Going out to lunch can be an impulse decision. Brown-bagging it requires planning. Now there's a service in Washington that bridges the gap between the two.
Launched locally on Monday, MealPal is a subscription-based program that provides weekday lunches starting at $5.99 per meal. The service, formerly known as MealPass, also debuted in Chicago, adding to existing offerings in New York, Boston, Miami and San Francisco.
Building upon the success of meal kit start-ups, the program taps into an expanding corner of the food service industry that maximizes on convenience. "We really wanted to make it easier for people to find lunch," co-founder Mary Biggins said. She thinks too many young, urban professionals have found themselves in the same situation she has: realizing at 3 p.m. that they haven't eaten lunch, then overpaying when they do peel away from their desks.
A platform to help break the cycle "has to be affordable, and it has to be convenient," she said.
Here's how it works: The program debuted with more than 60 participating restaurants in Washington, including Chix, District Taco, Bub & Pop's, Beefsteak and Soupergirl. Each night at 5 p.m., the next day's offerings will become available for ordering; customers have until 9:30 a.m. to select their lunch for that day. An algorithm can help them sort through the options. Restaurants will offer a daily dish to MealPal customers and must have at least five different meals in their repertoire so they're not repeating the same thing every day.
MealPal currently has a wait list for Washington as it finds enough meals to meet the demand, but new subscribers are being let in daily. If you do get in, there are three levels of pricing: 20 meals for $5.99 each (about $120, but the first week it will be discounted to $99), 12 meals for $6.39 each (about $77) or six meals for $6.99 each (about $42), plus a 10 percent restaurant tax.
The Costco principle applies: The more you buy, the cheaper it is. To get the most bang for your buck, you have to redeem all of yours meals. Otherwise, the average price of your lunch goes up with each one you don't claim.
How does the math compare to what you'd pay without the program? MealPal provided a preview of some of their offerings: the Kim-Cheese-Steak sandwich from GCDC (normally $9.50), the pulled chicken sandwich with fries from the Chickery (normally $8.95), the grilled salmon salad from Juice Joint Cafe (normally $10.50) and the chicken and lamb combo platter from G Street Food (normally $9.15).
Biggins said MealPal is also supposed to save diners time. Subscribers need only walk in, go to the front of the line, pick up their meal and head out.
Sure, services such as UberEats and Seamless bring your food to your door, for a price, Biggins said. She doesn't see MealPal's in-person pickup as a drawback, though. Having to actually leave your desk and spend a little time walking around?
"It's not a bad thing," she said.