping the food simple means it’s easy for the customer then to replicate what it is like in the restaurant at home. If there is too much work, or too much technical stuff for the customer to do, it just doesn’t work.”

They experimented with a few different ingredients along the way. “Certain cheeses don’t work. We were doing burrata as part of one side, but it kept on spilling out, so we changed to mozzarella because it’s a firmer cheese. You realise quite quickly yourself what works when you put something in the fridge, and you might go back and look at it two hours later, and even from carrying it from the pass [in the kitchen] to the fridge, it might get damaged.”

Ingredients that oxidate quickly, such as apple, or salad leaves that wilt quickly, can’t be used. They use chicory leaves, which remain crisp.

“We seal the beef before we send it out,” says McDermott. “With the beef, we figured out that it has to be about half a kilo. If it is any less, the quantity won’t cook properly in the oven and it’ll just be like a cold roast beef. Things that are cooked through like chicken work very well for reheating.”

The question has to be asked: if customers have got so used to eating restaurant-quality meals at home from Host, is there a danger there will be no novelty in returning when it is safe to do so? Are they alienating future customers by offering these popular meal kits?

“This was something we were really worried about at the start,” Kearney says. “But when we reopened as a restaurant for those short periods in between lockdown, and were watching the food coming out from the kitchen, we knew it was food at just another level, and that worry has completely left me. The way the food is cooked here, the equipment that’s used, the talent in the kitchen – it will be exciting to evolve and improve in the future. We will keep changing the menu, and we are confident we will always be able to excite our customers.”

McDermott’s answer to the same question is much shorter: “I think people will want to eat out.”